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SAIS Review 26.1 (2006) 127-129
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Colleges and universities, especially those in the English-speaking world, rely heavily on cross-border education. Undergraduate institutions depend on the revenues generated by international students, who often pay much higher fees than domestic students, and graduate programs depend on the pool of research talent to fill positions whose numbers exceed the domestic supply. With an increasingly competitive market, countries are beginning to learn that they must evaluate security policies in light of their effects on universities. Countries where universities cater to international students may also face pressure to accommodate the curriculum to meet these students' preferences, which can have positive and negative consequences.
In the United States, 30 percent of all graduate students come from abroad. In Great Britain, the number is even higher.1 Increased security requirements have quickly generated the perception, however, that certain Western countries are closing their doors to overseas talent. In the United States, new security checks on student visas put in place in 2002 dramatically increased waiting times for new applicants. Anecdotes abound of admitted students unable to matriculate and established scholars locked out of conferences. When, in 2003, the Council of Graduate Schools reported the first decrease of admitted foreign graduate students in more than 30 years, it confirmed what many had already publicly speculated.2 The Bush administration made clear its desire to reverse this trend. Government officials sprung into action, immediately announcing plans to overhaul the visa processing system.3 Before even officially taking office as the new U.S. undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, Karen Hughes announced, "I have a special message for young people across the world. We're improving our visa process, and we want you to come and study in America."4 Yet when the Council of Graduate Schools completed their 2004 survey, foreign applications had dropped by another 5 percent.5
Great Britain, which witnessed a surge in applications over 2002 and 2003, in part the spillover from American students, faced a sharp decrease in 2004 after adopting similarly stringent visa requirements. The number of enrolled Chinese students, previously the fastest growing group of foreign admissions, dropped by over 20 percent. As in the United States, the British Government quickly announced plans to reconcile the increased security measures with greater access for foreign students.6 [End Page 127]
If security restrictions are not the only reason for this rebalancing, they are certainly a contributing factor. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in October that Australia is now the destination of choice for international students, not because they offer a better education--the United States and Great Britain both scored higher in that category--nor because of lower fees or admissions standards. The determining factor for this attitude is the perception that the United States and Great Britain are no longer welcoming of foreign students. 7
Still, for governments worried about the permeability of their borders, student visa restrictions reflect legitimate concerns. For many would-be immigrants, student visas remain the easiest way to sidestep the system, and overstaying remains a continued concern for lawmakers and enforcement officials. It has been widely reported that several of the 9/11 hijackers overstayed student visas, as did one of the participants in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. But these men represented a tiny share of the many who use student visas for the more benign intention of finding employment. A recent study in Great Britain found that fully one-quarter of the 1,200 registered language schools exist as fronts for people to sidestep immigration requirements. 8 Schools charge fees and sponsor visas but offer no classes or formal requirements for students who in reality are working illegally. Numbers that large carry their own economic pressures to mold the system to their preferences, and attempts to restrict the process have typically become security nightmares.
When universities rely on foreign students, it raises the larger question of who should benefit from national education systems. At the research level, there seems to be a decisive answer: whoever can offer the...