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Trump Administration Follows-Up Suspension of Skilled Worker Permits by Taking Aim (Again) at Student Visas

Posted by Geoffrey Basye
Geoffrey is media relations director at GMAC™

Posted on Oct 1, 2020 9:00:00 AM

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While data shows the tremendous classroom and economic benefits associated with welcoming foreign students, the US government seems intent on keeping them out.


Amid COVID-19, the discussion on student mobility and the global race for talent has perhaps taken a back seat. Meaning it might seem like sound logic to assume that many students won’t be crossing borders to attend b-school or any other higher education institution in the near-term considering the global pandemic. And as a result, perhaps student mobility and its significance should be placed on a shelf for now given these realities.

But it shouldn’t. In fact, that’s exactly the opposite of how policymakers and regulators should be thinking. For starters, mobility, or at least the desire to study abroad is showing no signs of slowing down even as COVID-19 lingers around the world. As reported this week in Financial Times, travel bans and quarantines imposed by countries to contain the spread of COVID-19 have not derailed students from applying to b-schools globally. In that article, Julien Manteau, executive director of strategy and development at HEC Paris said, “We have been surprised to see all of our international students arriving on campus. We thought that Indian and Chinese students would probably withdraw at some point because of visa issues and the problems with travel but that has not happened.”

GMAC Application Trends Survey Set for Release on November 10

Students continue to pursue their goals

From May through August this year, GMAC prospective student surveying showed that aspirations to pursue an MBA or a business master’s degree remained strong among domestic and international students. Only 5 percent of the nearly 500 respondents of the Prospective Students Survey said they would no longer pursue a graduate business education due to the impact of COVID-19. A majority of the respondents said they are not considering alternatives (54%) and another 29 percent said they would only delay the pursuit of graduate management education.

While COVID-19 continues to bring with it tremendous economic and public health consequences, creating a myriad of challenges across every sector, countries playing the long game will continue to put forth policies aimed at procuring the best and brightest foreign students in their classrooms. Given GMAC’s recent Corporate Recruiters Survey where nearly 90 percent of firms surveyed said they plan to hire an MBA in 2021, it’s not cliché to say that today’s b-school students will play a major role in shaping the economies of tomorrow. Who will win the day with international students during a time of unprecedented choice around the world?

It appears the United States is choosing the back of the line. I’m not sure how one reaches a different conclusion when examining Trump administration policy in this area. In July, I wrote about an executive order suspending new work visas for the remainder of 2020, preventing hundreds of thousands of foreigners from seeking employment in the United States. The Trump Administration said it was “protecting jobs for American workers” yet the policy carries the potential to do just the opposite. There are tangible costs to the US economy when the government issues fewer skilled-immigrant visas than American businesses require. Most immediately, the cost is forgone jobs. Over the long run, the cost is forgone ideas, innovation and diplomacy as GMAC highlighted in its Early Warning Signals white paper which was issued almost exactly one year ago. That paper was intended to be a clarion call for policy makers to reconsider more restrictive rules, but over the past 12 months the US has trended in the opposite direction.

New DHS proposal = more restrictions on visas

This week, the Trump administration again set its sights on student visas with the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) discussing a new proposal that would impose a series of new restrictions on international students in the United States. If passed, the rule would impose a general limit of four years on most visas and then becomes even more strict by cutting that in half for many African and Middle Eastern nationals. The proposal would affect citizens and people born in countries on the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List, including Iran, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea. It would also apply to citizens of another 55 countries with a more than 10 percent rate of visa overstays, including all but a few African countries. DHS said that the pending rules, giving it new authority to assess a foreign student’s academic progress, would boost American security and the integrity of the visa program.

Ken Cuccinelli, often the Trump administration’s spokesperson on matters of immigration and a high ranking official with DHS said if passed the rules would “prevent foreign adversaries from exploiting the country’s education environment.”

Not surprisingly, higher education officials came out en masse against the measure, saying it further damages the country’s reputation while threatening America’s pace-setting rate of overseas student enrollment.

Tangible costs for the United States

Much like sending foreign skilled workers elsewhere, there are also tangible costs when the United States closes its doors to international students, and it’s not just tuition. From a business school perspective specifically, the increasing globalization of education delivers a multitude of benefits to students within a domestic market. This includes not only a deeper understanding of foreign business practices, business climates and cultural nuances, but the global relationship-building that begins in the classroom. Longer-term, and in this instance for the US, when you compete for talent and that talent ends up elsewhere, you lose out on the jobs and value created to the country where that student chose to study.

How do we know the level of importance US business schools place on international talent and perspective? This summer, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued in federal court to block a Trump administration policy aimed at prohibiting international students in the US from enrolling exclusively in online courses, a policy the administration later rescinded. That lawsuit proved impactful, but what does it say about the current environment in the United States when higher education institutions are suing their government to protect the interests of current and future foreign students?

GMAC data certainly supports the notion that America’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years with international students, noting declines in foreign b-school students over the past two cycles, peaking at over 13 percent last year among schools that responded to both the 2018 and 2019 Application Trends Survey reports. This in no way indicates a decline in quality of the American b-school experience, in fact quite the opposite. And though quality schools emerging around the world have given global students plenty of good options to consider, it’s undeniable that recent US immigration policy and political rhetoric have done tremendous damage to the American brand. Looking ahead, it comes down to a simple question for US policy makers: if tomorrow’s innovators don’t study in the United States, where will they go and what does that mean for long-term American competitiveness?

It’s not known if this latest DHS rule will pass, but as I wrote in July it’s not always the rule or law passing that does damage:

“The posturing and rhetoric coming from the current US administration does just as much damage to international mobility as the (order) itself.”

Proclaiming November’s US Presidential election to be one of great consequence is to state the obvious. The outcome and direction of many issues hang in the balance until then, including things like this week’s visa rule published in the Federal Register. And while the impacts associated with student mobility may not be top of mind relative to other pressing issues, we can be certain that the outcomes of where international students study carry great consequence for the countries that welcome them, and especially for the ones that don’t.

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