Visa restrictions implemented after the September 11 terrorist attacks have curtailed the enrollment of foreign students and threaten to isolate the United States at a time when American ideals are under attack, educators warn.
The war on terror is “fundamentally about competing ideas, competing values and competing visions of society, governance and human rights,” said Marlene M. Johnson, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
“As was the case with the Cold War, we have the resources to win this new version of the war of ideas — and one of them, which is integral to success, is educational exchange,” Ms. Johnson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.
A few years ago, the United States was unrivaled as the leading destination for international students, but that is no longer the case.
Educators are concerned by this trend.
Allan E. Goodman, president and chief executive officer of the Institute of International Education (IIE), said there were more than 586,000 international students in the United States in the 2002-03 school year. This was a 0.6 percent increase over the previous school year, the smallest rise since 1995.
“America needs a visa policy that supports and encourages international students to seek an education here in the United States,” Mr. Goodman said.
Sixteen Nobel laureates have been part of the IIE — a leader in international student exchange programs — beginning with William Ramsay, who won the chemistry prize in 1904.
Meanwhile, other English-speaking countries are aggressively recruiting foreign students to their universities.
International student enrollments at universities in Britain increased by 23 percent from 2002 to 2003, by more than 15 percent in Canada and more than 10 percent in Australia.
After September 11, 2001, the challenges of global terrorism became the central organizing concept of U.S. foreign policy, and international education became a national security issue.
Ms. Johnson quoted Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who recently said: “We have put in place too many restrictions, and now we have to start backing off on them.”
According to a 2003 NAFSA report, “These post-September 11 security concerns, despite their gravity and immediacy, should not cause us to forget the other enduring factors that make international education a necessity.”
Martin C. Jischke, president of Purdue University, said international enrollment “helps to break down stereotypes and misinformation that are the breeding grounds of intolerance.”
Theodore H. Kattouf, president and chief executive officer of America-Mideast Educational and Training Services Inc., expressed concern about the declining enrollments of Middle Eastern students at U.S. universities. AMIDEAST is a private, nonprofit organization that works to strengthen understanding and cooperation among the United States, the Middle East and North Africa.
“If fewer Arab youth choose to come to this country for higher education, who in the next generation will be able to serve as cultural interpreters? Who will be able to explain that while U.S. regional policy may fall short in Arab eyes, there is much that is worthy of emulation in U.S. society?” he asked during the hearing.
“We know that educational exchange programs … are the best investment that America can make in reducing misunderstanding of our culture, our people and our policies. An educational experience in America pays dividends to our nation’s public diplomacy over many years,” Mr. Goodman said.
He said more than 50 of the world leaders called by the Bush administration to join the coalition against terrorism had studied in the United States or had come here early in their careers.
Nine weeks after the September 11 attacks, President Bush said: “The relationships that are formed between individuals from different countries as part of international education programs and exchanges can also foster good will that develops into vibrant, mutually beneficial partnerships among nations.”
But the controls put in place after September 11 to better protect national security now hinder international student access to the United States to an extent that may cramp U.S. success in the war on terror, Ms. Johnson said.
In addition, if the trend in applications is not reversed, the United States could lose its leadership role in the world, she said.
Educators warn that one of the long-term effects of keeping out large numbers of international students will be to narrow the pool of talent in the United States.
“We must not lose the opportunity to attract the most talented people to work in our industrial, commercial, educational and research enterprises,” said Dan Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland.
“We need to remind ourselves that 3 billion people have joined the worldwide free-market, knowledge-based economy in the past 15 years. The competition for human capital is absolutely fierce, and we cannot afford to shoot ourselves — not in the foot but in the head — with restrictions that kill our future,” he said.