Enrolments in United States universities of first-time international graduate students increased by 5% in autumn 2016, the same rate of growth as the previous year, says a report by the US-based Council of Graduate Schools, a Washington-based non-profit.
But US institutions saw a lag in growth in the total number of international graduate applications, from 3% in 2015 to 1% in 2016, the report shows.
And universities now face the prospect of additional drops depending on how prospective students respond to policies championed by US President Donald Trump.
"Universities in the US and around the world are waiting to see the potential impact of the uncertain policy environment on the mobility patterns of international graduate students," said Council of Graduate Schools President Suzanne Ortega. “The continued increase in enrolments is good news for US universities... but we can’t take that position for granted."
The council joined a chorus of US higher education groups last month in asking Trump to reconsider an executive order temporarily barring entry into the US of refugees and citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations or return of US visa-holders from these countries, arguing that international students are "essential contributors to our economy and research enterprise".
The findings in the report released last week are unlikely to have been affected by the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the election of President Trump in the US, and the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration, the report notes.
The executive order's immediate fate now lies in the hands of a panel of US Court of Appeals judges, who heard arguments on Tuesday challenging and defending the legality of the president's ban, which applies to refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
A spokesperson said the court expects to announce its decision soon.
The slowdown in application growth occurred despite a 4% increase in the number of applications from prospective Chinese graduate students, who constitute the largest subgroup of international students, both in applications and enrolments.
The overall decrease in application growth was due to the combined effect of decreases in applications from important countries and regions of origin, including South Korea (-5%) and Brazil (-11%).
International graduate applications and first-time graduate enrolment of Indian students at US institutions declined by 1% and 7%, respectively, continuing the recent trend of declining growth rates.
International graduate applications and first-time enrolment from Saudi Arabian students have dropped by 20% and 13%, respectively, and the whole Middle East and North Africa region saw similar declines.
While application counts of prospective European graduate students to US institutions remained the same, first-time enrolment of European graduate students at US institutions rose by 8%, ending a trend of declining enrolment growth rates from that region.
China and India remain the top senders of international graduate applications (38% and 30% respectively) and first-time enrolments (35% and 27% respectively).
The most popular fields of study among international graduates both in total applications and first-time enrolments were engineering (30% and 26% respectively), mathematics and computer sciences (21% and 20%) and business (17% and 20%).
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