US: Slowdown in foreign graduate numbers

Applications from prospective foreign students to enrol in American graduate schools this year are down by 16% compared with what they were in 2003, according to a new survey. The survey found that two out of three schools have still not reversed the declines they suffered in 2004 and 2005. The Council of Graduate Schools, which represents 500 higher education institutions in the US and Canada and has conducted the annual survey for the past five years, says overall applications increased by only 3% this year compared with 2007.

The results led to a pessimistic reaction from the council with President Debra W Stewart declaring the slowdown in growth was a concern: "And given that international competition for the world's most talented students continues to grow, we may not be able to return to the levels we saw in past years," Stewart said.

American universities endured the loss of tens of thousands of foreign students following the terrorist attack on New York's twin towers in 2001 as the Immigration Department imposed tighter restrictions on student visas. But many students also opted to study in other countries they believed were safer and where they were less likely to suffer racial discrimination. Although the visa restrictions have since been eased, it appears universities and colleges are still facing problems attracting bigger numbers.

A report of the council survey* notes sharp differences in applications between countries and regions. While there was a 12% increase in applications from China and the Middle East, these still compared poorly with gains of 19% and 17% last year respectively. There was also no growth in applications from India despite a 12% jump in 2007, a disturbing outcome considering that China and India are the two nations that send most graduate students to America each year.

Worse still for the US graduate schools, applications to enrol in the sciences and engineering are showing steeply decelerating rates of growth, the report says. It notes that these are fields critical to maintaining American economic competitiveness. Physical sciences applications increased by 7% this year but this contrasts with a 19% rise in 2007; likewise, engineering was up by only 1% compared with 11% in 2007 while the life sciences showed an increase of 2% despite a 17% rise last year.

"There is some good news, however, applications to social sciences are up 10% after a 2% decline in 2007," the report states.

This year is the first time the council has analysed changes in international applications according to the type of institution: public or private and masters-level or doctorate-granting. The report points to some notable differences between them, with a 5% overall increase for public institutions and a 1% decline at private colleges.

Masters-level institutions experienced a 4% growth in applications compared with a 3% increase at the biggest doctorate-granting schools, although smaller doctoral universities faced an 11% fall overall.

The report says the analysis includes responses from 157 schools, including the 10 institutions with the largest international graduate student enrolments and 84% of the 25 largest.

The full report is available at the CGS website