US: Tighter visa restrictions but students still enrol

In spite of tightened security and controls governing the issuing of student visas, no significant change has occurred in the percentage of foreign students enrolled at US colleges and universities since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Indeed, the proportion - as a percentage of total US higher education enrolment figures - has remained steady at around 3.5% between 2002 and 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Nevertheless, the total number of foreign students enrolled at US institutions fell between 2002 and 2006 before recovering to pre-9/11 levels in 2007-08. Of the nearly 100,000 fewer F-1 or non-immigrant student academic visa applications made between 2001 and 2004, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, most were from the Middle East. By 2008, these numbers were still 6% lower than pre-2001 levels.

Since then, visa applicants have been scrutinised by various international and domestic biometric and name-based checks as well as by facial recognition software. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program - established by the Department of Homeland Security and enforced by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement - collates electronic data about foreign students and their families before and during their tenure within the US higher education system.

Institutions themselves are also required to update and maintain records on their non-immigrant students each term.

Relying on the success of this screening process, the State Department and US embassies abroad have implemented policies to improve interviews and visa infrastructure. For instance, the DHS made it easier for highly trained foreign students to stay in the US in April 2008, by extending the optional practical training programme to eligible F-1 visa students from 12 to 29 months. Similarly, it has made the visa process more efficient and transparent.

In February 2008, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services, Stephen A Edson spoke to the US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology. Edson underlined the dual importance of keeping the US secure while simultaneously attracting qualified students:

"A policy of 'secure borders, open doors' is not a contradiction...In fact, the State Department supports facilitation of international education as a matter of national security," he said. "The value of the interpersonal exchanges and cross-cultural understanding that come about through international education helps to create a more stable world."

In 2008-09, there were 671,616 foreign students enrolled at higher education institutions in the US. Of these, more than 200,000 were new to the system, marking a 7.7% increase in the total number of foreign students from 2007 to 2008.

Most of these foreign students came from India, China, South Korea and Canada - but growth was greatest among Chinese students at 21% from 2007-08, according to data from the Institute of International Education.

Almost 500,000 non-immigrant academic student visa applications were made in 2008-09. Of these, 31% or 146,574 were refused. By comparison, slightly more than 400,000 non-immigrant exchange student applications were made and only 14% or 52,270 were refused.

Among the non-immigrant vocational students, 23% out of a total of almost 12,000 visa applications were rejected.