Travel ban could signal the start of brain drain

There’s a surprising winner in United States President Donald Trump’s travel ban for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries: research universities in China – and their counterparts in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, Singapore and Mexico.

The president and his advisors may not have taken American colleges and universities into account before issuing the ban, but campus leaders know that Trump’s actions and the continued uncertainty surrounding them threaten the United States' standing as the world’s leader in higher education.

Higher education is the great marketplace of ideas, and the past few decades there has been fierce competition between institutions to lure the best and brightest students and faculty. More often than not, the United States has benefited.

Promising scholars from across the globe choose American universities, and American communities, to learn and conduct research.

International research teams come together to produce breakthrough discoveries in technology and medicine. Off campus, these partnerships have launched some of our most successful companies.

Cities across the country have become innovation hubs because of their universities and the talented people they attract and educate. Experience shows that the more diverse these hubs are, the more creative and valuable are the products and technologies they create. A study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that 40% of Fortune 500 Companies were founded by immigrants or their children, including Apple, Google, AT&T, Colgate, IBM and eBay.


One third of the PhD students at my institution, the University of Pennsylvania, are international students and among them are students who come from the now-banned countries. They are now wondering what the future holds.

Uncertainty is a great destabiliser. How many students will choose to stay and build a life here after they have their degree? How many brilliant international students will decide not to enrol at Penn or its US peers in favour of more stable and welcoming prospects elsewhere?

Trump’s sweeping statements about Muslims, Mexicans and other immigrants, along with the chaotic roll-out of his ban have created uncertainty about American immigration policy. It has also called into question the nation’s commitment to religious freedom and opportunity for all. Until this uncertainty is resolved, students from all other countries, not just the current seven, will think twice before enrolling here. And campuses and employers in other nations will welcome them.

Our desire to build a diverse academic community is not based on vague high-minded ideals. The more perspectives there are in a classroom, the richer the learning experience for all students.

By and large, international undergraduates and masters students pay their own way and do so at levels higher than most domestic students. Their very presence creates jobs not just in colleges but in hospitality, travel and housing and in other areas. If these students stay on after graduation they add to the human capital of the region and boost the economy.

The Brexit effect

If American deans and admissions officers want a preview of the difficulty they now face, they should speak to their counterparts in the United Kingdom. Since the Brexit vote, universities have reported students from outside the United Kingdom choosing other options. Scholars, including some who studied in the UK, have taken jobs elsewhere.

With the details of Brexit still to be negotiated, universities in the UK can’t offer foreign students certainty about their status. Perhaps more damaging, they are still dealing with a political campaign that left many immigrants feeling targeted. Sound familiar?

If the best international high school students pick other countries for their undergraduate work, they are more likely to stay abroad for graduate work, and more likely to start an academic career or a start-up business elsewhere as well.

If we lose the brain game, a shift in power and influence is the inevitable finale.

The most talented people always have options. If the Trump administration doesn’t back away from alienating immigration policies and clarify its longer-term goals, the next generation of geniuses will make their discoveries elsewhere.

Matthew Hartley is a professor of higher education and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, USA.