‘Muslim ban’ has wider impact on study in the US

United States President Donald Trump’s new executive order banning citizens of six Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – from travelling to the US gained momentum in late June after the Supreme Court partially lifted the legal block on the ban until a hearing in the autumn on its legality.

This means that the legal ban will come into effect and the government can enforce restrictions on travellers unless they have a ‘bona fide relationship’ with a person or an entity in the US. Although the executive order seems to be about homeland security, the potential consequences for US higher education could be huge.

The order introduces a number of uncertainties and it does not clearly show how academic institutions should comply with it. Crucially, how this order is perceived in Middle Eastern countries and the global impact on student mobility, especially after the Brexit vote, pose a number of questions for those working in international higher education.

Student mobility

The anti-immigration sentiment that the executive order and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom represent threatens to adversely impact higher education globally. It will be very hard to change the perception of prospective international students and their families. Safety and security is a priority.

The number of international students coming from these six banned countries grew in American higher education institutions between 2015 and 2016, according to a survey from the Institute of International Education.

Around 17,000 international students in the US are from these banned countries, according to the survey. Of these, Iran has the largest number of students seeking an education in the US (at around 12,000). This order can only reverse the trend for current and future students.

Student mobility is being restricted in particular for post-doctoral and bachelor level students. The fear that they might be detained and barred entry causes a lot distress and anger. The problem is not with the security measures themselves but with the unwelcoming and anti-immigration message the order carries.

The order seems to be based on fear and scepticism instead of facts or well-informed observations, as one student stated on a Facebook page for Middle East students. Yasser, a Yemeni national who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, said his dreams had been shattered by this order. Yasser is an undergraduate studying in the US.

He says: “My flight is this summer, but this time it is very different.” He says he needs to make the toughest decision of his life: whether to risk losing his family and residency in Saudi Arabia or to risk losing his US education.

A number of those from the six countries covered by the ban are living abroad either as refugees or have a permanent right to remain. These students are now being impeded from accessing US academic institutions. The order does not clarify what their status might be and puts them all in the same basket.

Wider impact across the Middle East

Such fear is contagious. Students from other Middle Eastern countries are highly concerned. Their future is also uncertain since it is unclear whether there will be more restrictions.

Ibrahim, a Saudi student related that he had to drop his plans for studying a masters degree in Chicago after spending two years there learning English. He said he was back home for a holiday when the order was issued. With all the news and media stories, he was unsure that it would be safe to return. Ibrahim is not alone in his fears.

The order limits the likelihood that those travelling to the US will have a tolerant and safe experience. The ban on electronic devices on flights coming primarily from the Middle East also indicates suspicion and distrust.

The current social and political climate has affected perceptions of the US as a welcoming and tolerant place. The Institute of International Education survey indicated that, for a variety of reasons, there will be a slowdown of enrolment numbers from different Middle Eastern countries, even those not affected by the ban.

A recent report indicates a 19% drop in the number of students coming from Saudi Arabia. This decline might be attributed to changes in the Saudi scholarship programme procedures. However, the ban may also have an impact, as Ibrahim’s case suggests.

Students may start looking for other places where student mobility is guaranteed and unrestricted, such as New Zealand and Australia.

This fear is felt across the Middle East and may directly or indirectly affect the numbers travelling to the US. Nearly 40% of US colleges are reporting declines in applications from international students, according to a survey conducted in February by multiple higher education groups.

US higher education institutions should provide bridges of ‘understanding and support’ and remain committed to an ‘open-door’ policy with regard to higher education. They are among the most favoured and attractive destinations for international students. The leading reason for this perception is quality of education and the US’s welcoming climate. However, this could be jeopardised by Trump’s order.

Universities should start to provide clear guidance and support on how to comply with the order. Moreover, they should be creatively working to address these challenges while remaining committed to ensuring that international students from ‘banned countries’ are not banned from access to higher education opportunities. In other words, they should be part of the solution, not the problem.

Ruwayshid Alruwaili is head of the English and linguistic department at Northern Borders University, Saudi Arabia.