International students key to US lead in innovation

Many graduate level programmes in science and engineering fields would be unavailable for American students without international students. It is therefore essential to have a welcoming policy for international students, concludes a new study by the National Foundation for American Policy or NFAP.

This includes upholding former president Barack Obama’s extension of the duration of Optional Practical Training work visas for science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM students, which President Donald Trump intends to reverse, according to a recent leak of the president’s draft executive orders to Vox News.

The NFAP study provides clear evidence of international students dominating graduate STEM programmes.

For instance, between 1995 and 2015, the number of full-time US graduate students in computer science increased by 45%, from 8,627 in 1995 to 12,539 in 2015. Over the same period, the number of full-time international graduate students in computer science increased by over 480%, from 7,883 in 1995 to 45,790 in 2015.

At approximately 90% of US universities, the majority of full-time graduate students (masters and PhDs) in computer science and electrical engineering are international students.

“Today, the global competition for international students and talented scientists and engineers is intense. US policy-makers would be wise to welcome international students to America,” the study says.

“Maintaining a welcoming policy on international students is essential to preserving America’s role as a centre of technological innovation,” the study adds.

Such a policy means reasonable visa policies for international students and making it easier for students to work after graduation, including preserving STEM Optional Practical Training and improved policies on H-1B visas, per country limits and employment-based green cards, the study says.

Optional Practical Training or OPT is an attractive programme for foreign students, which helps them gain work experience, and for employers, who are able to bring and try out global talent before deciding whether to sponsor their long-term employment.

The Obama extension applies to students graduating with a STEM degree and allows students to stay for up to 24 months, compared with 17 months before the extension and compared to the standard duration of one year for students graduating in other subjects.

Vox earlier this year published a leaked draft Executive Order saying practical training programmes for foreign students would be reformed “to prevent the disadvantaging of US students in the workforce, better protect US and foreign workers affected by such programmes, restore the integrity of student visa programmes, ensure compliance and improve monitoring of foreign students”.

According to Stuart Anderson, executive director of NFAP and author of the NFAP study, the Trump administration may try to rescind the STEM OPT extension. At a press conference in Arlington, Virginia on Tuesday, which University World News attended by telephone link, he said this would have a “practical and chilling effect” on international students contemplating studying in the US and would cause programmes to “shrink”.

Dr Grace Atebe, director of the Office of International Services at Oregon State University, said while there is an increase in the number of international students taking STEM fields in graduate schools, the notion that this was “shutting out” domestic students was “far-fetched and incorrect”.

“As long as they meet the qualifications, I have not seen a domestic student turned away. It is a merit-based system.”

Anderson said there was no evidence that the 45,000 students receiving STEM OPT are denying jobs to US peers.

Atebe stressed that although US education is still very highly ranked internationally, and international students want to graduate with a US degree, “a lot of students realise it’s not enough to get a degree, you need practical experience”.

“A lot say they want to come due to the high-quality faculty and technology available at the institution and the partnerships it has with different institutions and corporations, [so they can] learn the practical side of things.

“And if you are telling people this is what the US experience is all about, it only makes sense if, once you get a degree, you are able to further that experience, to facilitate entry into the workforce.”

She said if the administration is looking to scrap the practical experience, it would be like telling students they may as well go to Canada or Europe and get something similar.

Dominance of international students

The NFAP study says that in part, the issue of international students dominating programmes is one of economies of scale. Graduate programmes with only 15 to 30 US students are unlikely to be viable without international students, the study entitled The Importance of International Students to American Science and Engineering says.

In computer science graduate programmes, universities with fewer than 30 full-time US students include Yale, Dartmouth, Boston University, Duke, Louisiana State University, University of Florida, Vanderbilt, West Virginia, Kansas State, University of Kansas, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, University of Iowa and Texas Tech.

“Access to high-quality faculty is often the most important part of a student’s college experience and to attract top faculty universities need to provide research opportunities, which requires a large number of graduate students.

“At many of America’s universities there would not be enough graduate students to support faculty-directed research without international students,” the study concludes.

Clear legal authority

At the NFAP press conference, Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law practice at the Cornell Law School, suggested that the Trump administration would struggle to win a legal argument for ending the Obama extension.

The lack of a legal basis for rescinding the extension had already been established by litigation during the challenge of an earlier extension by the Bush administration. “In this case the district court said on the merits the agency had clear legal authority to extend STEM immigrant training.”

In addition, he said, the Department for Homeland Security had consulted on its 2016 rule change and garnered 50,000 comments before finalising the rule. The court ruled that they had gone about this in the correct way and it was perfectly legal to have more optional training for STEM fields than others.

“So for the Trump administration to say it is illegal [would be] very dubious and most likely would be struck down in court.”

It was therefore more likely that the administration would try to challenge the extensions using the argument that it creates economic disadvantage for US citizens, he argued.