Trump has just made it harder to attract academic talent

On 20 June the Trump administration issued a proclamation limiting entry to the United States under H-1B visas and several categories of the J-1 exchange visitor programme. Both are fundamental for the operation of United States colleges and universities.

While the government did not eliminate the Optional Practical Training (OPT) programme, as many had anticipated and as may still occur, most international students see the OPT programme as a transitional stage to obtaining an H-1B visa.

The restrictions to the J-1 visa programme are not intended to limit students or researchers, but there are at least 12 categories, all with different eligibility criteria. J-1 students and researchers could get caught in the chaos entering the US or may simply misunderstand the restrictions and cancel their travel plans.

The new measures introduce confusion while US colleges and universities are concerned about international students being unwilling or unable to return to campus for the fall semester.

American colleges and universities have long benefited from the kind of brain exchange that makes it possible for highly qualified foreign nationals to access employment in the US.

More than 5,000 assistant professors and over 1,700 research associates hold H-1B visas, according to an online visa tracker. The H-1B visa programme is one of the very few pathways for foreign-born researchers to remain in the United States on a long-term basis.

Competition and collaboration

Consequently, this visa category is fundamental if US colleges and universities are to retain talent at a time when other countries have ambitious programmes to attract mobile academics or repatriate their own citizens after they earn degrees abroad.

Competition is tough when other countries seek to attract international students with generous post-graduation employment policies. As examples, Canada offers a path to permanent residence through a post-graduation work permit and last year the United Kingdom introduced a graduate immigration route, expected to go into effect this academic year.

International collaboration leads to better outcomes and makes universities competitive in the much criticised, but highly visible, global rankings. Collaborative research is often more visible and cited more often, leading to higher bibliometric scores for the authors and their institutions.

Researchers from different academic traditions and national contexts are exposed to different theories and methods and aggregating those can improve the research enterprise. While research collaboration is about much more than visas, these are an instrument that enables collaboration.

They are also an important instrument to signal a government’s orientation toward international visitors and a cosmopolitan labour market.

Exchange visitors holding J-1 visas vary significantly, from the camp counsellors and au pairs described in Trump’s proclamation to highly qualified researchers and scholars who collaborate in research activities with US academics.

Besides signalling a rejection of exchange visitors, the presidential proclamation introduces the challenge of parsing out visitors under a wide and diverse visa category. This could prove challenging under normal circumstances, but it could be chaotic if indeed US colleges and universities resume in-person teaching and research activities in the autumn, leading to a surge of students and researchers entering the country.

J-1 visa holders include doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who very often are funded by their home country governments and pose no financial burden to the US. Rather than posing a risk to US workers, exchange students on J-1 visas, such as those with Fulbright funding, are required to return to their countries upon graduation for two years before returning to the US.

Implications for higher education

COVID-19 has already caused significant negative consequences for research activities. Research universities in the US have experienced a sudden curtailment in their work and, at best, are now in a slow period of recovery. Academics faced enormous demands on their time in order to move their courses online and the disruption of schools has exacerbated the time demands of all knowledge workers.

Universities often move according to the academic calendar and many academic programmes were relying on incoming faculty on H-1B visas to alleviate the burden of teaching and research activities for the autumn semester.

Visiting scholars on J-1 visas contribute new ideas and perspectives, and at the very least, provide opportunities for US academics to reflect on their activities and carve time for research through collaboration and mutual accountability.

Collaborative research projects, often planned far in advance and depending on the presence of international colleagues, will be delayed or even cancelled. In many STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) labs depend on foreign brainpower to function and Americans are simply unavailable, especially at short notice.

The longer-term implications of the proclamation are also significant. It is yet another indication that the United States is turning inward. Researchers will not want to risk the uncertainties of accessing American universities – and will turn elsewhere or stay at home.

With more than 28,000 workers, higher education ranks third by the number of H-1B visa holders in 2020, according to a website that tracks employment visas. According to Open Doors data, in 2018-19 there were more than 136,000 visiting scholars in American colleges and universities, with more than half of them in STEM fields.

Broader economic impact

Exchange visitors holding J-1 visas are perhaps the clearest example of how the US economy gains from these exchanges. Every year, visiting scholars in all fields arrive in the United States to conduct academic and cultural activities.

With nearly 48,000 scholars reported last year, China has the largest number of visiting scholars in the US. Chinese visiting scholars are often funded by the Chinese Scholarship Council; they pay rent, buy food, travel domestically and pay for transportation.

College towns across the US, already impacted by diminished numbers of students, are now at risk of losing the business that exchange visitors bring every year. While the new academic year was already daunting and uncertain, this proclamation has introduced additional concerns because much-needed reinforcements will not be arriving to colleges and universities and because the economic influx of resources has been cut. By all measures, this is a self-inflicted and unnecessary wound.

In conclusion, through the latest presidential proclamation limiting H-1B and J-1 visas, the Trump administration immediately and significantly imperils recovery efforts in US colleges and universities. More broadly, it confirms that the country is not welcoming for international scholars and visitors, yet they are fundamental for higher education institutions to thrive.

Gerardo L Blanco is associate academic director at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, United States. His research focuses on higher education quality and internationalisation. He can be reached at gerardo.blanco@bc.edu.