Universities urge Biden to end curbs on foreign students

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), has written to United States President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris on behalf of 43 US university associations calling on them to move to ensure that American colleges and universities are “once again, the destination of choice for the world’s best international students and scholars”.

To accomplish this aim, Mitchell says the Biden administration should move to:

• Withdraw the proposed regulations that would limit an international student’s ‘duration of status’ and create a fixed duration of admission. Mitchell says there is no evidence to suggest that such a restriction is required or that the issues raised cannot be addressed through the existing Student and Exchange Visitor Program.

“The amount of time the Trump administration proposes to give students is less than the average amount of time it takes an international student to complete his or her education. Such a policy is not fair to international students or institutions,” Mitchell says.

• Withdraw the interim final rules and the proposed rule that make it harder and more expensive for individuals to receive H-1B visas. These new requirements imposed by both the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security were finalised without allowing for public comment, Mitchell says.

“The business and higher education communities vigorously oppose the proposed rules, and two lawsuits have already been filed to block them. In addition, the proposed rule regarding subject caps will make it difficult for recent international students graduating from US institutions to participate in the H-1B programme.”

• Make clear that the Optional Practical Training (OPT) programme remains in place as it was at the end of the Obama administration. The Trump administration’s constant signalling that it might change OPT created a serious disincentive for students to enrol in post-secondary education in the United States, Mitchell says.

Most international students see the OPT programme as a transitional stage to obtaining an H-1B visa. 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.

The demands are among a list of steps that Mitchell says “could and should” be undertaken quickly by the new US administration once it is sworn in in January.

In the open letter, ACE President Mitchell says: “First and foremost, we welcome and applaud the announcement that the Biden administration will move quickly to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections that the Trump administration repealed.

“We hope that your administration will take steps to make the DACA protections permanent and will work with you to support whatever measures are necessary to accomplish this worthy goal.”

An estimated 450,000 undocumented immigrants are college students and about half of those are eligible for the DACA programme.

In addition to DACA, Mitchell said the associations believe that the Biden administration should take immediate action in a number of areas to terminate, revise or replace a number of decisions that the Trump administration has put in place regarding higher education.

He called on the Biden administration to work with all stakeholders to address “aspects of the Title IX regulations [the law against sex discrimination in education provision] that are deeply problematic and that micromanage campus processes in an inflexible manner and undermine college and university efforts to effectively, fairly and compassionately address the problem of campus sexual assault”.

In particular, Mitchell said, the administration “should eliminate the mandate for a live hearing with cross examination, which could have a chilling effect on the willingness of survivors to come forward and raises serious concerns about re-traumatisation”.

Foreign gift reporting requirements

He also demanded a halting of the expanded reporting requirements, including the new Information Collection Request (ICR) and Notice of Interpretation (NOI) on Section 117, which relates to conditions of transparency and reporting of institutions’ foreign gifts or contracts worth US$250,000 or more.

The higher education associations regard the new interpretation imposed by the Department of Education as part of an effort to expand those reporting requirements beyond existing requirements. The ACE letter says the Higher Education Act prescribes the information that institutions are required to disclose, and, in the absence of a regulation, the Education Department has no authority to impose new requirements beyond those in statute.

The letter also accuses the Trump administration of launching “politically motivated” investigations of higher education institutions conducted by political appointees. Examples given include investigations launched by the department’s Office of the General Counsel of “racism at Princeton” and “academic freedom at UCLA”.

Mitchell said: “The [Education] Department’s response to instances of insufficient institutional reporting should have focused on reporting remediation to enhance the intended transparency rather than launching investigations that forced institutions to invest scarce resources in responding to burdensome document requests that sought information beyond the statutory authority.”

Limits on the effectiveness of student aid

Mitchell called for the withdrawal of the interim final rules regarding the eligibility of higher education students for funds under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security or CARES Act. Mitchell said this rule “contradicts congressional intent as to which students should be eligible for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and limits the effectiveness of such aid”.

In order to “enhance the integrity” of student aid programmes, he called on the Biden administration to rewrite the rules to protect the risk to students and taxpayers and ensure that students’ financial aid eligibility is limited to “quality programmes”.

The letter calls for the reinstatement of Obama-era guidance on the use of race in admissions and the immediate termination of the Department of Justice’s “unprecedented demand that Yale University cease any consideration of race in its admissions practices”.

Mitchell says: “There is no evidence that Yale is in violation of Supreme Court decisions that bear on this issue.”

Similarly, ACE calls on the Department of Justice to withdraw its support for the plaintiffs in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard.

“The trial and appellate court decisions, both of which found for Harvard, have established a clear and compelling record that Harvard is in no way violating the law,” Mitchell says.

The letter also calls for the repeal of the Executive Order on Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency and Accountability at Colleges and Universities and the portion of regulations related to that order included in the Education Department’s 23 September 2020 final rule, “Direct Grant Programs, State-Administered Formula Grant Programs…”

Mitchell said: “Colleges and universities are committed to free inquiry and academic freedom. It is improper for federal officials, including those at the Education Department, to insert their own political judgments about what speech should or should not be permitted on campus.

“In fact, federal law specifically prohibits the Education Department from interfering in academic matters.”

Mitchell also demanded the repeal of the president’s Executive Order on Race and Sex Stereotyping. “Needless to say, colleges and universities are totally opposed to race and sex stereotyping, but the executive order is sweepingly overbroad and has chilled the implementation of critical diversity training programmes that ensure more respectful and productive work and learning environments,” Mitchell writes.