Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
14th Aug 2019

Chinese students are valued in the US, says US Assistant Secretary of State

US Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce took the opportunity to “clarify misperceptions people have on the US government’s stance on students and scholars from China” at the at the annual EducationUSA Forum held in Washington, DC, in late July. “We value the presence of students from China on our campuses, in our communities, and in our country,” emphasised Ms Royce.

The Assistant Secretary quoted President Trump as saying recently, “We want to have Chinese students come and use our great schools, our great universities. They have been great students and tremendous assets.”

Ms Royce also blamed the Chinese government and media for encouraging negative perceptions of studying in the US:

“We know the Chinese Communist Party is actively working to provide an inaccurate picture of the United States to Chinese citizens, including overseas students. The state-controlled Chinese media inundates Chinese students with Communist Party-curated content that exaggerates the dangers of living and studying in the United States.”

In context

It is important to note the context in which Ms Royce was delivering her message of welcome for Chinese students:

  • International education is one of America’s top exports with 1,170,000 foreign students currently enrolled in the US. Of that total, 31.6% are Chinese, and the revenues of many US universities and colleges would be severely compromised if their Chinese student populations dropped significantly.
  • As Ms Royce noted, Chinese students contributed “15 billion dollars to the US economy in 2018 alone.”
  • Between March 2018 and March 2019, the number of Chinese students in the US declined by nearly 8,000, equating to slightly more than a 2% drop year-over-year. While the total number of Chinese students hit a record high in 2018, the rate of growth dipped from double digits during the years 2007–2014 to 6.8% between 2016 and 2017 and 3.6% from 2017 to 2018.
  • The US administration has issued conflicted statements about its position on Chinese students. Just days before Ms Royce’s remarks, FBI director Christopher Wray told the US Congress that, “Chinese graduate students and researchers were part of a ‘pipeline’ for academic espionage.” Fears about espionage on the part of Chinese students have been ramping up over the past year in the US and the duration of visas given to Chinese students studying in certain fields has been reduced from five years to one year.
  • In June, the Chinese government warned Chinese students thinking of going to the US that there was a significant risk accompanying that decision, noting that “some of the visas for Chinese students studying in the United States have been restricted, the visa review period has been extended, the validity period has been shortened and the refusal rate has increased.”
  • The US remains far and away the world’s leading study destination but is losing market share as other countries have improved their competitive position. With roughly 1.2 million foreign students enrolled currently, the US maintains a considerable lead over Australia, which has now surged into second place on the strength of its nearly 700,000-strong international student cohort.

Suffice it to say that (1) Chinese students are incredibly important to the American economy and US colleges’ revenues, (2) recent tensions between the US and Chinese governments are jeopardising the flow of Chinese students into the country, and (3) the US government is nonetheless attempting to reassure Chinese students that they are welcome and assuage the concerns of US educators.

Educators’ concerns

Concerns among educators about the effect of President Trump’s harsh rhetoric directed at China and immigration in general are high. A recent NAFSA report cited survey findings showing that, “A significant proportion of institutions report that the US social and political environment (60%) and feeling unwelcome in the United States (48.9%) are factors contributing to new international student declines.”

Last year, in a related development, an American business school – The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) – set a precedent by taking out a US$400,000+ insurance policy against a significant decline in Chinese enrolment, a move coinciding with President Trump’s increasingly hard line on immigration and China.

Educators urged to do more

To complement the welcoming stance Ms Royce attested the US government has towards Chinese students, Ms Royce urged American colleges and institutions to step up their efforts to make Chinese students feel more included on campus:

“We know that many institutions are working hard to help Chinese students who want to make friends with American peers. But many still find it difficult to do so, potentially leaving them feeling isolated, alone, and vulnerable. We applaud those schools who are making sure that international students getting a top-notch US education don’t miss out on the opportunity to broaden their horizons and make the most of living in the United States.”

She cited a 2018 Purdue survey that found that 42% of current Chinese students in the US said their impression of the US had worsened since coming to study in the country, compared with only 16% who said it had improved.

For additional background, please see:

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