Schools out

A plunge in US visas for Chinese students


A 99% drop in US visas

Down 99%. That was the astounding drop in F-1 visas issued to Chinese students between April and September of this year, as compared to the same period in 2019. The vertiginous decline in part reflects the worsening political tensions between the US and China. These have reshaped the study plans of many Chinese applicants and derailed broader academic exchanges between the two countries.

At the peak of the market, the Chinese made up 30% of the international students going to the US, considerably more than any other country. But issuance data from the US State Department shows just 808 F-1 student visas were granted between April and September (compared to 90,410 in the same months the year before).

Obviously, the coronavirus has been a key cause of the drop as well. Other key sources of student numbers, like India, saw massive drops in visa issuance too. As the number of cases of infection in the US has spread, more parents are unwilling to send their children to America on health concerns. Racial strife in the country has added to worries about their safety, with anxiety that the Trump administration’s labelling of the pandemic as the “Kung Flu” and “Chinese virus” have exacerbated discrimination against people of Asian descent.

We have reported on some of the increased apprehension among foreign students in the US since 2019 (see WiC459). Rahul Choudaha, a senior researcher at the Center of Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley, agrees that safety has become a priority for overseas students. “In the current climate of political tensions, the expectations of safety and positive experiences are becoming more important than the prestige of studying in the US,” he told the South China Morning Post.

In addition to safety concerns, fewer student visas are being granted to Chinese applicants – particularly in areas related to science, technology and mathematics (STEM). That seems to be the result of Washington’s suspicions that some students – especially graduate researchers – are party to espionage and intellectual property theft. The authorities had already been tightening controls on visas issued to Chinese graduate applicants since 2018, reducing their validity to a single year from much longer periods. Then in September, the State Department announced that it would be cancelling at least 1,000 visas for students and researchers with suspected ties to the Chinese military as well.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, was furious, describing the cancellations as “blatant political persecution and racial discrimination”. But students who’ve had their visas revoked have been reluctant to share their identity for fear of repercussions. One researcher, who wished to remain anonymous, told NPR: “It’s fair to say that throughout the entire process, the agents have assumed that you are a spy… all we could do is to defend our innocence.”

While enrolments of Chinese students in US universities has decreased, the reverse effect is being seen at UK institutions. Although British politicians have been wary of Chinese ambitions – especially in the case of telecom giant Huawei – they have welcomed Chinese students to their universities. According to data from admission body UCAS, British universities saw a 14% increase in Chinese students to 8,570 – a figure likely to enjoy more dramatic growth as applicants shun US schools and colleges.

Chinese students in Britain have still expressed concerns about the UK’s response to the virus, as well as its impact on their future job prospects, which we have reported on previously (see WiC492, WiC504, and WiC509).

Like the US, Australia is also reporting a slump in Chinese student enrolment. Relations between the two countries have been difficult (see this week’s “China and the World” for more on the disruptions to Australia’s exports). In 2019 Canberra set guidelines to combat “foreign interference” in the university sector, which was widely viewed as targeting Chinese students. Beijing also warned its nationals against the risks of increasing discrimination in Australia. Chinese applications for student-visas declined 20% for the 2019-20 academic year, says the Australian government.

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