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US: Increased pressure and worry for international students

As Europe wonders wether or not to go back into confinement and universities are preparing for an online semester, higher education in the US (and the re-opening of universities) has become even more controversial: Following announcements of “intents” (“if safe”) to reopen by universities such as Whitworth University, Baylor University and Haverford College, Cornell also announced such plans believing, based on the assumption that students would come back to campus even if classes were online, that asymptomatic testing being crucial to contain the outbreak, would be easier done with in-person classes as the university would have more power to encourage and enforce testing. This is based on a study by researchers at Cornell University alleging that an online semester would result in more infections than an in-person semester.

On top of it all, reopening universities in the US also took a political turn this month when ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) announced that foreign students would need to leave the US if they didn’t go back to in-person classes. This prompted a fair amount of criticism in the US and worldwide as it followed several announcements that the incoming semester would be virtual. Adding to the lesser number of international flight and the issue of quarantines, international students were faced with the possibility of having to pay high tuitions…to study online, from their home country. Combined with the uncertainty dropped on students, the US economy would have certainly lost a great deal of tuitions with students opposed to paying while studying remotely and with different time zones. Many saw this as President Donald Trump’s attempt at pressuring schools and colleges into reopening in the fall semester.

However, Universities soon engaged in, and won, a legal battle on immigration. More than 200 universities signed legal briefs in support of the federal lawsuit filed by Harvard University and MIT and when federal officials were called to defend the measure, they simply decided to revoke it.

But for foreign students, this still means that policies in the US can come and go at the whim of politics, which not only leave students concerned but also weighs severely on the US Universities reputation and appeal. Even if the measure was cancelled, American universities can only suffer from the backlash of it, especially when countries such as Canada or Australia are doing their best efforts to attract international students. Students also remain concerned about health and safety issues in the US, according to a survey done by UC Berkeley  foreign students are mostly concerned with health, safety and immigration. They are concerned about visas, training programs, health issues but also xenophobia, harassment as well as discrimination.

 In any case, troubles are far from over as several measures are being taunted by the administration for example by limiting the program allowing foreign students to work up to one year during their studies or after they graduate. The Trump administration has already suspended all new H-1B work visas, widely used by international students to find work following graduation.

In fine, this does not contribute to making the US look as welcoming as it might once have.