The Biden administration is calling for a unified national approach to international education, saying it is time for a “renewed U.S. commitment” to American higher education and its global connections.

In a joint statement released on Monday morning, the U.S. Departments of State and Education said international academic ties, through the exchange of students and collaborative teaching and research, are crucial for American security, prosperity, and innovation. The federal government has a part to play in strengthening and promoting international education, including the internationalization of American classrooms and campuses, they said.

“We recognize that the U.S. government has a unique role in international education because of its responsibility to the American people; its purview over foreign affairs, national security, and economic and border policy; its capacity to provide national and global leadership; and its role in affecting how the United States is perceived globally,” the statement said.

“As U.S. federal agencies involved in different aspects of international education, we commit to undertaking actions to support a renewed focus on international education.”

Unlike many other Western countries, the United States has never had a coordinated national strategy for attracting international students or encouraging other forms of global academic collaboration. That’s alarmed international-education groups, which worry that America could lose its competitive edge as the global contest for talented students heats up.

In remarks at an EducationUSA Forum, sponsored by the State Department, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called international education a “foreign-policy imperative.”

The joint statement outlines a number of policies and other approaches federal agencies can pursue in support of international education, although it stops short of proposing specific programming or committing government spending. Among other principles, the statement says the agencies should:

  • Encourage more international students and scholars to come to the United States and more Americans to study and do research abroad, and work to diversify participation in international education.
  • Make a “strong focus” on international education part of the national recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Promote expanded access to international education, including through the use of technology when in-person experiences are not feasible.
  • Put in place policies and procedures to facilitate both study and approved work experiences for international students, while protecting program integrity and national security.
  • Clearly communicate policy guidance for international students and establish “fair, efficient, and transparent” student-visa processes.
  • Leverage existing international-education programs and resources to create new opportunities to broaden access.
  • Strengthen cooperation between the federal government, colleges, and the private sector to maintain the integrity of federally funded intellectual property and research, and protect them from undue foreign influence.

Esther D. Brimmer, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, called the joint statement a “welcome initiative that signals an exciting advancement in rebuilding and restoring U.S. engagement with the world.”

NAFSA and other higher-ed organizations have for years called for a national strategy for international education, arguing that a coordinated approach had aided Australia, Britain, and other American competitors in attracting talent from around the world.

But under President Donald J. Trump, American policy may have instead discouraged and dampened global ties. The Trump administration stepped up vetting of student visas, proposed rules to limit the amount of time foreign students could study in the United States, and threatened to do away with a program that allows recent graduates to work here. In the middle of the pandemic, the government prohibited international students from taking online-only classes but reversed course after colleges sued.

The Trump administration also increased scrutiny of global research, particularly with China, arresting both visiting researchers and American academics for allegedly hiding their foreign ties. (Some of those cases, however, have fallen apart and charges have been dropped.)

Even before Covid, international enrollments had begun to decline. From the fall of 2015 to the fall of 2019, the number of new international students on American campuses decreased by 11 percent. During the pandemic, they dropped 43 percent.

Brimmer called on the Biden administration to establish a coordinating commission or council within the White House to synchronize and integrate international-education policy across multiple federal agencies.

When President Biden took office, NAFSA released a detailed set of policy recommendations for international education, and Brimmer said some of those proposals could be part of a fleshed-out national strategy. They include increased funding for exchange programs, including virtual study abroad; concrete enrollment targets for foreign-student recruitment; and reforms of immigration and visa policy that would make it easier for international students to come, stay, and work in the United States.

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