Foreign countries

Laureate's growing global network of institutions

Laureate Education has quietly become an 800,000-student behemoth and a major player in global higher education. So what is the company, exactly?

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Foundation provides educational and leadership opportunities to women in Cambodia

The Harpswell Foundation provides housing and leadership training to some of Cambodia’s top female college students.

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George Mason moves ahead with a South Korea campus

After withdrawing from the Gulf, George Mason plans to branch out once more -- participating in a South Korean university's effort to attract numerous foreign campuses.

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Colleges open State Department-funded American Cultural Centers in China

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American colleges and the State Department jointly set up "American Cultural Centers" at Chinese universities.

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International educators consider the future of the field

At European gathering of international educators, speakers ask, "Where are we headed?"

North Dakota and New York stories raise questions about ensuring international quality

Stories about colleges in New York and North Dakota highlight the lack of independent authority overseeing the quality of universities’ efforts abroad.

Thunderbird to offer online business program in 40 languages

A new, free online certificate program from Arizona State’s Thunderbird School of Global Management will be offered in 40 languages and seeks to reach refugees, women and others in the developing world.

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The federal government should rectify how it handles international students' applications to work in America (opinion)

Most campus officials are by now only too familiar with the challenges involved in obtaining permission for international students to get a visa to study at a college or university in the United States.

It’s no secret that a number of misguided policies imposed by the Trump administration -- from the so-called Muslim travel ban to poorly thought out and badly implemented changes in visa programs and processing -- have undermined America’s reputation as the destination of choice for the world’s most talented students. There have even been cases where students with a fully valid visa have arrived at a U.S. port of entry and have been immediately sent back to their home country for reasons that are opaque, at best, and usually with no recourse.

But the problem is not limited to the students who are denied a visa or turned away at the border. Sometimes the damage is done when federal agencies simply fail to act in a timely fashion. In this case, it’s the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a part of the Department of Homeland Security. But the issues involved are ones the agency can and should be able to rectify during the early stages of the Biden administration.

Consider a student we will call Maria. We will not use her real name to protect her privacy, but she is from Latin America and is fluent in Spanish and English. After teaching school for several years, she received a student visa to study international relations at an American university. At the end of her education, she arranged a one-year internship at a nonprofit organization in the United States that serves refugees. Maria hoped to spend a year gaining practical experience so that she could be in a better position to use her education and training when she returns to her home country.

Maria applied for optional practical training (OPT), which grants the authorization to work for one to three years, either as a student or a recent graduate from an American institution of higher education. At the end of the OPT term, most individuals return to their home countries as highly educated and experienced professionals. Some stay on for an additional time under a different visa process, called H-1B, that allows American companies to hire a limited number of foreign workers with special skills.

OPT is a very popular and widely used federal program. In 2019, almost 250,000 people participated in it. Colleges and universities also value OPT because it is a powerful lure that encourages students to study in the United States. The business community makes extensive use of OPT to spot talented individuals. In 2019, as part of its goal to expand so-called merit-based immigration, the Trump administration convened a meeting involving five cabinet agencies and several White House offices to discuss ways to enhance OPT.

But over time, as interest in thoughtful and rational policy regarding foreign students waned, so too did the interest in carrying out effective OPT policies. Indeed, before leaving office, the Trump administration toyed with (although it eventually dropped) ideas to make it much harder for individuals to obtain OPT authorization and participate in the program.

Meanwhile, as any pretense of having a cohesive system for implementing immigration rules and policies went by the wayside, processing times for OPT also increased. An international student can only apply for OPT three months before his or her employment start date. Foreign students invariably apply for the program as soon as possible, but processing delays began to creep into the process as early as 2019.

Today, it takes USCIS on average around five months to process an OPT application. This means that the average student is faced with a dire choice: leave the United States and return home and wait to see if OPT is granted, possibly missing an employment start date and taking on the cost of travel, or remain in this country, possibly falling out of status and being subject to immediate (and likely permanent) deportation. It’s a perfect catch-22. Somewhere, Joseph Heller is smiling.

The problem is widespread. At one major research university, more than 100 international students are caught up in this dilemma.

Relieving the Catch-22

That brings us back to Maria. She submitted her application 90 days in advance but never received notice that the application had been received, despite repeated attempts to find out. And the Citizenship and Immigration Services ombudsman never acknowledged her request for help. Out of concern that the agency did not receive the first application, Maria then submitted a second application (with another check for the application fee of $410, of course). That application was never acknowledged, either. Maria has until early this month before her grace period for remaining in the country expires.

In a January update, USCIS admitted it has a problem and promised to take steps to clear out the backlog. The good news is that, on Feb. 18, USCIS followed up with a message granting some flexibility for STEM OPT applicants, and then, on Feb. 26, granted other changes designed to help applicants, including being able to refile in a more timely manner if their original applications were rejected.

USCIS deserves credit for taking these steps. But every day that goes by without more aggressive and holistic steps to address the backlog, or to relieve the catch-22 it has created, is another day -- and more highly trained human resources -- that our nation is throwing away.

There are still thousands of OPT applicants caught in the backlog, and other problems that need to be corrected to ensure that the program runs as intended. What else needs to happen?

USCIS should immediately grant conditional approval for applications that have been delayed more than 90 days. And if the agency acknowledges that it needs five months to process applications, it should allow students to apply six months ahead of time. That would not require congressional action -- the agency can take these steps on its own and should do so immediately.

It’s not just overt negative actions -- like sending valid visa holders home when they arrive at a U.S. port of entry -- that have undermined the ability and desire of international students to study here. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a government agency that fails to effectively administer existing policies. But having publicly acknowledged the problem, USCIS has an affirmative obligation to take prompt, strong and meaningful steps to address its failures.

Meanwhile, Maria can hear the clock ticking louder every day.

Sarah Spreitzer is director of government relations at the American Council on Education. Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of government relations and public affairs at ACE.

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Why professors shouldn't require Chinese students to use virtual private networks for their classes (opinion)

A lot of scrambling is going on right now as colleges and universities consider how to offer online courses for international students this fall. Many are contemplating the use of virtual private networks (aka VPNs) for their students in China.

When I go to China, I use a VPN, of course. It’s required to leap over the Great Firewall and use Google products and social media and stay connected while I’m there.

I’ve been to China 39 times since 2004, have taken more than 250 American K-12/higher education teachers there, and I have run summer language programs at five of China’s outstanding universities. I make sure everyone downloads a VPN on their devices before they go.

When I’m there, it’s apparent that many Chinese people are using VPNs to stay connected to the world outside their country, as well. An article that PC Magazine cited in 2019 suggested that as many as 31 percent of internet users in China use VPNs.

But for American colleges and universities to offer their students in China online courses this fall that require them to use VPNs is deeply unethical and equally unwise.

For all practical purposes, the Chinese government forbids the use of VPNs. In an effort to clean up the internet and limit access to sensitive content, it even fines people (up to 1,000 RMB, or about $150) for using unauthorized VPNs.

So, college leaders, in your haste to create an online solution for course offerings this fall, do not let professors simply require students to use VPNs to access course content on YouTube or collaborate on shared documents hosted on sites that are blocked.

For one thing, your students can get in trouble without realizing the severity of unlawfully entering forbidden spaces on the internet. They aren’t necessarily going to contemplate the current spat between the U.S. and Chinese governments over Huawei, which is happening at the highest levels of government.

And for another thing, if thousands, or tens of thousands, of Chinese students in China are using VPNs to access course content in the United States, you better expect that, at some point, the Chinese government will shut off access to the VPNs themselves.

A senior staff member of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing told me a few years ago that Chinese government officials consider the internet to be something like a spigot that they can turn off and on at their whim -- just to send a message to Chinese netizens not to get too comfortable with certain aspects of it.

They frequently do that before the Chinese Communist Party meeting every five years or at other sensitive times, as they did when trying to control local accounts of the COVID-19 crisis earlier this year.

It is unethical to expect students, who themselves may be in the party or whose parents may be party members, to break national laws to participate fully in our classes. In a survey of Chinese students at Purdue University, 13 percent of Chinese students reported membership in the CCP, and 47 percent had joined the Chinese Communist Youth League.

If the Chinese government decides to crack down across the board, it could charge many young Chinese students with an infraction that could come back to haunt them -- or could even be used against their parents.

The stakes for this decision are sky-high, so please don’t take the shortcut some colleges and universities are taking by requiring, and even providing, access to VPNs for your students abroad.

Chinese students are already under intense pressure at American higher education institutions, and that pressure will intensify if they are taking classes offered with a 12- to 15-hour time difference.

Instead of using tools that require VPNs, some simple strategies you can employ include:

  • Create courses using Chinese platforms like Youku (similar to YouTube), Weibo (Twitter), VooV (Zoom) and QQ (a wraparound suite).
  • Scale back assignments requiring lots of bandwidth, because, especially outside the big cities, "the connection to the internet can be annoying" and students might find themselves struggling to watch or upload larger files, like videos.
  • Don’t expect your learning management system, already susceptible to bugs when interfacing with other platforms, to function smoothly for students in China, either. Most students will try to interface with their LMS through the app on their mobile device, but at Ohio State, all students are encouraged to use their device browser for “high-stakes activities" such as taking a quiz or submitting an assignment.
  • Allow students to email assignments. This is maybe the most obvious and easiest solution to LMS woes. In an article in Ohio State's student newspaper about difficulties completing coursework while in China -- coping with the time difference for synchronous courses and so on -- the university's students report having difficulties with the internet, particularly uploading assignments.

These are just a few generic tips. The important message is that faculty members and students must be creative in their pursuit of desired learning outcomes. Across-the-board solutions do not exist. Every course and every professor might need to develop distinct and personalized workarounds in order to teach their students in China efficiently and effectively.

Institutions of higher education in the United States are in an unprecedented situation as they begin the fall semester. But the ethics of this situation are clear: requiring VPN usage for students to complete coursework is unethical, and myriad convenient alternative solutions exist -- many of which you may not be familiar with. A lot of help is also available, particularly from your previous standout Chinese students, who might actually be your best resource.

Bob Eckhart is a former executive director of the combined ESL programs at Ohio State University. He has managed summer language and culture programs at various universities in China since 2005 and has also served as the director of the Wuhan University-Ohio State University Center for American Culture, funded by the U.S. Department of State.

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U.S. plans to cancel visas for students with ties to universities connected to Chinese military

The Trump administration reportedly plans to cancel visas of Chinese students who attended universities with ties to the People's Liberation Army. Some praise targeted approach; others see a slippery slope.

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