In recent months there have been reports from several countries hinting at a trend towards tightening up visa requirements for international students. The notable current examples are Australia and in April, the UK announced the implementation of new restrictions. The United States implemented dramatically new visa restrictions after 9/11 but has since loosened them significantly. Are these restrictions unfair to students or damaging to higher education? In a word, no.
The motivations of the host countries are several. Perhaps most dramatic, tensions, scandals, and other shenanigans relating to international students have led to dramatic headlines in the media. The mistreatment of Indian “international students” on the streets of Melbourne and other places resulted in bad press for Australia in India and serious doubts from the Australian public. It turned out that many of these “students” had come to Australia not to study, but to work, and used student visas from shady providers for this purpose. Australia’s new government is reconsidering its immigration policies generally as well as its reliance on international education as a “cash cow” for higher education.
The UK is also reconsidering immigration policy in reaction to public concern that some international students from Islamic countries are involved in terrorist groups. The recent case of an overseas student with a UK visa who planted a bomb in Sweden served to reinforce this concern.
In the past the United States has been more restrictive in permitting international students to work while studying or to remain in the country after completing their degrees compared to some other host nations. There has been some opening up in recent years, but the recent Tri Valley University scandal, in which a “university” provided student visas to people whose primary interest was employment. This will undoubtedly affect future policy and, perhaps, encourage retrenchment and increased restrictions.
The issues are complex. They include outright fraud by some “students,” similar dishonesty and shady practices by “universities” and other service providers who are happy to bring these “students” into a country with the promise that they can earn money; also lax government oversight and confusion about policy. Host countries are often driven by mixed motivations for attracting international students—to generate revenue, to help internationalize their own universities, to provide an education for students who might otherwise be unable to obtain degrees, or to lure highly qualified potential immigrants. And policies change, based on political circumstances, terrorist incidents, and often volatile public opinion.
Overall, regulations are a good thing when they ensure that students who are admitted actually study in recognized universities or other legitimate postsecondary institutions, that both students and institutions operate in a transparent way, and that high educational standards are maintained. Some will complain that more stringent oversight may sacrifice income or restrict the good will that results from an “open door policy” But as noted above, the unchecked pursuit of income can do harm to individuals as well as national reputations. In the long run it is more important to ensure quality higher education for real students than to earn more income.