Many a Congressional hearing is nominally about one thing but actually about another. Thursday's session on the U.S. government's tracking of foreign students for national security purposes did explore that topic, as advertised, but it became first and foremost a venue for bemoaning the United States's diminishing competitive edge in international higher education.
At the sparsely attended hearing -- everything on Capitol Hill Thursday was a sideshow to the circus-like event on steroids in baseball that unfolded just down the hall from this one -- three federal officials painted a mostly positive picture of the government's efforts to monitor the presence of foreign students in the U.S. since the September 11 attacks. The session was held by the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittees on 21st Century Competitiveness and on Select Education.
While acknowledging that some students (and scholars) are still facing delays and difficulty getting their visas approved, and that the government's database for tracking students is still working out the kinks, representatives of the Departments of State and of Homeland Security told lawmakers that they had made significant progress in ironing out the many problems that vexed college officials and international students in 2003 and much of 2004.
Stephen A. Edson, managing director of the Office of Visa Services at the State Department, cited statistics showing that 97 percent of all student visa applications are processed within two days, and that even the process of approving visas for scientists who plan to study weapons and other sensitive technology, known as Visas Mantis, had dropped from a high of 72 days to less than two weeks now.
And Victor X. Cerda, an official in the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that "many of the initial obstacles encountered during the implementation phase" of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, the Web-based database for tracking foreign students, "have been overcome."
College officials on the panel did not savage the SEVIS program, as they almost certainly would have a year ago. But they offered a less-glowing assessment than the federal officials did both of the technological prowess of the database and of the government's efforts to shrink the delays that foreign students and scholars face in getting their visas.
Lawrence J. Bell, who heads the international education office at the University of Colorado at Boulder and testified on behalf of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said that colleges are waiting weeks and even months for the government to correct simple data entry errors in SEVIS, sometimes leaving foreign students in limbo. "We are a very long way from where we need to be," he said.
Bell said that students' problems with SEVIS holdups and with delays in getting visa interviews were among many factors contributing to an increasing perception among foreign students that the United States was "unfriendly." He and several lawmakers on the subcommittees cited reports  of declines in the number of foreign students choosing to study in the United States as troubling developments for the United States, at a time when the number of foreign students worldwide is climbing.
The visa system and the signals of "unfriendliness" that the country is sending through its intensified security is only partly to blame for those declines, said C.D. Mote Jr., chancellor of the University of Maryland at College Park, who also testified at the hearing. Another factor is the "aggressive competition" being waged by universities elsewhere in the world, he said; Bell noted that Germany and Japan have begun offering graduate programs in English to try to compete with American graduate schools.
"For a long time U.S. graduate schools were the only game in town, and no matter how badly treated students were, they came here anyway," said Mote. That's no longer the case, he said, and foreign institutions are "using the security situation to convince foreign graduate students to go elsewhere."
Perhaps sensitive to the fact that lawmakers tend to take a problem most seriously when it has economic implications, Mote said that America's inability to get top-quality graduate students would undercut the country's technological enterprise. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), sounded that alarm, too, noting that "those students are going to our economic competitors around the world."