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What the China-US trade war has meant for international students

China and the U.S. may have called for a truce, but international students are still impacted by their economic tussle
BY Anandamayee Singh |   08-07-2019

Trump and Xi Jinping
Trump and Xi Jinping at the 2019 G20 summit in Japan

In 2017, the U.S. launched an investigation into Chinese policies and practices related to technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation. The immediate result of this investigation was an on and off trade war between the U.S. and China for the better part of 2018 and the majority of May 2019.

In the panic of this trade war, the International Monetary Fund estimated a 0.5% decrease in global growth by 2020. The automobile and food and drink industries cut profit forecasts and moved production out of both the U.S. and China. While the two countries recently put hostilities on hold for the foreseeable future, their bilateral tussle has led to long-term implications for international students and universities alike.

High on fears of technological espionage, the U.S. government  tightened visa procedures for Chinese students. Chinese students in aviation, engineering and high-tech manufacturing have seen higher wait times and visa rejections in the past year. In particular, students who returned to China for the holidays have been waiting for their visas to get cleared by the State department for over a year.  These students blame additional screening processes and shortened visa validity lengths for the long wait times.

The fear for Chinese students last year was largely in leaving the U.S., as their visas only came under scrutiny once they left the country. However, in May 2019, the U.S. government shortened the length of visas to one year for Chinese postgraduate students in STEM fields, putting them in a precarious position as well.

As a result of these restrictions, Chinese students are becoming increasingly disenchanted with American higher education. In the 2019 Chinese Students Overseas Study Survey Report, more students chose the U.K. over the U.S. as their preferred study destination. This is a major concern for American universities, as Chinese students account for ⅓ of its students, contributing $13 billion annually to the U.S. economy. Losing this major market of consumers will especially hurt so close to elections, as making higher education more affordable is a hot topic for 2020 presidential candidates.

In addition, international student fees cover significant costs for most schools. Public universities in particular benefit from exorbitant international student tuition fees, especially after cutbacks in state funding. On the soft (power) side, with ⅓ of their market losing interest in their education, the prestige of American universities will undoubtedly fall. These are all facts that are apparent to most American institutions, who have made public statements in support of international students. In 2018, 65 American universities signed an amicus brief order to challenge Trump’s new visa restrictions.

It is heartwarming, and honestly, good business for American institutions to stand vehemently in opposition of these visa restrictions. Unfortunately, immigration and economic policies are not in the hands of university administrators, irrespective of how it impacts them. The trade war may be over for now, but the hostility it inspired has left its mark on the world of higher education for the foreseeable future.


If you liked this, check out:
Jagdish Bhagwati: The World’s Preeminent Free Trade Evangelist
Arvind Panagriya: Free trade economist to head India’s NITI Ayog
Behavioural economics has never been hotter



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