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How Biden administration policy changes might impact Chinese student recruitment in the US

February 28, 2021 |   Nicolas Chu

In just over a decade, the number of US college/university students from China nearly quadrupled from 98,235 in 2008/09 to 369,548 in 2018/19, making it the most popular destination for Chinese students looking to study abroad.

The 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic led to a huge drop in US college and university international student numbers. But even prior to this the US was experiencing a shift, specifically around Chinese student enrolments, with 2018/19 having the lowest yearly increase in a decade at just 1.7% While this slowing is attributable to a range of factors, such as other countries marketing more aggressively to Chinese students and fluctuating global exchange rates, the ‘Trump Administration factor’ cannot be underestimated.

The Trump Administration years

Once in office, the Trump administration rolled out a series of measures that directly affected Chinese students such as:

  • The May 2020 proclamation restricting entry of Chinese graduate students in STEM.
  • A failed attempt to prevent international students enrolled in online courses from staying in the US that was replaced by a ban on new students entering the country for online-only courses.

A decrease in the number of visas offered to Chinese students followed, making the job of international student recruiters more difficult as they were forced to navigate US policy acting as a deterrent to Chinese students and a global pandemic that limited international movement.

However, the result of the 2020 US presidential election brought with it the potential for a reboot of US-China relations and the possibility of a return of Chinese students to the US.

Incoming Biden administration

After Joe Biden was officially declared US president, high-profile university figures, such as Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger, spoke out about repairing the relationship.

Bollinger penned an open letter urging Biden to, ‘remedy many of the costly and consequential missteps in education policy we have seen in recent years’.

His reform wishlist included changes to:

  • Travel bans;
  • Non-immigration visa applications;
  • Duration of status;
  • H-1B visas and Optional Practical Training (OPT); and
  • Immigration policy more broadly.

Bollinger also called on Biden to ‘end paranoia of Chinese students’.

Popular Shanghai-based publication Sixth Tone saw the incoming Biden administration as ushering in new hope for Chinese students who had often borne the brunt of the Trump administration’s restrictive policies, reporting that study abroad agencies were already seeing an uptick in enquiries from students. The South China Morning Post also believed there would be positive change because the Biden administration had already begun pivoting to a more open attitude, particularly when it comes to welcoming back international students.

Fortune magazine remained more circumspect, at least around the broader US-China trade war, finding Biden’s outlook to be not so different to Trump’s.

The question remains, which way will Biden fall and how will this impact Chinese student recruitment?

Key factors that might impact Chinese student recruitment in the US

1. COVID policies and vaccine rollout

A key Biden election promise was to vastly improve the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. To this, Biden is pursuing a US$1.9 trillion stimulus relief package and has moved quickly on improving the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, promising 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days. With nearly a quarter of the relief package (US$400B) dedicated to directly combat the virus, 10% or US$40B is specifically earmarked for higher education institutions.

The size and nature of this package sends a clear message to Chinese students looking to study in the US that their health and safety is important. It also offers a crucial indicator that US universities are trying to return to a sense of normalcy in operations in 2021 and the eventual return to face-to-face learning.

2. Travel restrictions

International travel remains at a virtual standstill, with many countries having instituted bans on certain foreign nationals entering their borders. At present, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has China listed on its travel ban list.

But as the vaccine rollout continues and the pandemic is brought under control, bans will invariably be lifted. Greater availability of flights between countries and the freer movement of people could lead to more Chinese students once more considering studies in the US.

3. Student visa regulations

One of Biden’s first acts as president was announcing the US Citizenship Act of 2021. This contains a range of measures illustrating the administration’s attitude of inclusiveness around international students, including making it easier for graduate students with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the US and providing work authorisation for H-1B visa holders.

While as yet no other specific measures around Chinese students have been announced, the hope is that as relations with China evolve and improve under Biden, so will the flow of Chinese students to the US.

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