Why it's pointless for the US to restrict visas to Chinese students
Chinese grad students help improve American higher education's competitiveness, not undermine it. Source: Unsplash

Last Thursday, the Trump administration announced a US$60 billion tariffs package intended as a crackdown on China’s trade practices – which it accuses of violating intellectual-property laws and other misdeeds.

One of the proposals reported by the Wall StreetJournal before the announcement was a restriction in the number of visas granted to Chinese students to study in American universities. Students in advanced programs in the sciences and mathematics are seen as a “national security threat” for supposedly stealing intellectual property secrets in an academic environment that is relatively less guarded than the corporate or governance world.

It didn’t pan out as the media reports said – no visa restrictions were mentioned in the package announced. Inside Higher Ed reported that a White House official, when asked about the proposed restrictions on student visas said: “We have seen the media reports, but do not have any information to share.”

President Donald Trump holds his signed memorandum on intellectual property tariffs on high-tech goods from China, at the White House in Washington. Source: Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Chinese students can breathe a sigh of relief for now. But judging by how the US government has been adding obstacles to make it harder for foreign graduates to work in the US through the H-1B visa program, this could only be a temporary reprieve.

So, let’s consider for a moment if the proposal did indeed turn out to be true. How sound is such a move anyway?

Not very, according to a Bloomberg editorial. It’s counterintuitive. Un-American, even.

Competitiveness will be undermined, not enhanced. Universities will suffer from the loss of international student fees, which have helped offset cuts to government funding. Jobs, in and around colleges and universities, to support the US$12 billion economy created from these students’ tuition and living expenses, could take a hit too.

Dick Startz, an economics professor at the University of California Santa Barbara estimates that overall spending from international students—including room and board and other areas—is near US$50 billion. Tuition alone, according to Commerce Department data, is US$39.4 billion 2016.

By paying higher fees, international students not only help universities offset cuts in government funding, but reduce the need for these institutions to charge higher fees to domestic students.

As for the accusations of theft of trade secrets, Bloomberg notes that only “a tiny fraction” of Chinese students have been charged for such crimes.

Instead, a better way to protect intellectual property is to encourage these graduates to employ their knowledge on American soil, either by working there or starting a business there.

“That’s the purpose of the Optional Practical Training program, which allows foreign students who earn degrees in technical fields to work in the US for up to three years. The Trump administration, true to form, wants to cut the program instead,” the editorial wrote.

“Whether the president imposes new quotas on Chinese students, the goal of some of his advisers seems clear: to make “designated” foreigners unwelcome on U.S. campuses. That’s not only un-American, but also self-defeating.

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