On Line Debate: Foreign Students

By Jessica M. Vaughan on December 19, 2007

Economist.com, December 19, 2007

Jessica Vaughan, a CIS Senior Policy Analyst, participated in an Economist on line debate “Proposition: Governments and universities everywhere should compete to attract qualified students, regardless of nationality or residence.”

Opening Arguments of Jessica Vaughan, against the House proposal:

At first glance, this looks like a no-brainer. Few American higher educational institutions would be caught dead these days without a foreign student recruiting program. Many of these schools consider access to foreign students to be a government entitlement, if not a God-given right. But the proposition is flawed in two ways. First, not all colleges and universities are alike – they serve different populations and have different educational missions, so what works for one may not for the other. That institutional diversity is a huge national asset. Secondly, while I would agree that the governments should do all they can to foster academic excellence and the free exchange of ideas, and attracting the best and the brightest from around the world is part of that, they must balance this worthy goal with their responsibility to ensure the security of the homeland. That requires saying “no” to some people.

Top-notch U.S. schools have long prided themselves on their ability to attract talented students from abroad; years ago they competed more with each other for the foreign student market share than against schools in other countries. And no wonder – not only do foreign students bring brains and cultural interest to American campuses, they also can be charged higher tuition. To qualify for a visa, foreign students must show they can finance their degree, and at the undergraduate level they usually pay thousands of dollars more in tuition than U.S. students. As the higher education marketplace has become more competitive over the years, due to changing demographics and pressure to upgrade facilities and technology while offering more and more financial assistance, even less selective schools have gotten into the act in an effort to boost tuition revenue.

What’s the downside? There isn’t one, say representatives of the higher education industry. The Institute for International Education claims that foreign students and their families contribute about $13 billion annually to the U.S. economy. But this analysis is too simplistic, relying on generalizations about the actual tuition paid by foreign students and ignoring the cost of government subsidies that go to all students in public and private schools. IIE’s own data show that 11 percent of foreign undergraduate students and 47 percent of foreign graduate students are supported “primarily” by the host college or university with scholarships, tuition waivers, employment, or fellowships. No student, foreign or local, pays enough in tuition to cover the actual cost of the education -- all college and university students are subsidized by taxpayers. Harvard University economist George Borjas reports that the average per-student subsidy may reach $6,400 in private universities and $9,200 in public universities, totaling several billion dollars per year.

The IIE also leaves out any accounting of the resources schools must devote to staff and programs to help foreign students become acclimatized and navigate in their new surroundings.

Community colleges and small state colleges especially should resist the lure of the foreign student market. The admission of large numbers of foreign students to community colleges around the country is a dramatic departure from their long-established mission to serve the needs of local non-traditional students, those who lack the resources or time to commit to a four-year program, and those seeking vocational or non-degree programs.

These schools are heavily subsidized by local taxpayers so the programs are accessible to all members of the community and can contribute to their self-sufficiency and upward mobility. Many community and state colleges play a vital role in the local economy, serving as small business incubators or offering specialized training to fill the needs of local employers, such as hospitals or technology companies. It is doubtful that taxpayers in these towns would support extending these subsidies to foreign students, who traditionally have been expected to pay their own way. In addition, it makes little sense to provide job training or internships to foreign students who might displace locals from these opportunities.

If I have not convinced you to reject the house proposal on the economic and social grounds, consider the security issues. Student visas are a security and law enforcement concern because they contribute to illegal immigration and all its associated fiscal, economic and social costs; because they may facilitate the transfer of sensitive technology, knowledge or skills; and because they can and have provided cover for terrorists and criminals.

Student visas are ideal cover for terrorists, criminals, and other young, unattached people who would not otherwise qualify for entry, and they provide legal status for years at a time. Few, if any, governments can track how many foreign students stay on to work illegally after they are finished studying (or who never show up to study at all). A September 2005 report by my organization looked into the immigration histories of 94 international terrorists who operated in the U.S. in recent years, and found that 18 of them, including several of the 9/11 attackers, had been granted student visas and another four had applications approved to study in the United States.

Espionage is also a concern, both for the government and for any business with foreign competitors. As far back as 1996, the FBI has been warning Congress that other nations were using foreign students as spies: “Countries recruit students before they come to the United States to study and task them to send any technological information they acquire back to their home country. . . . Upon completion of their studies, some foreign students are then encouraged to seek employment with U.S. firms to steal proprietary information.” (testimony of then-FBI director Louis Freeh).

Obviously not all foreign students are spies or terrorists, and most governments recognize the invaluable public diplomacy and good will that can be accomplished through admitting foreign students. The important point is that international student recruitment should not be pursued blindly, oblivious to an individual school’s mission and public accountability, or indifferent to the security of all.

Rebuttal by Jessica Vaughan:

Time to refute a few of Ms. Cairncross’ “irrefutable” points, and it is wonderful to have the help of so many insightful commenters.

It’s important to clarify exactly what kind of protectionism we are talking about. No one is arguing that governments should try to restrict students from traveling abroad to study in order to protect domestic universities from foreign competition. That kind of protectionism would be harmful and short-sighted. As one commenter pointed out, students are more accurately considered consumers rather than goods.

But what is so dreadful about protecting educational opportunities for local students? As JD points out, the reality is that at some institutions the number of opportunities is limited, either by funding or by the number of available faculty. In an ideal world, such as the world of generously-endowed private institutions, the institution should choose the most qualified student, and be free to define exactly what “qualified” means (subject to the parameters of national visa laws, of course). However, there are a sizeable number of schools around the globe that depend on the support of taxpayers as well as tuition, and these schools should not be ashamed to give preference to locals, especially those who do not have the means to shop globally, as pointed out Iditero and others. I agree with Ms. Cairncross that most everybody wins when Stanford and Oxford and Tsinghua Universities compete for the best students, but I see no compelling reason for American nursing programs, for example, to entertain applications from abroad, however meritorious, when they are turning away tens of thousands of U.S. applicants a year due to a faculty shortage.

This gets to an argument that has been percolating in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) circles for many years – is there a point at which a nation may actually damage its own long-term competitiveness by displaying a preference for foreign students over domestic students? When does openness in admissions become unhealthy dependence on foreign admissions? It is true that many graduate STEM programs around the world are propped up by foreign admissions, but is that good or bad? Those universities should also ask themselves if they are really doing all they can to find qualified domestic students, and the leadership should ask itself if the program is really worth continuing. And, are foreign students really more clever, or just better able to pay? In particular, the dearth of women and minority representation in major U.S. research university STEM programs ought to be a national embarrassment.

We cannot escape the issue of costs and how resources should be allocated, as commenter Nelson and others mentioned. While Ms. Cairncross has presented some well-known data on revenues generated by foreign students, the financial case for foreign student recruitment has not been proven. I have yet to see a comprehensive analysis for any country that accounts for the cost of hosting these same students, whether in the form of support staff at host schools, scholarships, or, most importantly, public subsidies. The closest example I know of is a 2006 study by the (U.S.) National Academies of Science, which found that, in the United States, at the graduate level, foreign and domestic students at public and private schools pay an average of $8,070 per year while receiving $37,234 in support. While there may be intangible benefits in terms of innovation and exceptional contributions from some foreign students, there is no financial benefit to hosting foreign students at the graduate level. I suspect that the debits may be less for undergraduate students because they use fewer stipends and grants, but there are still public subsidies involved.

A number of commenters suggested that the terrorism/security arguments are irrelevant. I wish it were so. Just four months ago, two Egyptian students attending the University of South Florida were caught with pipe bombs near a Navy installation in South Carolina. One is accused of producing a how-to video on using remote-controlled toys to detonate bombs. This is relevant because efforts by government to impose prudent controls aimed at preventing terrorists from gaining entry with a student visa are always opposed by higher education on the grounds that they are threatening to the free exchange of ideas (not to mention their tuition revenues). To deny the security risks is irresponsible, and the higher education industry would be better advised to work cooperatively with federal authorities to make sure that they do not unwittingly facilitate such incidents. After all, like the travel industry, academia has a lot to lose if there are more attacks and the nation is perceived to be unsafe.

I commend the moderator, Redhead and others for raising the “Brain Drain” issue. I have avoided it partly for lack of space, but also because I believe it is more a problem with guestworker programs than with foreign students. I think the best way to avoid brain drain is not to discourage the admission of foreign students, but to encourage them to return home upon completion of their studies. The United States, for one, is somewhat schizophrenic on this issue, but I have heard senior U.S. diplomats suggest, and I agree, that it is better to encourage the global circulation of talent than to allow it to cluster in just a few countries, most of which are already pretty well off.

Finally, I can’t believe I have to say this, but apparently I need to remind a few commenters that being for controls on the admission of foreign students does not mean one is necessarily against foreign students or ignorant of the benefits of studying abroad. I try to watch how many Christmas cookies I eat too, but that does not make me anti-sweets!

Concluding Statement of Jessica Vaughan:

If there is one recurring theme to the statements and comments in response to the House proposal, it is that cross-cultural experience, whether through study abroad or contact with foreign students on one’s home campus, is a valuable enhancement to higher education. But that sentiment, which I share, is not enough to compel support for the House proposal. Ultimately, support for this utopian proposal relies on emotion, anecdote, and unproven assumptions. Surely readers of The Economist require more to persuade them.

Let’s put emotion aside and look at the proposal in the daylight of the real world: “Governments and universities everywhere should compete to attract qualified students, regardless of nationality or residence.”

One of the commonly-held assumptions about the benefits of foreign students has been dismantled with data presented in my opener and rebuttal: because of public subsidies to higher education and other forms of assistance, foreign students are not necessarily paying as much of their own way as we have been led to believe by representatives of the higher education sector.

Ms. Cairncross attempted to respond by suggesting that perhaps this subsidy should be considered an investment, because foreign students may contribute disproportionately in entrepreneurship and innovation. Nice thought, but unfortunately the facts do not cooperate. A recent study on this topic by scholars at Duke University, led by Vivek Wadhwa, found that foreign-born economic and intellectual contributions are statistically consistent with the population share – no more, no less.

My venerable opponent suggested that if public subsidies of foreign students are the issue, then by all means drop them (the subsidies, not the students). Since one of the main ways universities compete for qualified students is by offering financial support, she is essentially saying that some universities should stop trying to compete, which amounts to a rejection of the house proposal. If PRO concedes, doesn’t that mean CON wins?

But she’s right about one thing – it’s not just about the money, or even about competition. It’s about the appropriate roles and priorities of governments and universities. Supporting this proposal requires one to agree that what is good for one university is good for all; that what is good for one nation is good for all; and that what is good for universities is always good for the nation.

I would submit that for the sake of a nation’s long-term economic security, it is imperative for a government to cultivate home-grown talent and skill as well as to import it. Rather than trying to arrive at some kind of formula or quota on the proper mix of foreign vs. domestic students, as was suggested by several well-meaning commenters, I would suggest instead that some institutions decide for themselves what works, and others (those that depend heavily on public subsidies) be expected to refrain from trying to compete globally in order to give priority to local students.

It is perfectly understandable that those universities choosing to compete globally would press governments to allow them unfettered access to foreign students. They have both academic and financial reasons for doing so. But these institutional interests do not always align with the national or public interest. While acknowledging all of the contributions that the higher education sector makes to the good of the nation, governments must be careful not sacrifice the economic or physical security of their own citizens simply to boost the academic interests or market share of universities. Similarly, universities must accept that some limits are necessary.

The House proposal sounds harmless in theory, but falters under careful scrutiny and consideration of facts on the ground. It is not hard to see why so many have enjoyed a flirtation with the PRO arguments, but all sensible and realistic readers must eventually come to see the truth of the CON position. (There’s still time to change your vote.) Thanks to the editors, commenters, and fellow participants for a most enjoyable and enlightening debate, and Happy Holidays to all!