China students look warily at US universities

City Talk | Poornima Weerasekara 16 Jul 2019

Caught in the crossfire of the Sino-US trade war, Chinese students are looking for alternative study destinations and thus threatening to turn off an important source of revenue for American universities.

China accounts for nearly a third of foreign students on US campuses who pour billions of dollars into the economy, but in March their numbers dropped for the first time in a decade. Visa delays, concerns over being shut out of research projects and safety fears have turned off mainland students.

Rival education powerhouses such as Britain, Australia and Canada are the biggest beneficiaries, a survey by New Oriental, China's biggest private education provider, finds. Japan and South Korea - traditional destinations for the Chinese elite - and parts of Europe, especially Germany and Scandinavian countries with strong engineering programs, have also seen an uptick in applications.

The chilling effect started mid-last year, after Donald Trump's administration slashed the visa duration of students in science and technology fields from five years to one in some cases.

"Now there's a lot of uncertainty on whether they can even finish their studies," says Gu Huini, founder of boutique college consultancy Zoom In.

Over a third of the roughly 360,000 Chinese students in the United States study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, says the Institute of International Education in New York.

But the number of Chinese students dipped by 2 percent in March compared to the previous year, the first drop since 2009, data from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows.

Melissa Zhang, 17, a high school senior in Beijing, says she has abandoned her US plans and is instead taking German lessons in the hope of getting into a robotics program in Dresden.

"I've already wasted a year preparing for my SATs," she says, referring to the standardized test needed to enter a US university. "But what's the point in going to the United States if I might be shut out of a research lab just because I am Chinese."

Her mother, Mingyue, says "the American dream is losing its shine" for many mainland students. "If America makes them feel unwelcome they'll go elsewhere," she says. "This generation feels the whole world is open to them."

Mainland students contributed US$13 billion (HK$101 billion) to the US economy last year - a figure that includes tuition fees and living expenses, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Top US universities like Yale and Stanford have complained the trade war has affected campus recruitment.

Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in an open letter on June 25 that students and faculty felt "unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge because of their Chinese ethnicity alone."

The US State Department has said the increased scrutiny was prompted by a rising number of students who were co-opted by foreign intelligence while in the United States.

Eric Wang, 25, a doctoral student at Purdue University in Indiana, is nervous about having to renew his visa every year.

"It's difficult to plan long-term research projects or even think about going steady with your girlfriend," says Wang.

Trump attempted to allay Chinese students' fears after reaching a trade war truce with President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Japan, saying they would be treated "just like anybody else."

He also proposed a "smart person's waiver" that would make it easier for the brightest minds to get a green card allowing permanent residency in the United Stated.

A Chinese government travel warning last month citing "gun violence and robberies" in the United States has also given mainland high school students and parents cold feet.

"State media have been pumping up reports about crime, and families - especially from smaller Chinese cities - feel America isn't safe," says Li Shaowen, who organizes foreign college tours. "We have over 250 families visiting universities in Europe and the United Kingdom during this summer break while only 75 families are going to the US. The numbers were reverse last year."

Mainland students and parents start hunting for prospective colleges two to three years before application deadlines.

"The pipeline is drying up," says Dorothy Mae, an independent college consultant in Beijing. "US universities will see fewer students from China for several years."


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