Immigration puts Middle Eastern students off studying in US

Report finds Trump Muslim ban and 'extreme vetting' have a detrimental effect on candidates from the Middle East who voice fears for their safety if they lived in the US

A view of the Gammage Auditorium on the campus of Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, Az, where the third and last presidential debate between George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry will be held later 13 October 2004.   / AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK
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Education officials in the United States fear there will be a fall in the number of students from the Middle East this autumn.

Donald Trump's presidency and US government's ban on citizens from six Muslim countries – Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – and the "extreme vetting" of visa applicants and increased hate crimes against Muslims have made some feel insecure about studying in the US.

Uncertainty about immigration policies "raises valid concerns as to whether students from the Middle East may be deterred from US study", said a report published last month by the Institute of International Education, a non-profit organisation that advocates international education.

"Middle-Eastern students expressed many concerns to international admissions professionals at US higher education institutions," said the report, Shifting Tides? Understanding International Student Yield for Fall 2017.

"Securing and maintaining a visa is the biggest concern among these students and was reported by 46 per cent of institutions, while feeling welcome in the US was almost an equal concern, with 41 per cent of institutions noting so from their conversations with students."

Twenty-three per cent of international advisers said students from the Middle East were concerned about their safety. And "80 per cent of institutions responded that physical safety was the most pronounced concern for Indian students".


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Sanjeev Verma, chief executive of Dubai education consultancy Intelligent Partners, which helps to place students from the UAE in universities abroad, said he would not be surprised if the Trump effect caused a dip in the number of Middle East students enrolled in American universities.

"Security is a concern for every­body and that is the only thing that has changed since Trump came in," Mr Verma said. "I would actually say it is the perception of security, that people feel it is going to be unsafe and not secure, that is the biggest change."

One recent report on anti-­Muslim hate crime from the US indicated a 91 per cent increase in the first half of this year when compared with the same period last year.

Mr Verma said that shortly after Donald Trump was elected, some of his clients decided against travelling to the US for education, opting for Canada.

"I think everybody was frightened," he said. "We got a jolt because he came in with this big bang: 'I'm going to stop this, I'm going to stop that'."

Shortly after the election, some US universities joined to launch the #YouAreWelcomeHere social media campaign to show support for international students, and promote American campuses as diverse, friendly and safe.

"Fortunately, we are seeing considerable efforts from US colleges and universities to maximise their international enrolment for the coming academic year and ensure their current international students have the assistance they need to gain a quality education while in the US," said Jill Welch, of the association of international educators.

"Their engagement – such as airport pick-ups, meet-and-greets, seminars on visa policy changes and partnering students with peer mentors – has yielded some very positive, tangible results. We commend international educators because they have made every effort to ensure the US is a safe, welcoming and inclusive place to learn and grow."

More than a million international students enrolled in colleges or universities across the US in the 2015-2016 academic year, the Institute of International Education said.

International students injected more than US$35 billion, or Dh128.56bn, into the US economy in 2015, the department of commerce said.

In 2015-2016, students from the Middle East and North Africa made up about 10.3 per cent of the international student population, with 108,227. Of these, 2,920 were Emiratis.

"Education is a cornerstone of the strong and enduring relationship between the United States and the United Arab Emirates," said Scott Bolz, US embassy public affairs officer in Abu Dhabi. "Promoting US higher education and encouraging more Emiratis to study in the US is one of our top public diplomacy priorities."

Through its EducationUSA advising services, the US embassy in Abu Dhabi offers prospective students free advice about studying in the US.

"The consular section is involved in outreach activities, helping students to understand the visa requirements and application process," said Mohini Madgavkar, cultural affairs officer for the US embassy.

Arizona State University, which had the highest number of international students – 12,751 – among public universities in 2015-2016, is among the top five destinations for undergraduate Emirati students, the US embassy's office said.

About 20 per cent of the university's degree-seeking international students are from the Middle East and this autumn it is expecting to welcome about 160 Emiratis, the same number as each of the past four years, said Kent Hopkins, its vice president of enrolment.

"ASU admits students from a variety of cultures, and takes great pride in our student body, which includes students from over 135 nations," he said.

The institute report was based on a survey of international student professionals at 165 US colleges and universities, conducted in May.

The survey also sought to measure the international student yield rate, or the percentage of admitted students who committed to attend US colleges and universities, as of May 15.

Respondents were asked to report the number of admitted international students who had submitted official acceptance letters along with a registration deposit.

The survey findings suggested a decline of only 2 per cent in this year's yield rate of undergraduates in the US compared with last year. Although this provides an early snapshot of enrolment, actual figures will not be known until colleges and universities return this month.

Mr Verma said if there was, as he expected, a decline in enrolments of students from the Middle East this autumn, he thinks it will be short-lived.

"There was a little bit of initial [election] reaction but it's calmed down," he said. "I am fairly confident it will bounce back sooner than later. The US has a lot to offer..