Debating the possible decline of the USA’s attractiveness to foreign students and highly skilled foreign professionals

The USA’s experience with the ongoing economic crisis has been generating some illuminating debates about the possible tightening of post-graduation options for foreign students (including in the STEM disciplines, as well as in Business).  Today’s Washington Post, for example, includes an article titled ‘U.S. visa limits hit Indian workers: job offers rescinded or hard to come by‘. The article includes these two segments:

As the U.S. economy slows, highly skilled foreign professionals seeking work under various visa programs are finding it harder to get jobs. President Obama’s stimulus package stops U.S. companies, largely in banking and financial services, that take federal bailout money from hiring H-1B visa holders for two years if they have laid off American workers in the previous six months. The administration has vowed to tighten restrictions and step up oversight of all work visa applications.

The H-1B program brings in about 85,000 skilled foreign workers every year, ostensibly to fill jobs that U.S. workers cannot or will not do. But some companies in the science and technology fields, afraid of a backlash over hiring foreign professionals rather than American ones, are rescinding job offers. Analysts say it is part of a wave of mounting anger in the United States over work visas, especially at a time when more than half a million Americans are being laid off every month.

“Hiring H-1B visa holders has become as toxic as giving out corporate bonuses,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a Duke University professor and Harvard University research fellow.

….

During the past several months, the largest banks in the United States have announced 100,000 job cuts, [Bernard] Sanders said. Those same banks, which are receiving $150 billion in a taxpayer-funded bailout package, requested visas for more than 21,800 foreign workers over the past six years for positions such as senior vice presidents, corporate lawyers and human resources specialists, Sanders said, citing an Associated Press review of visa applications that the banks filed with the Labor Department.

As the economy worsened last year and employees were laid off, the number of visas sought by the dozen banks in the AP analysis increased by nearly a third, from 3,258 in fiscal 2007 to 4,163 in fiscal 2008.

More than 5 million jobs have been lost since the U.S. economy fell into recession more than a year ago, according to the Labor Department.

But many immigration experts say shutting out the talent from abroad will only hurt U.S. competitiveness in the long run. “It’s really unfortunate because we will lose an entire generation of wonderful minds as a by-product,” Wadhwa said. “The next Google or Silicon Valley will be in Bangalore or Beijing.”

Nations such as Canada, Singapore and Australia have created “fast-track” immigration policies and incentives to attract foreign professionals.

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A 1 April 2009 article (‘A rush for work visas even as demand dips‘) in the New York Times covers similar terrain.

This debate is being entered from a variety of perspectives.  One that is particularly relevant to GlobalHigherEd was put forward by AnnaLee Saxenian in the Financial Times on 29 March 2009 in a piece titled ‘Soapbox: Cold welcome in the US‘. Saxenian, author of some key books on regional development (Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128) as well as skilled migration (The New Argonauts), links the tightening of borders to the possible emergence of challenges to US universities to recruit the best and the brightest foreign students.  She frames the issue this way:

As policymakers in Europe and Asia create incentives to attract talented immigrants, there is growing resentment towards foreign workers in the US, based on the mistaken view that they displace native-born workers. In fact, foreign-born scientists have created hundreds of thousands of new jobs, billions of dollars of revenue and substantial wealth in the US, primarily in high-technology sectors.

It is natural that many immigrants wish to return home. And economies benefit from “brain circulation” and the global ties that highly skilled immigrants build with their home country counterparts. These “new Argonauts” have contributed to the emergence of dynamic new centres of entrepreneurship and innovation in developing regions from Taiwan and Israel to Bangalore and Shanghai.

But circulation is a two-way street. The survey suggests the US is losing the openness that made it a magnet for the most talented immigrants. The health of US universities depends on the economy. In coming years, even the greatest universities will be challenged as developing economies invest their own systems of higher education.

Saxenian’s article draws from collaborative work being supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (see a recent report cover above).

Will the economic problems facing US university budgets also be matched by a decline in interest in coming to US universities given (a) concern about the lack of opportunity to acquire employment in the US after graduation, and (b) the emergence of more tantalizing and/or accessible higher education opportunities in other countries?

And what is being done to indirectly open up higher education systems, and post-graduation employment opportunities, in non-US countries such that they can take advantage of the political and economic challenges being faced in the US? Take note, for example, of the service sector impact figures I just reported on in Australia (see ‘Making sense of the economic contribution of international students in Australia (up to 2008)‘) that undeniably play a role in advocacy and lobbying to keep Australian borders open to foreign students, especially from countries like China and India (that have historically streamed towards the US).

The possible decline of the US as a key student migration destination, and subsequent place of employment, might be good or bad depending on which perspective one adopts, yet it is clearly worth thinking about given the unsettling effects it would have upon the global higher education landscape.

Kris Olds

Update: link here for the 31 March 2009 NAFSA Statement: H-1B Visas, which includes this segment:

As America and the world fall deeper into recession, it is important to break free of the rhetoric of the political debate and refocus on the fundamentals. One fundamental is that talent is always a scarce resource. There is not enough of it to go around, and every country needs more of it. Talent is also, in today’s world, highly mobile. Our economy is part of a global economy, and our job market is part of a global job market. In such a market, employers look for the talent they need wherever they can find it, and students and skilled workers look for the places to study and work that offer them the most opportunity.

To turn away individuals with skills that we need, who want to live and work in America, under the illusion that by doing so we are protecting our economy, is to deny ourselves a resource that we need to help pull us out of the recession and put our economy on a sound footing for the future. It will cost jobs, not save them.

3 thoughts on “Debating the possible decline of the USA’s attractiveness to foreign students and highly skilled foreign professionals

  1. Thank you for raising these important issues and bringing several good resources together in your post. For years the United States took for granted its perch at the top of the pile among destination countries for foreign students. Even as our market share of the world’s globally mobile students began to slip – even before 9/11 – we assumed they would keep coming, because they always had. What was really happening was that the world was changing – there has been an unprecedented explosion in the number of internationally mobile students across the globe, and after 9/11, while we were making it harder for them to come here, other countries were taking deliberate steps to woo more of the market. In recent years, these trends have been amplified by the emergence of regional competitor countries like India and China, which are growing their higher education capacity at home and recruiting international students from nearby countries. To regain our footing, we must address the various factors that contribute to our diminished capacity to compete, beginning with the establishment of a coordinated national strategy that makes openness to international talent a priority for the United States. This includes ensuring that when talented foreign graduates of our higher education institutions want to stay here and contribute their skills in our economy, they have a viable way to do so. The contributions of foreign talent strengthen our economy, and studies show that they help create jobs. In today’s global economy, people are moving across borders with unprecedented ease and frequency. To the extent that the best minds in the world want to spend some of their time in this country, that’s a win for everyone.

  2. Pingback: More debates about foreign technology workers (many of whom were foreign students) in the USA « GlobalHigherEd

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