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Will the US Travel Ban Put Off Foreign Students?

America has reason to worry that the travel ban will affect the number of foreign students applying to US universities.

America has always been a favorable destination for international students from across the world, specifically those from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries. In 2016, 13% of total 1.27 million global OIC students chose to study in the US. In May 2017, the total number of OIC students in the US was 175,000, making up over 14% out of more than a million overseas students in the country, down from just over 17% in 2014.

The number of international students in the US rose by 17% from April 2014 to May 2017, but, comparatively, the increase in the number of students from OIC countries was a meager 0.44%. There was a major fall in applications from Saudi Arabia, with 16,413 fewer students representing a negative growth of 22.4% during the time period. Saudi Arabia was a major OIC contributing country, ranked 4th, sending between 55,810 and 72,223 students in 2017 and 2014 respectively. Other prominent countries with negative growth are Libya (22%) and United Arab Emirates (10%). While China and India provide almost half of America’s international students given their massive populations, there’s been a robust addition of more than 2,000 students from Nigeria, Kuwait, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran.

Muslim countries, despite an abundance of oil wealth, have been unable to develop adequate tertiary education infrastructure. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2018, which picks the world’s top 1,000 universities, shows that only 97 ranked institutions are located in OIC countries. Highest ranked universities among OIC nations are listed in Turkey.

An estimate for the year 2016 derived from UNESCO data indicates that students from OIC countries make up approximately 11% of total global overseas students. Top destinations countries for OIC students are the US (13%), Russia (11%), France (7%), UK (7%), Saudi Arabia (5%) and Turkey (5%). The US is still at the top of the list due to its reputed schools and academic competitiveness. But the trend is slowly shifting toward Russia and, most importantly, toward Saudi Arabia and Turkey, mainly due to a friendlier environment for OIC students and less restrictive visas compared to the US.

A slower growth in the number of OIC students coming to America might be caused by internal conflict in the Middle East as well as the global economic downturn. But the impact of the political situation in America also cannot be ruled out, specifically the concerns over the current administration’s pursuit of a travel ban on Muslims entering the US. Following a number of legislatives blocks, the so-called “Muslim travel ban” was finally backed by the US Supreme Court to restrict entry into the US from six Muslim-majority (OIC) countries: Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. While Saudi Arabia is not on the list, uncertainty would be looming for students from other OIC countries, and a sense of overall ambiguity may well cause Saudi students to rethink their higher education destinations.

In response to the Supreme Court ruling, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted: “US Supreme Court defends and allows Trumps #MuslimBan to go into full effect, giving bigotry full licence in U.S.A. Sad!” Iran is among the top OIC exporters of students to the US (12,355 this year), a number that has grown 22% from April 2014.

This ban would undoubtedly cause distress and hamper the flow of students from other OIC countries. But this may also not be in the interest of the US. Pointing out the implication of the travel ban, American Council on Education cautioned: “It would impair the ability of American educational institutions to draw the finest international talent and reap the attendant benefits. It would divide students and scholars who were able to enter the U.S. from their families who could not. And it would inhibit the open academic exchange that is so vital to modern higher education and our national interests.”

New York University, in its amicus filed to an appeals court in April this year, argued:

By obstructing the entry of international students, faculty and other scholars into the United States based solely on their having come from one of the Muslim-majority countries singled out for adverse treatment in the Executive Order — without any reason to believe that the individuals are involved at all in any terrorist activity — the Order would gratuitously and unlawfully encumber NYU’s ability to conduct its many international programs, which rely on input from faculty and students from the affected countries; impair its ability to transmit its strongly-held values abroad; and obstruct its ability to provide to all of its students the educational benefits that flow from a fully diverse student body and faculty.

This ban will, however, open new opportunities for other countries. For example, Canada’s Memorial University has already seen a benefit. According to the university’s deputy registrar of strategic enrolment management, applications have increased across the board, while graduate applications from the six countries listed in the travel ban rose by 46%, and admissions from those countries are up by 25%.

According to the Association of International Educators, foreign students contributed over $32 billion to the US economy in the 2015-2016 academic year, supporting some 400,000 jobs. The OIC student market will be burgeoning in the coming years due to the large youth population — more than 150 million are of age to enter higher education. Internal disturbances in the Middle East and other parts of OIC mean that students seek out more peaceful destinations for their studies. These prospects indicate that the US government can only stand to benefit from easing the student intake from OIC countries. These steps would be mutually beneficial commercially as well as culturally. The travel ban may provoke a reciprocal action to restrict US citizen from entering countries affected by the ban. Such behavior will stop the exchange of ideas and promotion of American democratic values within these countries, possibly deeply damaging bilateral relations and reversing the progress made thus far.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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