For the first time ever, the US will have a national strategy for international education as the Biden administration announced plans on July 26th to pursue a coordinated approach to internationalizing American higher education. Long the norm among top study destinations like the UK and Australia, we look forward to monitoring how a national approach will influence America’s position in the broader global student recruitment landscape.

In this guest article, David B. Woodward, President of American Consortium of Universities – and member of our US Advisory Board – discusses the interplay between higher education institutional priorities and public policy over the last 20 years and the impact of the relationship between institutions and government on the field of international education.

The Relationship Between Public Policy, Higher Education Institutional Policy, and the Field of International Education

By David B. Woodward

In the US, the public at large tends to have a very limited awareness of the relationship between public policy and institutional policy of higher education institutions, despite that involvement ranging across every sector of local and national government activity. Of particular interest in this article are instances where higher education institutions (HEIs) have had a direct impact on national policies, which in turn have impacted the field of international education.

The inverse (the economic impact of international education in the US) is likewise very significant because the flow of international students into the US is estimated to have an annual economic impact of over $45 billion.

Following are 4 instances in the past two decades in which the shift among higher education institutions toward increasing the enrollment of international students and relying on the financial impact of those populations had a clear impact on public policy driven by advocacy from major institutions.

These 4 instances refer to:

  1. pressure from HEIs on the Bush administration post-9/11 to assist with recovery of international student enrollments which had declined severely due to a government emphasis on security and rigid screening of F-1 students
  2. pressure from HEIs in the late 2000s to require accreditation of all ESL programs in the US, which would favor accredited institutions and more easily extend accreditation to in-house programs
  3. pressure from HEIs on SEVP to authorize full time online study for international students in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic
  4. decisions by 500+ HEIs regarding vaccination requirements from students and staff to be on campus in Fall 2021

The Bush years

Following 9/11 international student enrollments in the US fell precipitously over 3 years with significant economic impact across the spectrum of institutions. In particular, as international graduate numbers declined and stories proliferated regarding the poor treatment of Muslim and Middle Eastern students by US government officials, as well as by Americans in general, major HEIs increased their advocacy and pressured the Bush administration to offset the negative impact of instituting the SEVIS system and much stricter processes for obtaining a student visa.

This advocacy dovetailed with the US administration’s strategic interests pertaining to Saudi Arabia as well as US posture in the Middle East, and the need to maintain steady access to low-cost fossil fuels. One result was the agreement in 2005 between the Bush administration and that of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to drastically increase the flow of Saudi Arabian students into US HEIs through the King Abdullah Scholarship, reaching 120,000 students at the peak.

For the first 10-year period the scholarship fully funded 8,000-10,000 Saudi Arabian students per year in the US. This resulted in billions of dollars flowing into US HEIs and local economies over this period. US HEIs prioritized attracting and retaining Saudi Arabian students in particular – as well as students on government scholarships from other countries – and to do so they committed to develop the capacity internally to accommodate the increased international student enrollments.

The ESL Accreditation Act

The ESL Accreditation Act passed in December 2010 required all English language providers in the US to become accredited whether through the institutional accreditation for those IEPs that were part of an HEI, or independently – the net effect of the ESL Accreditation Act was to decrease the overall number of small, independent IEPS in favor of IEPs that were part of an HEI or part of a large for-profit multi-site ESL provider or pathway program.

The reason this act favored HEIs was the comparatively much higher expense and more rigorous process for small, private training providers needing to go through CEA or ASSET to obtain accreditation vs gaining ESL accreditation as part of an HEI’s institutional accreditation. The broader significance of the ESL Accreditation Act is in illustrating the influence of HEIs on SEVP and DHS policy.

SEVP response to COVID-19

In response to COVID-19 in 2020, SEVP temporarily allowed international students to maintain visa status while studying remotely. In July of 2020, SEVP announced a tightening of the guidelines with regard to online learning for the coming academic year. SEVP’s intent was to eliminate the option of studying online while maintaining full-time status.

Following several weeks of concerted pressure from HEIs and leading advocacy associations such as NAFSA and the Alliance, SEVP announced that there would be no change to the prior policy and thus would continue allowing full-time study online for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Rescinding a decision of this magnitude, given the implications for the future of education, was a very significant demonstration that setting new policies in HEIs has a direct impact on public policy.

The implications of the reversal cannot be overstated for international students who were already in the US. They no longer faced the threat of having their visa status revoked and could continue in their academic programs of study. This prevented an even greater decline in the overall enrollment numbers for HEIs and blunted the impact of COVID-19 somewhat for continuing students.

In addition, validating full-time online study at the national level led by HEIs, and followed by SEVP, communicated to leaders nationally and internationally that online education was increasingly legitimate and perhaps even essential.

COVID-19 vaccination requirements

COVID-19 vaccine requirements of HEIs are among the most important catalysts for vaccine adoption at the local and national government levels – as of late June in 2021 over 500 HEIs have announced that they will require all students and staff to be vaccinated in order to study in person on campus in the Fall of 2021.

While there is considerable variation in how HEIs plan to implement this requirement (in some cases they will not be verifying vaccination status), the fact that many major institutions like the University of Washington have taken a firm position on vaccine requirements reinforces related policies in the public sphere in general.

Access to major institutions for the domestic population is a major incentive for young and old to become vaccinated and yet participation is a choice. This opportunity, like employment in general, is one of the most important catalysts for a more aggressive approach to immunization.

As it pertains to international education, HEIs worldwide tend to track closely the policies of US HEIs as global leaders. The fact that the US now is in an improving posture with regard to vaccine adoption and bringing the COVID-19 pandemic under control due to HEI and public policy makes the US an important example for HEIs and governments elsewhere.

While the pandemic appeared to be growing out of control in the US in 2020, international students were increasingly turning to other countries for their study abroad plans. Conversely, in 2021 as the roles have reversed among G-20 countries, the US is appearing to be once again a preferred destination.

Higher education must continue to drive national conversation

HEIs and those involved with them are important constituents in any society. Despite the sense many leaders in the field of international education may have that their voice does not carry enough political weight with regional or national policy makers, the fact is that higher education is a critical feature of any thriving society and economy – all public policy officials know this worldwide.

This relationship is also developing in real-time, building broad implications for the way HEI’s relate to US governance: on July 19th, a Federal Judge affirmed Indiana University’s student vaccine requirement. In this time of monumental disruption and change, societies need their HEIs to lead more than ever – the alternative is to cede the leadership role to those primarily motivated by financial or political incentive.

HEIs are fundamentally different as they have been established to better society. Likewise, international education links HEIs worldwide to form an ecosystem focused on human learning and potential. Its purpose is broader and essential to the continued improvement of any society.

About David B. Woodward

David has been in the field of international education as a teacher or administrator for 42 years. Since 2016, after decades of leading the non-profit organization Associates in Cultural Exchange, he began working from home with INTERLINK International Institutes as Strategic Outreach advisor and head of its American Consortium of Universities.

In late 2016, David founded David Woodward & Associates (DW) which supports organizations seeking to develop strong working relationships and implement business and education projects worldwide. David works in a number of sectors with organizations in various parts of the world, including facilitation of educational marketing & recruitment, consortia development, EdTech advisory services, organizational change management, international trade facilitation, and cultural diplomacy. And, he is a valued member of UniQuest’s US Advisory Board.

David Woodward headshot