Remarks by Esther Brimmer to the Intergovernmental Consultations on Migration, Asylum and Refugees (IGC)

The following is a speech (as prepared) for the immigration working group of the Intergovernmental Consultations on Migration, Asylum and Refugees on Wednesday, November 17, 2021.


Greetings, my name is Esther Brimmer, and I serve as the executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, the world’s leading organization committed to international education and exchange. Together with the more than 10,000 members and international educators that we serve worldwide, we work to advance policies and practices that build global citizens with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today's interconnected world.

It will be my pleasure today to offer you a perspective on just how the world benefits from international education and exchange, how the COVID pandemic has both negatively impacted our field and been the source of real innovation, and to discuss how countries, including the United States, can advance global learning and exchange by adopting a coordinated, proactive national strategy for international education. 

Let me begin by establishing why we do the work we do. At NAFSA, we share with our practitioners at colleges and universities around the world, a deep and abiding core belief in the power of a peaceful, equitable, and globally connected world. 

It drives all that we do. It is what compels us to advocate so strongly for the presence of international students and scholars in U.S. classrooms, and communities, and to increase and diversify the number of U.S. students that participate in study abroad experiences. 

It provides the inspiration for our NAFSA RISE Scholarships which seek to bring underrepresented communities into the profession, and our steady pursuit of U.S. federal legislation that would make both the study abroad destinations, and the demographics of the students who participate, more diverse. 

The value of having a globally engaged and diverse campus, and a culturally competent student body, has real practical ramifications for our civil society, economy and global competitiveness, too. Our research shows, for example, that employers and job seekers alike recognize that skills developed during study abroad are essential for management and leadership positions.

And one need look no further than the extraordinary research and development success of the highly effective COVID vaccines to see how very valuable it is to create pathways for the world’s global talent to collaborate. Some of the leaders at the forefront of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines began their careers as international students in the U.S. and Europe, and the full roster of scientists involved includes countries all over the globe, illustrating just how powerful it is to draw from the world’s best and brightest. 

Obviously, no discussion of global student mobility can take place without fully appreciating the impact that the COVID pandemic has had on our field and the lessons that it has taught us in resilience, adaptation, and innovation. 

The initial phase of the coronavirus public health crisis and the declaration of a global pandemic in March 2020 halted the flow of students across borders, and brought education abroad programs to a standstill.

The U.S. response to the pandemic in March 2020 significantly impacted international student enrollment, as U.S. universities and colleges quickly shifted to online education and had most of their students disperse from on-campus housing for the rest of the academic year. 

Some students would return home, including international students returning to their home country. 

Initially, the U.S. put in place COVID-related travel restrictions affecting individuals coming from China, but the list of countries with these restrictions eventually grew to a total of 33.

The pandemic also significantly impacted almost all in-person U.S. study abroad programming. In September 2020, NAFSA conducted a survey of senior leadership. We found that:

  • Nearly 87% of respondents with study abroad programs did not send any U.S. students abroad for Fall 2020, resulting in an estimated $700 million in financial losses across U.S. higher education.
  • About 38% responded that staff positions had or would be impacted by cancelled study abroad programs.

During the next phase of the pandemic – the 2020-2021 academic year (US/North America)– higher education continued to experience significant restrictions on mobility, severely impacting enrollments and associated economic benefits. In the United States, data released two days ago show dramatic declines in the number and economic contributions of international students during this time period.

  • According to this year’s Open Doors report, an annual report published by the Institute of International Education in partnership with the U.S. State Department, 914,095 international students studied in the United States during the 2020-2021 academic year. This is down 15% from the prior academic year, largely to due to the pandemic. 
  • NAFSA’s latest annual analysis of the economic contributions of international students and their families to the U.S. economy shows that international students studying in the U.S. during this same time period contributed $28.4 billion to the U.S. economy. This is down 26.6% from the prior year. 

More broadly, the move to online virtual instruction, and the physical isolation that resulted, created significant and unanticipated financial, social, logistical, academic, and mental health-related consequences for institutions and their students. 

  • The dramatic shift to a virtual learning environment presented real challenges to institutions’ engagement with students, and despite innovative support services and programming, high levels of mental health distress among international students were reported.
  • On the academic side, varying time zones and asynchronous learning have not been conducive to class discussions, requiring students to be more proactive.

But through this time period, the COVID pandemic also served as a true mother of invention, and provided fertile ground for sudden and bold innovation.

  • The pandemic changed the recruitment landscape, prompting a greater reliance on the use of technology to conduct recruitment activities from virtual fairs to virtual campus tours. 
  • The new realities created opportunities in international recruitment: Technology enabled institutions to cast a wider net and reach students in countries where they did not have a presence. It allowed institutions to reach a greater diversity of regions and countries than they had previously. 
  • The pandemic also forced institutions to engage in virtual learning platforms in novel and groundbreaking ways, expanding their collaboration with stakeholders focused on online learning. 
  • International alumni also played a vital role, helping many institutions by serving as a local resource for students when travel was not allowed. 

The pandemic also sparked greater collaboration among key stakeholders on campuses who focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). 

  • Reduced resources brought the DEI and IE communities together to explore the intersections of their work and the communities they serve.
  • New program models offer increased access for students from diverse backgrounds who may not otherwise engage in an international experience during their academic career. 

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, education abroad professionals confronted a new reality. With campuses largely closed for months and study abroad opportunities scarce, education abroad offices had to quickly adopt virtual approaches for everything from recruitment and orientation to advising and internships. 

The rapid and unprecedented introduction of virtual options in study abroad programs may have started from necessity, but a new hybrid environment of in-person and virtual components is poised to last. 

However, we are seeing encouraging signs on the international student enrollment front and the resumption of study abroad programs, largely attributable to the advent of highly effective COVID vaccines, and a change in leadership in the United States. This 2021-2022 academic year marked the beginning of a new phase in the pandemic.

Results of a snapshot survey conducted by the Institute of International Education released two days ago indicate that international student enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities this autumn, 2021, is recovering from last autumn’s significant decline. 

According to the results:

  • U.S. higher ed institutions report a 68 percent increase in the number of new international students enrolling (up significantly from the 46 percent decline reported for fall 2020).
  • The overall number of international students enrolling increased by 4 percent. This is up from the 15 percent decrease reported in fall 2020.
  • At least 65 percent of the reported international students are on campus in the U.S. (up from 47 percent last fall).

Another encouraging sign is the removal of the COVID-related travel restrictions affecting 33 countries on November 8th,  replacing it with a full vaccine requirement that applies to all international travelers. This is welcome news. 

The new policy includes an exception to the full vaccine requirement for international travelers from countries where vaccine availability is very limited, allowing them to receive the vaccine in the U.S. after arrival.

NAFSA joined with other U.S. higher education organizations in advocating for allowing the entry for international students and scholars traveling from countries with limited vaccine availability and to receive the vaccine after arrival. Having this new policy in place now is very helpful as colleges and universities plan for the spring academic term. 

As for study abroad, we hope to see an increase as travel continues to open up and students who have been postponing their plans are finally able to study abroad.  Some U.S. institutions have been sending students abroad to carefully vetted locations since the spring of this year, 2021 – most of those will continue to do so for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

Other institutions were making plans to resume study abroad and student travel, but were disrupted by the resurgence of COVID-19 and new variants. In August this year, the European Union recommended that countries again restrict travel for unvaccinated Americans. While these countries are some of the more popular study abroad destinations, it is unlikely to have a negative effect  because American students have access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Now we see that more institutions are eager to return to travel during the 2021-2022 academic year. 

What can nations do to fully emerge from the COVID winter, and cultivate these inspiring examples of new growth and positive trends? 

Establishing whole-of-government approaches to the development and implementation of a comprehensive national strategy for international education provides countries with great advantage when seeking to increase international recruitment. Let me unpack exactly what I mean by that. 

First of all, the creation of a national strategy and associated policies to guide the recruitment and retention of international students relies on a country’s commitment to an international recruitment goal or target. 

In a related fashion, many tactics can be employed, and policies changed to aid a country in meeting established recruitment goals, but this will be best achieved if the nation employs a whole-of-government approach in their efforts. Here I mean that while control over international education policy may fall under the purview of various co-equal ministries or federal agencies (as is the case in the United States), there must be a mechanism in place to allow for coordination across sometimes competing interests and to ensure leaders remain aligned in seeking to reach the nation’s stated international recruitment goals.

As I earlier suggested, national strategies have already been employed by several countries around the world to great positive effect prior to the COVID pandemic. Allow me to go into some detail here because I think it is important to making the case:

Let’s start with Canada.

  • In 2014, Canada announced an international education strategy seeking to attract 450,000 international students by 2022. It adopted friendly international student policies, including expedited visa processing for certain qualifying students. Canada also offers post-study work visas that can last up to three years and has made it easier for international students to immigrate.
  • As a result, Canada’s international student enrollment increased by more than 80 percent in the five years prior to the pandemic, making the country one of the world’s fastest-growing study destinations during that period. In 2019, it hosted 642,000 international students, surpassing the initial target.  
  • However, like other nations, the pandemic has been impactful for Canada; recent data show the number of international students with study permits for Canada declined by 17% in 2020. In response, the Canadian government moved to allow access to post-study work for students completing online study during the pandemic, to help stem further declines. 

Turning to the United Kingdom, in March 2019, the UK government announced an international education strategy, with the goal of hosting 600,000 international students by the year 2030.

  • In September 2019, the government also moved to reinstate a two-year post-study work visa for graduates starting in the 2020 –21 academic year, recognizing that opportunities for post-study work experience is key to attracting international students.
  • In January 2020, the UK government announced a new, fast-track visa program to attract the world’s top scientists, researchers and mathematicians. As part of its Research and Development roadmap, in July 2020, the UK government announced the establishment of an “Office of Talent” which will work to ensure immigration policies are welcoming to global research talent.
  • In October 2020, the government announced a new immigration pathway for international students and graduates based on the UK’s new points-based immigration system; as of July 1, this year, international students who successfully complete a degree are allowed to stay in the UK for two years, and for three years if a PhD graduate. 
  • These initiatives are having an impact despite the COVID pandemic. In 2020, international enrollment at UK universities increased by 12 percent, and the total number of international students in the country exceeded 500,000 for the first time, well on the way to meeting their target.

Australia also has favorable international student policies, such as permitting students to work for up to 18 months after graduation; with graduates of certain high-need occupations allowed to work longer, up to four years.

  • However, with the onset of the global pandemic in March 2020, Australia closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents; as a result, international student enrollments plummeted, dropping 54% from October 2019 to October 2021. 
  • Australia plans to reopen its borders to international students by December this year. As many competitor countries did not close their borders completely to international students, Australia recognizes it will need to be proactive in attracting back students kept out of the country due to COVID-19.

Finally, let’s consider China. The United States has traditionally viewed China as a “source or sending” country of international students to the United States. However, China has rapidly become a major host country. 

  • As far back as 2008, China set a target of bringing half a million foreign students to its shores by 2020; prior to COVID-19, China was on track to meet this goal, hosting 492,000 students in 2019.
  • In 2014, China quietly surpassed the United Kingdom and the United States as a top destination for international students from Africa—and it continues to draw increasing numbers of students from the continent. 
  • China’s place as a top destination for African international students is the product of a concerted effort. According to data from China's Ministry of Education, as of 2018, the number of African students in China exceeded 80,000. 
  • In January 2017, China announced new regulations allowing international students graduating with a master’s degree or above to immediately apply for work visas within one year of graduation.
  • However, like Australia, China closed its borders in early 2020 due to the pandemic, and they will likely remain closed into early 2022, with limited exceptions, barring thousands of international students from returning to China to continue their studies.

Comparatively, the United States lacks a coordinated U.S. government-led international education strategy. The rationale for implementing one will take up the remainder of my remarks. 

On July 26 this year, the U.S. Departments of State and Education released a Joint Statement of Principles for international education that renews focus on the role of international education in improving U.S. diplomacy, global competitiveness, and higher education, as well as the lives of the American people.

The countries that I described above can turn to their already existing national strategies and policies to attract and retain international students and to even expand their reach in the aftereffects of the pandemic. There is a friendly global competition for talent, and even before the pandemic, the U.S. was losing market share for international students—despite the tireless efforts of colleges and universities. 

What we are therefore urging the Biden Administration to adopt is a national strategy that establishes targets, policies, and funds programs to:

  • increase the number and diversity of international students at U.S. higher education institutions; 
  • increase the number and diversity of American students participating in study abroad programs; and
  • promote efforts to internationalize U.S. campuses. 

In order to prioritize and institute a whole-of-government approach to international education, the United States should establish a White House Coordinating Council on International Education. Because international education policy falls under the jurisdiction of more than one federal agency, this requires a coordinating entity within the White House to ensure collaboration and compromise within and across key federal agencies that results in more welcoming visa and immigration policies for international students and scholars, as well as more robust programs and resources to help grow and diversify U.S. study abroad participation and enhance U.S. campus internationalization. 

The Council should be charged with establishing recruitment goals for international talent. The strategy should set targets for international student enrollment with an emphasis on increasing diversity of source countries and of students’ socioeconomic background. 

Any approach to enhance access to international education must also include a strategy to help grow and diversify U.S. college student participation in study abroad. With less than 10 percent of U.S. college students ultimately graduating with a study abroad experience on their transcript, that means 90 percent of graduates are entering the workforce without the global skills, knowledge, and experiences that would position them for success in the global economy. 

Finally, the nation must internationalize U.S. campuses using innovative means. 

And with that, I will conclude with the hope that you all may bring to your home countries both a renewed appreciation for the vital role international education can play in fostering a more equitable and peaceful world and a better understanding of the tools available to facilitate its growth and impact. 

We at NAFSA stand ready as a resource for the world--offering research, best practices, and policy recommendations--to ensure that international education may evolve and flourish as a means to advance learning and scholarship and cultivate respect among diverse backgrounds and perspectives. 

The COVID pandemic was indeed a serious blow to our field and global academic mobility as a whole, yet it provided a unique stage to showcase the life-saving power of ingenuity and what can be achieved when we work together. 

I believe nations will emerge strengthened in this next phase of the pandemic by establishing a renewed commitment to recruiting international talent bolstered by a whole-of-government approach. 

I look forward to writing the next chapter for international education with global leaders like you.