Is Trump Scaring Away International Students

As new enrolments of international students in the United States falls for the third consecutive year, a question looms large for US universities and colleges. Is Donald Trump to blame for this decline?

New enrolments in the US dropped by 6.6 per cent in 2017-2018, a trend that was first observed in the 2015-2016 academic year. While the US continues to be the destination of choice for foreign students, this year close to half of all institutions reported a drop in numbers of foreign students, with the strongest decline (4 per cent) seen in the Midwest, followed by the West and the South.

The drop is being attributed to several factors. The Autumn 2018 Report of the International Student Enrolment Hot Topics published by the Institute of International Education (IIE) identifies four contributing factors: difficulties obtaining visas, the US social and political climate, increasing global competition for talent, and the increasing cost of higher education. The Trump administration has had a direct impact on the first two while significantly contributing to the third.

Reports of racist language and graffiti, activities of white nationalist student groups, a spike in advocacy of alt-right movements on campus, and distribution of provocative fliers have forced colleges to work harder at allaying fears among prospective students. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 77-per-cent increase in activities of white supremacist groups targeting college campuses during the 2017-2018 academic year, with the distributed materials often being inspired by Trump-related themes of the “Caravan” of migrants and “Making America American”.

With 92 per cent of responding institutions cited in the IIE report stating that “the current social and political climate impacted their campus either positively or negatively over the past year”, universities will find it challenging to convince students to opt for the US amid increasing global competition for talent.

Other measures resulting from Trump policies have also increased apprehension among prospective students. Though the rhetoric is focused on border and immigration controls, recent plans by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to redefine the term “unlawful presence” for people holding student visas and in exchange programmes have caused concern among potential applicants.

Two-thirds of international students in the US come from China and India, and incidents of visa restrictions, particularly for Chinese students, are beginning to spoil the pitch for universities. With the US security establishment voicing concerns about academic institutions being infiltrated, there are reports that key aides of President Trump have even suggested a blanket ban on all student visas from China. If the single largest source of incoming international students is targeted, US universities will find it more difficult to attract Chinese students. Moreover, universities in China are climbing up the global rankings, thereby taking the relative sheen off their North American and European counterparts.

Equally crucial are reactions both within and outside the US. To dispel notions of racism that may hamper student applications, US college recruitment fairs are emphasising diversity and inclusiveness while at the same time showcasing the achievements of international faculty and students. Colleges are also devoting considerable time to facilitating visa applications and making the process appear less daunting for applicants.

Secondly, countries with robust higher education systems are opening their borders to international students. Australia is already a huge educational destination, while universities in mainland Europe are launching English-language programmes. Scandinavian countries now regularly highlight such programmes while encouraging internships and academic partnerships with BRICS countries.

China itself is an extremely attractive option for students. Aided by the spread of Chinese language classes and substantive scholarships, international students from both Asia and Africa are looking at China as an educational destination. It is now estimated that of the 26 million college students in China, half a million are international students.

For the United States this could be bad news, since for almost 150 years its universities have been magnets for global talent. The US “brand” has long enticed the best international brains, thus contributing to US universities’ research capabilities and the country’s human capital. Moreover, international students are a major earner, contributing $42.4 billion (Bt1.38 trillion) to the US economy in 2017.

In 1862, the Morrill Act incentivised the creation of universities and contributed to the emergence of the United States as a superpower in the 20th century. In 2018, can the US maintain its pre-eminent position? Or will Trump’s policies upend the status quo and create space and opportunities for others to challenge American supremacy in education?

Published in The Nation

When Disasters strike, Satellites come calling

Huddled in an inconspicuous corner, eyes transfixed on their computer monitors, a group of young experts wait for satellite images to arrive. A disaster has just struck Indonesia, and the twin impact of the earthquake and the tsunami it triggered could be devastating. The initial ping about an impending disaster has proved true, and the International Disaster Charter has just been activated.

Five-thousand kilometers away from the disaster zone centered on Palu in Indonesia, the team of disaster experts has assembled at the Geoinformatics Center (GIC) of the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Thailand. Having been nominated as the project manager under the Global Disaster Charter, they will be the single access point for satellite information that will start flowing from all over the world.

As images start arriving, the trickle of satellite data turns into a virtual flood as numerous satellites reorient themselves towards the disaster area and start beaming the latest images. As a member of the disaster team, Syams Nashrrullah has worked on disasters before. This is the third disaster charter activation in 2018, which included the floods in Japan, the earthquake in Lombok, and now the Sulawesi disaster.

Asked to compare the Lombok and the Sulawesi disasters, Syams says: “The scale was totally different. Sulawesi was not only a bigger disaster, but it combined both an earthquake and a tsunami.” Narrating the sequence of events, Syams reveals that the first major public release of satellite information was the image received from the Pleiades satellite. Working with the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN) and the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) in Indonesia, they processed and released the image, which proved a boon for aid and humanitarian relief workers and was quickly reproduced in dozens of news outlets and websites.

The satellite data generated by AIT and partner organizations was used by local governments and armed forces to conduct emergency rescue and relief operations. It also helped arrive at an initial estimate that close to 5,000 buildings and structures had suffered major damage, particularly in Palu (the estimate has now passed 8,000).

The data contained information up to a resolution of 50 centimeters and was the first publicly accessible set of images showing the extent of the damage. A comparison of the same area prior to and following the disaster was a telling example of how remote sensing now enables swifter and more efficient post-disaster management efforts. Shortly afterwards came another satellite image, and this provided even more detailed information. This Digital Globe image showed greater details and covered an even larger area. Nearly 500 such images arrived, and after initial screening, close to one-fifth were processed by AIT’s GIC courtesy of free satellite data supplied by numerous providers from all over the world.

This was the first step. A few days later, it was time for some ground-truthing. Among those stationed in the field to collect data and photographs was Dr. Firman Hadi, a research specialist at GIC. After waiting two days at the Mutiara airport, Firman joined a team of humanitarian aid workers for a 10-hour journey to Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi Province. What greeted him was ruin, devastation, and the phenomenon of liquefaction at four locations — Petobo, Balaroa, Jono Oge, and Sibalaya. He spent six days taking photographs, geotagging images with locational data, adding the required geographical information to the photographs, and coordinating with local agencies to help assess damage to buildings.

A week later, a full-fledged web-based portal had been established. Based on a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) platform, the portal provides satellite data and analytics, which along with field data permit an assessment of damage to buildings and infrastructure. The new portal builds on the nearly 500 satellite images that were analyzed following the disaster, including the pre- and post-disaster images obtained by AIT from leading providers of satellite images worldwide to conduct an assessment of the damage caused. “The portal goes beyond the initial remote sensing assessment, since we have access to considerable field data,” says Dr. Manzul Hazarika, Director of GIC.

“Our new web-based GIS platform puts the number of damaged buildings at 8,128,” says Dr. Hazarika. It has village-level details of the damage, with Palu Barat (2,933 buildings) and Palu Selatan (2,258 buildings) accounting for most of the damage. Similarly, the team helped map losses in health facilities, educational buildings, government offices, and roads.

Still, there is a long way to go. “A damaged airport, impassable roads, and damaged power lines have hampered efforts to assist remote regions,” adds Dr. Hazarika. But satellite images help identify the roads that are damaged and suggest alternative routes that enable faster access.

The combined efforts of numerous research organizations, satellite agencies, universities, and research institutes provide a stellar example of how satellite images and remote sensing coupled with Geographical Information Systems have metamorphosed the entire gamut of disaster relief.

Published in ReliefWeb at this link: 

The Return of the Newspaper