US universities must adapt quickly to beat brain drain

Cutting the ability to have foreign students in American universities is damaging to US society and its future

University of California, Los Angeles. Large group of students walking about at the University campus. Image used for illustrative purpose.

University of California, Los Angeles. Large group of students walking about at the University campus. Image used for illustrative purpose.

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The Trump administration’s cutting off of F-1 and M-1 visas for international students is another example of the impact the coronavirus disease’s (COVID-19) acceleration of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is having on politics in the US. Thanks to the virus, the 4IR is rapidly making American politics even more divisive. Combined with deep rifts in US society over the issue of racism, American university education is now front and center. Brain drain will be the ultimate result if the country continues in this direction.

Brain drain is defined as “human capital flight” and it happens when a situation develops whereby many or all of the intelligent, skilled or capable resources within a given field or geographic region leave the area because of various factors, including a lack of high-paying jobs. Within the context of the ongoing trauma in US education and the status of international students, brain drain refers not only to education but also to the dumbing down of the American landscape and its discourse by such policies.

To be sure, the pathogen continues to wreak havoc. Universities that allowed students to return or hold fraternity or sorority parties are seeing large COVID-19 outbreaks. No doubt, American universities will be closed until at least 2021. With the virus forcing changes in the way educational professionals teach, video conferences and other such methods are replacing classrooms. Universities are being forced to implement social distancing measures or go completely online. For international students, university life is no longer a concept but part of history. But American universities are beacons to millions of youths around the world. Many college-age youths have parents who were educated in the US, bringing the country’s values and the civics and civility of higher learning back to their home countries.

The US government argued that students enrolled in a school “operating entirely online” must either leave the country or transfer to a school that is offering in-person classes. This change in policy decimates the ability for foreign students to study in the US and develop the necessary critical thinking skills that American higher education can deliver. By implementing such a policy, the government will cause a brain drain that will affect America’s ingenuity and social responsibility. International students contribute substantially both to the US and their home countries in a cross-cultural manner that is mutually beneficial in terms of linguistics and exposure to other belief systems. There is no more valuable experience than understanding or being exposed to another society.

Many universities and states have responded to the policy by suing the government in a bid to stop it. But American educational institutions need to do much more. This episode exposes key issues. US universities need to dip deeply into their endowments and conduct curriculum reviews for immediate updating to an online environment. Tuition fees must be lowered considerably because of the shift to virtual lessons. New methods in accounting are necessary to calculate how much an American education should really cost. Universities may want to consider the onset of the 4IR to sell property and land to house, educate or employ those who require new lives and appropriate training. The sharing of knowledge and its transfer becomes paramount in this environment. The combination of Donald Trump and COVID-19 is helping to accelerate these policy issues.

Trump’s visa cuts severely impact cross-cultural efforts in higher education, which is important in the 4IR. Bilingualism is a key factor in successful educational programs. Cutting the ability to have foreign students in American universities is damaging to US society and its future. This opportunity to reassess the structure of education should not be missed. The backlash against the Trump administration by state and university officials will severely impact the White House’s ability to enact the visa ban, barring a Trump-type surprise. But Trump can use the fall presidential election as an excuse to limit international students’ entry to the US.

The resulting brain drain is real. Planning for the changes in American education in 2021 needs to occur now. Layoffs are impractical and retraining/rebranding is a must. The impact of cutting off foreign students from American universities during the 4IR will wreck their ability to develop new skills, thinking and, most importantly, agility in the future. Understanding the implications of the 4IR in education is a social responsibility, as critical thinking needs to go into the current period of transformation. Advanced technologies continue to alter human existence and the way students learn, whether they are American or from any other country from around the world.

The Trump administration’s catastrophic handling of COVID-19 and its related issues is subjecting the US to the ultimate brain drain. The sooner this situation is reversed, the better. No student should be left behind.

  • Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. He is a former RAND Corporation Senior Political Scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues. Twitter: @tkarasik
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