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Slow Boat from China Just Got Slower

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Brent D. Johnson

Between 2001 and 2002, university administrators and department heads began noticing a precipitous decline in the number of Chinese students in academic programs. In response to this discovery, the American Physical Society conducted a survey of 79 academic institutions concerning their new enrollees. It was reported that, of the 291 Chinese students who were accepted, 100, or 34 percent, were unable to attend because they were denied visas.

Are Chinese students getting caught in a post-Sept. 11 dragnet, or is this the result of the same mind-set that gave us the Wen Ho Lee scandal?

Bill Stwalley of the University of Connecticut physics program said that the university would have had an increase in enrollment for the year if its Chinese students had been allowed into the country. The school admitted nine Chinese students last year, but only three were given visas. However, one of the six students denied a visa has since been granted one for the next semester.

Irving Lerch, director of international affairs for the American Physical Society, said that the current situation has created an enormous viscosity in the system. "There is a whole range of science visitors, not just students, who have fallen under scrutiny, which includes people from a list of 26 countries."

The referral of applications from these earmarked countries for an interagency review by the consulate often delays a decision from two to five months or even more. This prevents students and scholars from arriving on time to attend classes and meetings.

Part of the problem, he suggests, is the 214(b) Objection, which is made by the consular official. Under 214(b), applicants must make a compelling case that they will return to their country of origin once they have completed their studies. The requirement is an impediment to Chinese, East Central European and Russian students and scholars. Traditionally, more than 80 percent of Chinese students remain in the US, but current data indicates that this retention rate is falling as employment opportunities for scholars open up in mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

At the US Department of State's consular affairs section, Stuart Patt said that regulations that require extensive background checks are being enforced and that these procedures are not exclusive to China. The agency hasn't denied entry to more people, he said. Rather, the procedures are simply taking longer than expected.

The bigger question is, if the US can't produce the physicists it needs, where will they come from? Certainly Chinese and Indian intellectual laborers have been doing much of the heavy lifting on the information superhighway, much as Chinese immigrants did more than 100 years ago on the transcontinental railroad.

"We are going to be in some trouble if we can't pick up international students," said Paul Westhaus of the photonics PhD program at Oklahoma State University. The program has two students from Romania, two from India and three from China, with another four on the way. He said that most of them had trouble getting a visa.

"Certainly, better students in physics and photonics are the Chinese students," he said. "I hope we haven't shot ourselves in the foot with regard to international students."

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2003
academic institutionsAmerican Physical SocietyBusinessChinese studentsdenied visaslight speed

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