Is America’s lead in global talent race sustainable?

Published 20/09/2022

“America’s higher education system is the envy of the world, dominating global rankings,” asserted Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in the China Studies Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “But is the lead sustainable?” he asked. “With rising concerns over crime, racism, and a stalled immigration system, will US universities struggle to attract global talent?”

In a podcast recently released by the Brookings Institution and CSIS, Blanchette and co-host Ryan Hass interviewed Amy Gadsden, University of Pennsylvania’s associate vice provost for global initiatives, posing questions about the future of the talent flow between the two countries.

Gadsden outlined the historical background of people-to-people exchange between the two nations and considered how US higher education can maintain its edge in attracting global talent post-pandemic amid rising tensions between the US and China.

Gadsden stated she considers people-to-people exchange like “oxygen” that breathes life into Sino-American relations. As such, she believes the US should be “doing more to embrace [Chinese] students with open arms”.

“We should be thinking about how to ease their transition into the US, ensure that they have a good experience on campus and ease their transition into professional opportunities after that,” she proffered.

Blanchette argued that perhaps the US is not sufficiently preparing students for the global workforce they will enter post-graduation, asking the AVP what institutions might do better.

“There should be paths to legal permanent residency for every PhD graduate in the US,” Gadsden answered. She referenced the recent OPT opportunities that allow STEM graduates to remain in the US for up to three years post-graduation, as opposed to the standard one year for those not in STEM fields.

Gadsden identified the inequity, suggesting “it forces many international students into STEM majors when they might want to be political science majors or a creative writing major, but they want to stay in the US and work.”

“It forces many international students into STEM majors”

She also referenced the fast-track visa system that numerous countries have employed, advocating for a similar system in the US to offer students the benefit of planning properly for their upcoming studies.

Addressing the current employment crisis in China, Gadsden said, “There’s a big push around foreign study abroad in an attempt to act as a release valve around educated youth unemployment.”

As such, many students are being encouraged to study abroad, which she avowed is “very promising from an international student mobility factor”.

Yet student mobility is not the only element weighing into the talent acquisition equation. Gadsden noted that in the conversation about destinations for global talent, international scholars must also be given proper consideration.

Whether recruiting international students or scholars, however, she claimed a significant challenge in the US “is that we take it for granted”.

“We just assume that the best and the brightest will continue to come here, no matter what,” she stated.

Despite the over 350,000 Chinese students choosing to study in America each year, she cited the many others who are increasingly selecting the UK, Canada, and Australia, as a result of the “uncertainties” related to studying in the US.

“They are worried about the visas, [and] the challenges of coming in and out [of the country]. And…the anti-Asian sentiment and the perceptions of violence in America just don’t help us sell higher education abroad.”

When asked further about student perceptions as they relate to the geopolitical arena, Gadsden stated her belief that most international students do not make a personal connection between their own international studies and diplomatic relations between the US and China.

“But when we look at people-to-people exchange historically and in the contemporary period,” she said, “we can see that governments have goals around student exchange and people-to-people contact, and, whether they know it or not, they’re wrapped up in that.”

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