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Universities in US Hit by Tighter Visa Demands

By Christopher Grimes in New York

Published: April 29 2004 5:00 | Last Updated: April 29 2004 5:00

US universities, alarmed by a dramatic decline in overseas applications, are lobbying Washington for changes in student visa requirements.

At a meeting last week with Tom Ridge, US homeland security secretary, four university presidents put forward proposals to streamline the process which, some say, has become bureaucratic and unwelcoming.

The recommendations included one that foreign students and scientists receive a security clearance for the duration of their studies. At present, they must renew the form each year.

The representations follow growing concern that higher education is losing out to foreign competitors. The danger, some argue, is that the US is forfeiting its successful tradition of educating and befriending the world's brightest students and probable future leaders. Foreign applications to US graduate schools have fallen 32 per cent drop this year. Applications to study in Britain, Canada and Australia have risen over the same period.

Stricter US visa requirements, including thorough security checks for some science students and a more rigid interviewing process, were introduced after the terrorist attacks in 2001. "There's a climate of zero tolerance that didn't used to be there," said Peter Briggs, director of Michigan State University's office for international students and scholars.

Some students and faculty members have complained that the new requirements have hampered their ability to lecture or conduct research outside the US. Lawrence Summers, Harvard University president, has cited the case of an advanced molecular biology student who was delayed by visa problems for five months after attending the funeral of his father in Beijing.

The proposals included allowing students to renew their visas before leaving the US to attend academic conferences or visit family, according to a draft seen by the Financial Times.

The State Department said the visa process had been improved. The decline in foreign applications was due largely to other factors, including last year's Sars outbreak and a general downturn in foreign visitors.