Covid-19 has not only devastated lives and livelihoods across the globe, but also played havoc with the academic calendar. Amid the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic, educational institutions have been engaging with students through online classes — a ‘something is better than nothing’ option that factors in the current unfeasibility of in-person teaching. In a move betraying total disconnect with the situation on the ground, the Donald Trump administration has made it tougher for international students to stay and study in the US. America’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has said that it would not allow holders of student visas to remain in the country if their institution goes fully online for the upcoming fall season. These students face the risk of deportation if they don’t shift to universities and colleges offering a blend of in-person and online coursework.
The US State Department claims that this ‘temporary accommodation’ provides greater flexibility to foreign students, but it’s actually a coercive step that severely limits their choices and forces them to ‘take it or leave it’. The rash decision will particularly hit Indian and Chinese nationals as the two countries together account for about half of the over 11 lakh international students in the US. With India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla promptly expressing concern over the development, the US is likely to find itself under increasing diplomatic pressure to do a rethink sooner than later.
The Trump administration has chosen to play the ‘us versus they’ card months before the presidential elections. The divisive order, which has been challenged in a federal court by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), could prove to be counterproductive in more ways than one. Slamming the door on a large group of foreigners would deprive America of a major money-spinner at a time when its economy is in the doldrums. With no sign of a let-up in the Covid crisis, US universities and colleges are justified in switching to the online mode, albeit as an ad hoc, stop-gap measure. Maintaining the standards of education matters; so does the safety of students and teachers. The challenge lies in striking a balance between the two considerations.