National

'Horrifying' new U.S. rules on online college courses leave Japanese students in limbo

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff writer

In a move that will affect Japanese studying in the U.S., the government there said Monday that international students attending American universities will have to depart the country or transition to another college if their classes are moved entirely online for the fall semester amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the new guidelines issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the government will stop issuing visas for students planning to pursue online-only courses starting in September, while those already in the U.S. will need to transfer to institutions that still conduct in-person classes or leave the country altogether.

Subject to the decision are holders of the F-1 and M-1 visas, which are used by academic and vocational students, respectively. Of about 400,000 F-1 visas issued in fiscal 2019, about 15,000 were given to Japanese students, according to U.S. State Department statistics.

Meanwhile, students adopting a hybrid model — a mixture of online and in-person classes — will need to prove that their programs are “not entirely online” and that they are taking “the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program” to be exempt, the guidelines said.

In a regular news conference Tuesday afternoon, the top Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga did not respond in detail to the measure, only saying the government is monitoring its effects on Japanese students “with high concern” and will work with agencies to provide necessary information.

The latest announcement came as a surprise to many in Japan.

Yuriko Sato, an associate professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology who is well versed in exchange students program policies, said she was “shocked” by the Trump administration’s announcement.

The impact of the guidelines will be “tremendous,” she pointed out, given the growing trend among U.S. universities toward providing remote classes only. A survey released by the Institute of International Education (IIE) in May showed 76 percent of respondent institutions in the U.S. were planning to switch their mode of instruction to virtual only.

“Many exchange students studying in the U.S., including Japanese, have already rented apartments and settled there,” Sato said. “To then be told they won’t be granted visas because their schools only provide online classes must be something they’re having a hard time coming to terms with.”

The associate professor also said the decision will likely leave U.S. universities in a difficult position.

According to the IIE, international students were credited with contributing about $44.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, while creating and supporting 458,290 jobs in 2018 and 2019. Mammoth tuition fees paid by them are also vital to the survival of many universities, Sato said.

That lucrativeness associated with international students, Sato said, suggests many universities may seek to retain them by reopening in-person classes. But doing so could risk exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus.

The American Council on Education (ACE), which represents university presidents, meanwhile, said the guidelines are “horrifying,” blasting the “iron-clad federal rules” that it said will diminish the kind of flexibility that universities need to reopen safely.

“This guidance raises more questions than it answers and unfortunately does more harm than good,” the group said in a statement.

“ICE should allow any international student with a valid visa to continue their education regardless of whether a student is receiving his or her education online, in person, or through a combination of both, whether in the United States or in their home country, during this unprecedented global health crisis,” it said.

The association also said the latest decision belies the Trump administration’s indication in the past that “it understands the value to the United States of being the destination of choice for the world’s most talented students and scholars.”

“That is why this guidance is both disappointing and counter-productive.”

Ryosuke Takashima, a 23-year-old engineering student studying at Harvard University, said he is closely following his university’s plans to conduct classes for the fall semester in response to the newly unveiled immigration guidelines. Takashima returned to Japan in March when Harvard abruptly told students to evacuate dormitory rooms amid the pandemic.

“It’s possible I’ll never be able to go back to the U.S., but I trust my university to respond swiftly to give us instructions about what to do and make accommodations for those affected,” he said.

Information from Kyodo added

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