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Foreign student population on decline due to tighter visa regulations

November 23, 2004
By: Ikboljon Soliev
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Higher education officials say there has been a decline in foreign-student enrollment in Missouri schools because of tighter visa regulations.

"The schools, nationwide, seem to be showing the trend of a 20-30 percent decrease in their international population," said David Currey, the Assistant Director of the International Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Since 9/11, the federal government has sought assistance from educational institutions in tracking down illegal foreigners.

To assist those efforts, Currey referred to a new foreign-student online tracking system, known as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

"After 9/11 the government immediately made available about $37 million to implement the technology necessary to bring the program online," Currey said.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security web site, SEVIS is a computer-based system that "tracks information about individual's school admission, visa issuance, entry into the United States, registration for classes, change of address, program of study" and other specific data about foreign students while their stay in the country.

Although the program was designed prior to 9/11, the U.S. government was slow to implement it.

"The government didn't really move fast enough to implement the system until after 9/11," Currey said.

The implementation of the system and long visa issuance procedures have impacted the number of foreign student enrollment across the country. However, the case for MU was different, Currey said.

"Our numbers at the University of Missouri-Columbia are actually just slightly on the increase," Currey said, "most of that increase is due to the graduate students from China."

Nevertheless, the implementation of the Internet-based computer tracking system arouses some anxiety and concern among foreign students, especially, those from Middle East or countries in the area, Currey said.

"Over the past year we have had a 16 percent decline in the foreign student enrollment for the undergraduate programs," Currey said, underscoring the fact that more Middle Eastern students have chosen Canada to pursue their degrees.

Muhammad Alsowaidi, an undergraduate student of finance and statistics from Qatar, who is going to be graduating from MU this December, said that a number of his friends were denied a U.S. visa and they were not able to come to the country to do their studies.

"The procedures with regard to a new computer system are going to affect the number of students coming to the U.S.," Alsowaidi said. "And the students themselves are not going to feel comfortable to be under someone's watch."

Yet the new system is not the case for concern for some MU students.

"I think, it is okay that there is such system in place," said Neha Phatarpekar, the undergraduate student of computer science from India. "The government should know more about foreign students coming to the U.S."

Some students said they worry about civil liberty and individual privacy issues once such system is introduced, but others said they understand the reasons behind such measures.

"We students should understand this," said Inna Akhtyrskaya, an undergraduate student of journalism from Ukraine, "but, I think, the U.S. shouldn't associate every person from Middle East as potential terrorist."

Akhtyrskaya said that "everybody should have the same liberties here, for the U.S. is considered to be a free country".

Gayatri Balen, who is pursuing her PhD in chemistry, arrived in the U.S. from India last August. She said she did not have any problems with acquiring a U.S visa at home or any problems with the new computer system being set up at MU.

"The system is not a bad thing at all," Balen said, "for it is part of the governmental effort to ensure the safety."

Balen said she doubted that SEVIS would affect the number of incoming foreign students at MU.