The pandemic has disrupted higher education worldwide. In the US, where cases are still rapidly increasing across many states, how higher education will look in the autumn is especially unclear. In recent weeks, high profile institutions, such as Princeton and Harvard, have announced that their campuses will not be open to many students. USC has reverted to online teaching for the fall semester due to the increasing coronavirus cases in California.

On Monday, July 6th 2020, it was announced that, for the fall 2020 semester, international students on F-1 and M-1 visas at American universities offering only online courses would not be able to take on a full course load and remain in the US. This announcement means that students whose fall classes have been moved to an online format will not be able to stay in the country.

An announcement on the ICE website of Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) modifications states that students must either leave the US themselves or transfer to a college offering in-person classes or else “they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings”. Students not currently in the US are not able to enter or re-enter.

The announcement further clarifies that “schools should update their information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) within 10 days of the change if they begin the fall semester with in-person classes but are later required to switch to only online classes”. If an international student attends a college that starts in-person but has to go online due to a coronavirus outbreak, they must immediately leave the country or face deportation.

For the spring and summer semesters, SEVP had made an exception allowing international students to take more courses online than the 3 hours per week permitted during other times. This meant that students were able to stay in the US if necessary, even if all their courses were online, but the modification nullifies this.

This announcement brings further uncertainty to the approximately 1 million international students who have already faced massive disruption to their education due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is particularly challenging for international students who had previously not returned home due to personal circumstances or public health emergencies in their home countries.

The first half of the semester at the University of Pennsylvania will involve half in-person and half online classes. An international student from the UK, who prefers not to be named, told The Oxford Blue that she has to be on campus for these or her visa will be cancelled. However, due to the travel ban from the UK, she is unable to fly directly to the US and is currently considering quarantining in Dubai for two weeks beforehand.  Since the university plans to have the second half of the fall semester entirely online, she is now legally obliged to leave the US within 10 days of the switch or will face deportation.

Wide-ranging travel bans mean that flying to the US will be extremely complicated and expensive, as it is for this student. It will be impossible for some. These students, currently paying tens of thousands of pounds to attend their dream schools, face an almost impossible choice. They must transfer college amid a pandemic, or give up their dreams of education in the US if they are either unable to access online learning from home as their university’s “hybrid” semester would impose a limit on online contact hours.

Many have argued that this policy is an expansion of the Trump administration’s hostility towards immigrants with the primary targets being illegal immigrants. However, the administration has now, in the eyes of some, widened its target to those who legally come to the US to study and contribute billions of dollars to the country’s economy.

The move could also be seen as part of the Trump administration’s wider goal of reopening the US economy, partly to improve the economic outlook in an election year, even if coronavirus cases in some states are high or increasing. Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department for Homeland Security, said that the directive would “encourage schools to reopen” in an interview to CNN.

“We all feel as if we’re being used as pawns by the American government,” says a Stanford student who prefers not to be named. 12% of Stanford’s student body are international students. Thus the university has been placed in a situation where it cannot protect the safety of its entire student body by putting classes online without preventing its international students from legally living in the US.

Although Stanford plans to accommodate some students for the fall quarter despite instruction being primarily online, international students will not be able to stay on campus if they do not physically attend classes. For the quarters where students will not be on campus since Stanford has adopted a “hybrid” model, students are not permitted to work from home outside the US. However, due to ICE regulations, they cannot remain in the US.

According to this student, who is considering moving to a UK university to avoid this situation, half of her international student friends have already decided to take a gap year. These students will, therefore, lose their US visas and will have to reapply when they return to Stanford in 2021. She feels as though they have been left with little choice.

An incoming sophomore at UCLA described the regulations as “clownery”. She told The Blue that the regulations were only reasonable for universities offering entirely in-person instruction, but that they “came out of nowhere”. ICE failed to consider that students at “hybrid” universities likely won’t be able to attend in-person classes in sufficient quantities due to necessary social distancing requirements. She also pointed out the extra challenges the policy creates for students living in off-campus accommodation. They will have to shoulder the additional financial burden of ending their leases early if their universities go online. 

Criticism from students and faculty members at top US universities has been compounded by legal action from some quarters. “The effect—and perhaps even the goal—is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible,” says a lawsuit brought by Harvard and MIT, both of which plan to be primarily online. They seek a temporary restraining order which would prohibit the directive’s enforcement, claiming that it would “undermine the education, safety, and future prospects of their international students and their campus community”. The University of California, which has several campuses including UCLA, is also allegedly poised to sue.

Some universities, including Columbia, NYU, and Berkeley, have responded by creating an “in-person global course” offering in-person instruction through ‘Pop-Up Global Centres’ to enable their international students to remain in the US. International students at other institutions are urging their friends to transfer out of in-person courses so they can take their places to secure their future, demonstrating how disruption extends across the whole student body.

All the students who spoke to The Blue are profoundly frustrated and are worried about their futures. Several petitions are circulating requesting a change to the ICE directives so that they can finish their degrees.