200423 Harvard
A general view of the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Image Credit: AFP

Even as the number of coronavirus cases in the US surge beyond three million and the death toll crosses 135,000, a new battle line has been drawn between the administration of President Donald Trump and some of the country’s most prestigious universities.

The source of the rancour is a US government order revoking visas for foreign students whose entire courses have moved online because of the coronavirus.

Higher education is one of the most enduring strengths of American soft power and must be kept out of the purview of re-election politics or haphazard policies


After launching the lawsuit in a Massachusetts district court, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow vowed to pursue the case vigorously so that international students across the US could continue their studies without the threat of deportation. The growing list of supporters for the lawsuit includes MIT and the state of California.

With the unprecedented disruption caused by the pandemic in the past few months, deportation and the discontinuation of studies should be the last thing weighing on the minds of frightened international students in the US — most of whom have studied very hard and made great personal sacrifices to be able to get through to these Ivy League institutions.

Recent editorials

Hundreds of thousands impacted

Last year, at least 373,000 students entered the US on the specific type of academic visas affected by the current government ruling. In all, the US had more than one million international students enrolled in various programmes in 2018-19, of whom around 47% were Chinese and 27% Indians.

Among them are also thousands of students from the UAE, other Gulf states and the Arab world. For many of them, the letter of admission is not just a recognition of their merit and competence but also the passport to a life of extraordinary opportunities.

A glance at the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies reveals their diverse backgrounds with mostly a common theme: a US university degree. International students enrich the US exchequer as well — according to the Department of Commerce, they contributed $45 billion to the US economy in 2018.

Higher education is therefore one of the most enduring strengths of American soft power and must be kept out of the purview of re-election politics or haphazard policies.

It is absolutely vital to resume in-person classes across US universities at the earliest — but this must be done keeping the ground reality in mind, and without compromising the health and security of students and professors amid the pandemic.

Wherever the situation permits, universities should safely switch to classrooms in the autumn term. But where not, they must be allowed to continue offering online learning without jeopardising the studies and the future of hundreds of thousands of international students.