Free expression and academic freedom must guide new federal focus on international higher education

July 28, 2021

Earlier this week, the United States Departments of Education and State released a “Joint Statement of Principles in Support of International Education,” signaling “a renewed focus on international education” from federal agencies. FIRE is pleased to see this issue — relevant to American campuses as well as those abroad amid a historic decline in free speech rights worldwide — attract greater attention. 

Citing increasing competitiveness in the international higher education industry and the United States’ refusal to be “absent from the world stage,” the joint statement promises that federal agencies will commit to a plan of action, including:

  • Participate in a coordinated national approach to international education, including study in the United States by international students, researchers, and scholars; study abroad for Americans; international research collaboration; and the internationalization of U.S. campuses and classrooms.
  • Welcome international students, researchers, scholars, and educators to the United States in a safe and secure manner and encourage a diversity of participants, disciplines, and types of authorized schools and higher education institutions where they can choose to study, teach, or contribute to research.
  • Promote expanded access to international education, including through the use of technology where in-person experiences are not feasible, to connect U.S. students, researchers, scholars, and educators with their peers abroad.
  • Implement policies, procedures, and protocols so as to facilitate international education and authorized practical experiences while promoting program integrity and protecting national security. Clearly communicate policy guidance and implement fair, efficient and transparent support processes while maintaining national security and upholding the law.
  • Foster increased cooperation among the federal government, the private sector, and educational institutions so as to maintain the integrity of federally-funded and protected intellectual property and research endeavors from undue foreign influence and unlawful acquisition. 

At the 2021 Education USA Forum on Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona spoke about the importance of international education in announcing the joint statement. Cardona explained, “Regardless of where you live or where you work, whatever field you work in, what happens continents away can affect communities in the US and what happens here can have an impact in other nations. That’s why international education is vital.” 

This is a point FIRE has made often in recent years. The interconnectivity of international higher education means that threats to free speech that in previous years would have likely been contained within one country’s borders now affect communities all around the world — whether they’re international students, satellite campuses, or exchange programs — and have a broad impact on academic freedom. Because of the nature of global education, a law in Hong Kong, for example, can change how classrooms in the U.S., United Kingdom, or Australia operate. 

FIRE encourages the Departments of Education and State to consider how they can ensure freedom of expression is at the heart of their new policy efforts.

Despite all the value gained through international education, we cannot ignore the unique challenges it poses to American higher education both domestically and abroad. 

For that reason, FIRE encourages the Departments of Education and State to consider how they can ensure freedom of expression is at the heart of their new policy efforts, especially the rights of international students in the United States and Americans studying abroad, academic freedom in cross-border remote learning, and satellite campus or dual degree programs. 

As always, FIRE stands ready to help and is eager to engage in conversations about how the United States can best preserve vital freedoms in the ever-changing environment of global higher education. We look forward to learning more about the policy rollout.