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Academics warn of crisis over visa policies

There is a crisis in research and scholarship because  of tighter controls on visas for foreigners, a broad coalition of American academics warned on Wednesday. The 25 organizations say urgent reform is needed in order for their institutions to host the world's brightest international students and researchers.
/ Source: Financial Times

A broad coalition of American academics warned on Wednesday of a crisis in research and scholarship caused by tighter controls on visas for foreigners.

The 25 organizations, claiming to represent about 95 percent of the U.S. research community, say urgent reform is needed if their institutions are to remain a favored destination for the world's brightest international students and researchers.

In a letter to the White House, FBI and state and homeland security departments, they warn: "The United States cannot hope to maintain its present scientific and economic leadership position on if it becomes isolated from the rest of the world." The signatories include organizations representing 60 universities and more than 20 leading scientific bodies.

The Bush administration has signaled it is prepared to reconsider aspects of visa policies. Colin Powell, secretary of state, said on Wednesday that if the United States lost foreign students and other scholars because of the delays, "we risk losing their goodwill and that is a priceless thing to lose".

The academics urge the adoption of six reforms to cut bureaucracy created by security checks, which they say has created "the misperception that the United States does not welcome international students, scholars and scientists". They say about 14,000 visa applications were flagged for special review in 2002 - up from 1,000 in 2000, before the new rules were enacted.

Foreign applications to U.S. graduate schools have declined 32 per cent this year.

Stressing the "urgent" need for improvements, Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the signatories, said: "We would like action on Wednesday."

Representatives of the higher education and science communities put forward their proposed reforms in talks last month with Tom Ridge, homeland security secretary. Their requests include a call for security clearances to last the duration of a scholar's research, removing the requirement to reapply every year.

Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities and one of those present at last month's meeting, said on Wednesday that Mr. Ridge had appeared receptive to some of t heir ideas. At least one of the recommendations, which would change the way visa processing fees are collected, may require approval by Congress.

Stewart Verdery, assistant secretary in the department of homeland security, said all visa policies, including the restrictions on students and the mandatory security reviews for certain types of visa applicants, were under review. "We will get rid of whatever does not work," he said.