US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said students could face deportation unless they changed to an institution with in-person tuition.
A number of US universities are considering online teaching in the new academic year due to Covid19.
It is unclear how many people will be affected.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Programme, which is operated by ICE, had introduced a temporary exemption to allow students whose courses had moved online for the spring and summer semesters to remain in the US. ICE said that students who fall under certain visas (the US on F-1 and M-1 visas) “The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States.’’
However, the exemption will not be extended into the new academic year
Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the American Council on Education, said the announcement caught him and many others by surprise.
“We think this is going to create more confusion and more uncertainty,” said Farnsworth, whose organization represents about 1,800 colleges and universities. “What we were hoping to see was more appreciation for all the different possible nuances that campuses will be exploring.”
The news came on the same day that Harvard announced all course instruction would be delivered online in the new academic year, including for the limited number of students allowed to live on campus.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 9% of US universities are planning to teach all their classes in the autumn, although this could change in the coming months.
The president of Harvard University, Larry Bacow, said in a statement quoted by US media: “We are deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem, giving international students, particularly those in online programmes, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools.”
He added that this decision “undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard, to plan for continuing academic programmes while balancing the health and safety challenges of the global pandemic”.
“Kicking international students out of the US during a global pandemic because their colleges are moving classes online for physical distancing hurts students,” said Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren “It’s senseless, cruel, and xenophobic.”
Journalist Elizabeth Spiers, who teaches at New York University, said many of her students were reliant on visas and would be unable to follow an online programme due to the time difference between the US and their home countries and other considerations.
The Trump administration has made a litany of changes to the US immigration system, citing the coronavirus pandemic, that has resulted in barring swaths of immigrants from coming to the country.
Who could be affected?
The ruling applies to specific types of visa issued for academic study. US government figures show that last year, more than 373,000 of these visas were granted.
The US had more than one million international students doing various graduate and undergraduate programmes in 2018-19, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). That’s about 5.5% of the total student community in the country.
Out of these, nearly three-quarters were from Asia – 48% Chinese and 26% Indians.
The IIE says that, according to the US Department of Commerce, international students contributed $45bn (£36bn) to the country’s economy.