Fast Facts

Over 1.2 million foreign students studied—with many contributing to important research—at U.S. universities in 2018. But there is a risk they may “export” sensitive knowledge that they gain to their home countries.

The Departments of State and Commerce share guidance with exporters, including universities, to help them comply with export control regulations and safeguard controlled data and technologies that may be shipped overseas or shared with foreign nationals in the U.S. However, we found that this guidance doesn’t address issues most relevant to universities.

Our 4 recommendations include improving guidance and outreach to universities.

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Lab work

Lab work

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Departments of State (State) and Commerce (Commerce) have each provided guidance and outreach to support exporters' understanding of and compliance with their separate export control regulations. Exporters, including universities, are subject to these regulations if they ship export-controlled items overseas or if they share such items, including technology or source code, with foreign persons in the United States. University and association officials raised concerns that State and Commerce guidance and outreach does not adequately address export compliance issues that are more common to universities than to industry, such as fundamental research—i.e., research that is ordinarily published and not subject to export control regulations. Without additional guidance and outreach that addresses such issues, universities may not have the information they need to adequately comply with these regulations and properly safeguard export-controlled items.

Officials from selected universities and university associations identified three export control-related challenges in working with other federal agencies. For example, university and association officials asserted that Department of Defense (DOD) officials misunderstand the term fundamental research, which may limit universities' ability to conduct research for DOD. DOD acknowledged that some officials have inconsistently interpreted the regulations and that it has not yet fully addressed this challenge. Additionally, university and association officials expressed concerns that threat briefings and other guidance that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security provide are not helpful because, for example, they do not contain unclassified information that can be shared widely. To address these concerns, the FBI partnered with a university association to produce a series of unclassified “awareness-raising” materials for university audiences, among other efforts.

Seven of the nine universities GAO visited have export compliance policies and practices that generally align with State's and Commerce's export compliance guidelines. For example, most have demonstrated a strong management commitment to export compliance and have robust practices for tracking export-controlled items, recordkeeping, and reporting potential violations. However, GAO identified gaps in some universities' practices in four areas—risk assessments, training, internal audits, and export compliance manuals.

Number of Foreign Students at U.S. Universities in 2018, by Country

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Why GAO Did This Study

Over 1.2 million foreign students studied at U.S. universities in 2018 (see fig.). Although foreign students and scholars contribute to U.S. research, there is a risk that they will “export” sensitive knowledge they gain to their home countries. To mitigate this risk, the U.S. government implements export controls.

GAO was asked to review agency guidance and universities' security practices. This report examines (1) the extent to which State and Commerce have provided guidance and outreach that supports U.S. universities' understanding of export control regulations; (2) challenges U.S. universities face working with other federal agencies, such as DOD; and (3) the extent to which universities' export compliance practices align with State and Commerce guidelines.

GAO reviewed related laws, regulations, and guidance, and interviewed officials from relevant federal agencies and four university associations. GAO also visited nine universities—selected, in part, on the basis of research expenditures and geography—and assessed their compliance practices against agency guidelines.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including that State and Commerce should improve their export control guidance and outreach, which may help address gaps in university export control compliance practices. GAO also recommends that DOD take steps to ensure its officials consistently interpret export control regulations. State, Commerce, and DOD concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of State 1. The Secretary of State should ensure that the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense Trade Controls, in consultation with university representatives, provides additional or revises existing guidance and outreach to address university-specific export control issues to further support universities' understanding and compliance with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. (Recommendation 1)
Open
The Department of State concurred with the recommendation. As of December 2020, State is in the process of revising its Compliance Program Guidelines with the goal of providing additional guidance for universities on multiple topics, including deemed exports. We will continue to monitor State's progress in implementing this recommendation.
Department of Commerce 2. The Secretary of Commerce should ensure that the Under Secretary for Industry and Security, in consultation with university representatives, provides additional or revises existing guidance and outreach to address university-specific export control issues to further support universities' understanding and compliance with the Export Administration Regulations. (Recommendation 2)
Open
The Department of Commerce concurred with the recommendation. In November 2020, Commerce provided a plan of action 1) outlining anticipated discussions with university representatives regarding the challenges specific to understanding and implementing export controls in universities; 2) revising current guidance to address university-specific challenges in complying with export controls and 3) initiating increased outreach to universities, including webinars and seminars. We will continue to monitor Commerce's implementation of its action plan.
Department of State 3. The Secretary of State should ensure that the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense Trade Controls revises existing export compliance guidelines to include information concerning periodic risk assessments to remind exporters that it is beneficial to periodically identify, analyze, and respond to new risks as part of an effective International Traffic in Arms Regulations compliance program. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Department of State concurred with the recommendation. As of December 2020, State is in the process of revising its existing Compliance Program Guidelines to include information concerning periodic risk assessments and risk factors, as well as a risk matrix tool to help exporters identify potential export compliance vulnerabilities. We will continue to monitor State's progress in implementing this recommendation.
Department of Defense 4. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering takes steps to ensure that its program officers and contracting officers are interpreting export controls consistent with regulations and guidance and consistently determining whether university research constitutes fundamental research. (Recommendation 4)
Open
The Department of Defense concurred with the recommendation and provided an action plan to address the intent of the recommendation in August 2020. As of December 2020, DOD is in the process of developing new guidance for personnel to clarify the process for identifying fundamental research, funding such research, and monitoring to ensure contract funding is performed in compliance with export control regulations and fundamental research policies. We will continue to monitor DOD's progress in implementing this recommendation.

Full Report

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