Dark clouds over American academia

Tue 14 Feb 2017

The highly unexpected victory of Donald J. Trump — not only winning the presidency but also keeping control of both houses of Congress, and soon taking over the Supreme Court as well — is truly a sea change for U.S. politics and society. The roots of the Trump triumph, which are similar to the underlying causes for the Brexit victory in Britain, lie in a nativist reaction to globalisation and the changes imposed by the 21st century economy.

While Mr. Trump has been unclear about his policies for higher education, his general orientation is clear enough and has been widely discussed. These include building walls (literal or figurative) to keep out immigrants, banning Muslims from entering the country or at least subjecting them to “extreme vetting”, tearing up trade agreements and other elements of a globalised economy, and in general presenting the U.S. as an unwelcoming environment. With this background, what can be said about the likely consequences for higher education and particularly for the U.S.’s global competitiveness?

Impact on universities

Top universities will not collapse, and the U.S. will not seriously suffer in the rankings, at least in the short run. Those universities have sufficient excellence to survive a period of instability. The public research universities, already battered by budget cuts by the States for more than a decade, will be affected first and most seriously. The top private universities, buttressed by their endowments, are less vulnerable. Further, the federal government does not play a key role with them — other than expenditures for scientific research, and here future prospects are dim not only because of Mr. Trump’s likely attitude towards research but because of other pressures on the federal budget due to promised tax cuts. The longer-term future is less bright, as challenges in hiring internationally, the impact of research cutbacks, and other issues catch up.

The for-profit higher education industry will prosper. Recently, enhanced regulation by the Obama administration and several scandals have greatly weakened the for-profits. Enrolments are down dramatically. Mr. Trump will roll back regulations and likely provide a much more welcoming atmosphere for them.

The Obama agenda of college access and completion is likely to be given less emphasis. This will mean that grants and loans for students are likely to be reduced, contributing to debt burdens for students. During the campaign, Mr. Trump did make some offhand proposals concerning low-cost tuition and dealing with student debt, but experts are unable to figure out if these are coherent proposals, or how they might be paid for.

Short- and long-term implications

On the international front, the news is all bad for U.S. higher education competitiveness. Mr. Trump’s continuing anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and in general xenophobic stance has already produced negative reactions overseas. That basic orientation, which was central to Mr. Trump’s campaign and important to his core supporters, will have an impact on how international students and faculty view the U.S. as a place to study and work. While it is unclear how “extreme vetting” of Muslims and others will actually work, the issue is already informing international dialogue. While Mr. Trump is already walking back on his blanket commitment to barring all Muslims from entering the U.S., much of the rhetorical damage is already done.

It is also possible that the presence of international faculty and leadership, a substantial factor in U.S. higher education’s excellence, will decrease. This may not happen at the top universities, although even there the difficulties of obtaining visas and other bureaucracy, as well as broader national policies and orientations, may deter many. Like international students, they will more likely look for alternative options, such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, as well as — at least for the moment — continental Europe. The future for H1B visa, as well as for a scholarship programme like Fulbright, does not look bright.

On the campuses, it is likely that political activity and tension will rise. Already before the elections, universities have seen an increase in sexist and racist graffiti and actions. After the election, those incidents have increased. But one can also see an increase in protest against such developments and against Mr. Trump by students. Given the support for Hillary Clinton in the 18-29 age group and their previous support for Bernie Sanders, one might expect an increase in student activism, similar to movements elsewhere, such as Chile, South Africa, and Hong Kong, and to the reactions to Brexit in universities in the U.K. It is still unclear, but universities and their students might again become centres for protests against the global rise of nationalist populism, as they have been in the past.

Although it is still too early to tell what the short-term and long-term implications of this shocking result will be, its implications for both the U.S. and international higher education are troublesome. Without question, U.S. leadership in global higher education, both in terms of its excellence and its place as the leading host country for international students, is in jeopardy. In particular, in combination with Brexit and other nationalist populist trends elsewhere, the prospects of key issues in higher education — the public good, diversity and equity, internationalisation, and academic freedom — are dark.

Philip G. Altbach is research professor and founding director and Hans de Wit is professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, U.S.


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