America’s watershed elections

After a (too) long campaign, the presidential elections in the United States are coming to an end and on 9 November we will know who has won.

Current predictions indicate that Hillary Clinton will prevail. However, recent referenda and elections in the United Kingdom, Colombia, Austria and the Philippines show that, in the current international political climate of nationalism and populism, it is very difficult to bet on reason and political positions that advocate for a moderate centrist approach.

In the US presidential campaign, as the world has observed with dismay, the discourse was more of the level of a reality TV show and focused on sex and personal invective rather than content, with Donald Trump mainly responsible. Higher education has largely been absent, although, early in the campaign, considerable attention was paid to the unethical and fraudulent operations of Trump University.

To a much lesser extent, there was also reference to Bill Clinton’s relationships with the somewhat secretive Laureate Group’s global for-profit universities. Questions were asked if Hillary Clinton, during her period as Secretary of State, might have assisted the Laureate Group with international contracts.

These issues are a reflection of the growing commercialisation and related ethical questions in higher education in the United States and globally – and, of course, of the absence of substantive policy debates in the campaign generally.

Student debt

There is one substantive issue that has been featured mainly in the Clinton campaign, but recently and briefly by Trump as well. This is the massive student debt that many American students have accumulated as states have cut higher education budgets and raised tuition levels. These state-induced tuition increases, combined with predatory practices by some for-profit providers, have increased student debt burdens.

For-profits were able to enrol poor students, load them with loans and then failed to provide them with useful skills. The most dramatic example was Corinthian Colleges, which was forced to close, leaving thousands of students with major debt burdens and without credentials or marketable skills.

To deal with these problems, Clinton has promised to make public higher education largely free to most students – a position earlier advocated by her Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders.

As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education (reproduced in University World News, Issue 432 on 14 October), it came as a surprise that Trump, at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, talked about higher education for the first and last time.

He proposed an income-based repayment plan for borrowers paying back federal student loans, to be capped at 12.5% of their income and to be forgiven after 15 years (compared to 10% and 20 years under President Barack Obama); a reduction of college costs by reducing costs of compliance with federal regulations; and reconsidering the tax-exempt endowments of universities.

These suggestions seem to have been inspired by an attempt to get more support from the millennials – the young people who supported Sanders in his campaign against Clinton. Not with much success, though, as Clinton had already taken over many of Sanders’ proposals to reduce tuition fees and student debt.

Clinton’s proposal on free colleges, a step further than initiatives already proposed by President Obama, is a reaction to increased concerns about access to higher education, rising costs of tuition fees and increased student debt – seen by some as the next bubble after the mortgage crisis of the past decade.

For a critical analysis of her proposal and the problems that may come with it, we recommend an article by Scott Carlson and Beckie Supiano in The Chronicle of Higher Education on 27 July entitled “How Clinton’s ‘Free College’ Could Cause a Cascade of Problems”. Indeed, most higher education experts have quietly pointed out that the Sanders, Clinton and Trump proposals may be entirely unworkable.

The focus of Clinton’s – and to a certain extent also of Trump’s – attention on costs, tuition and debts is not surprising and is also a debate elsewhere. The ‘Fees Must Fall’ movement in South Africa, student protests and resulting reforms in Chile and protests in other countries such as the United Kingdom, are other manifestations of the same issue.

The increasing tension between access and equity, on the one hand, and excellence, on the other, in a massified higher education system, is not only a concern in the United States. We do not have the space to address the complexity of this tension, an issue that is not new to higher education. It is important, however, that these issues are discussed, even if marginally, in the US presidential campaign.

International students

Without question, there are other issues that have featured prominently in the campaign that are not about education, but are of fundamental importance to higher education. These concern diversity, refugees and immigration, international relations, commercialisation and lack of ethics and values.

We must first mention that much of Trump’s rhetoric – attacking immigrants, Muslims and others; advocating closing borders; and in general reflecting hypernationalistic positions on most issues – have sent a powerful message concerning America’s global stance should he win.

Many of his views are also shared by right-wing, nationalist populists in Europe. In addition, although Trump has proposed few specific policies or proposals, it is clear that a Trump administration in Washington would have profound negative implications for the internationalisation policy and practice of US higher education.

Clinton’s general stance is a more traditional Democratic internationalist agenda, although she has said little that is specific, perhaps reflecting a sense of unease in the country about America’s role in the world.

The letter by a group of American leaders in higher education, foreign policy, peace-building and national security calling for the country’s next president to make it a more welcoming and globally engaged country, reflects concerns on these issues.

Maybe the last issue on higher education that Trump mentioned in his rally in Columbus, Ohio, is the most telling about his campaign. He stated that he intends to end political correctness on American campuses and foster “free and respectful dialogue”.

If anything can be said about his campaign, it is that it has indeed been full of political incorrectness, while showing no inclination for respect and dialogue. The issue of political correctness is an important one. But the problem is that Trump and other politicians only advocate respect when it comes to their own opinions. That is the real danger of the current nationalist populist climate in the United States and elsewhere and it will put academic freedom at risk.

As many have said, this presidential election is a watershed – with two candidates looking in fundamentally different directions on key international issues, both in tone and substance. If Trump is elected, we must prepare for dire consequences for international higher education.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email: dewitj@bc.edu. Philip G Altbach is founding director of the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College. Email: altbach@bc.edu.