The Trump impact abroad

I spent part of a recent Sunday morning speaking to group of Vietnamese students in Hanoi who had participated in a US culture and society contest. Several were from talented and gifted high schools, including some of the finest in Viet Nam. Most had plans to study overseas, primarily in the US, but also other countries such as Australia and Canada.

At the end, I asked if they had any questions for me. One that really stood out was from a high school student who wants to study in the US. He asked if the US higher education curriculum would change if Donald Trump were to be elected president, adding rather emphatically that he would not study in the US if this was the case.

I assured him it would not because of the decentralised nature of the US educational system in general and the academic autonomy of the nation’s colleges and universities.

The rising tide of concern about the potential negative impact of a Trump presidency on international student flows to the US, the world’s leading host of international students, is reflected in survey results released at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators annual conference held in Denver last June.

Among the more than 40,000 prospective international students from 118 countries who responded to the survey, 60% said they would be less likely to enrol in a US institution of higher education if Trump became president. About 4% said the same for Hillary Clinton.

More recently, results from an informal political climate survey announced at last month’s annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Columbus, Ohio, revealed that 39% of counsellors serving students from outside the US said that the result of the presidential election could change their students’ willingness to attend a US university or college.

This unprecedented interest in an upcoming US presidential election is also evident in some of the questions that students and parents asked during recent US higher education fairs in Viet Nam.

In light of the fact that a high school student from Hanoi is closely following the US presidential election campaign and deciding whether or not to study there based on the outcome because of his fear that US higher education might undergo drastic changes if Donald Trump were in the White House, I have to wonder if he's a bellwether or a lone voice in the overseas study wilderness. Time will tell.

Plan B

Since (mis)perception is often reality, if not debunked by the same, how many other Vietnamese students and parents are looking, wondering and considering a Plan B? If Trump becomes the next US president, the United States’ loss – on many levels – could be its friendly competitors’ gain in a gradual surge of Vietnamese students.

Some colleagues asked me earlier this year what would happen if Trump were to be elected. My response at the time was that, based on anecdotal evidence, the flow of Vietnamese students to the US, which increased 640% from 2001-02 to 2014-15, according to Open Doors data, would continue unabated regardless of who the president is.

While Trump has insulted Muslims (think Indonesia, which ranks 18th among places of origin of international students in the US) and Mexicans (Mexico ranks 10 among all places of origin), Viet Nam has not been on his radar screen and on the receiving end of any negative comments.

There are some other ominous clouds on the horizon that could potentially make a dent in Vietnamese enrolment in the US, including concerns about personal safety, the result of same-day media coverage of police brutality and mass shootings, and the perception that the United States of America is not as welcoming or open as it once was. The jury is still out on the medium-term impact of these troubling trends.

Viet Nam is not an inconsequential country in the realm of outbound international student recruitment. In terms of overall numbers, the US ranks sixth among all countries Vietnamese students head for with over 26,000 students at all levels, mainly in higher education.

Last year, it surpassed Taiwan and Japan and will soon displace Canada, if current increases continue. This is in spite of a rather high visa denial rate by the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, especially among some types of institutions and programmes.

In addition, Viet Nam is a US strategic partner, an integral part of President Barack Obama’s much touted ‘Asia pivot’. Its importance was underscored by his May 2016 visit to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

For the sake of Vietnamese young people whose dream it is to study in the US, and for US colleges and universities that have invested heavily in recruiting Vietnamese and other international students and that value them for the myriad tangible and intrinsic benefits they bring to their campuses, communities and to the US as a whole, let's hope that the heartfelt concern expressed by the Vietnamese student I met is only his own in the event Donald Trump becomes the 45th President of the United States.

Mark A Ashwill is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States. He served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam from 2005-09.