Now we face the (temporary?) end of American internationalism

When Donald J Trump is inaugurated as president on 20 January 2017, the United States will join the growing list of countries with hard-right, nationalist, anti-globalist and xenophobic governments. This list today includes countries like Hungary, Poland, the Philippines and, in some respects, Turkey.

Britain after Brexit and Russia share some of these characteristics.

Others are waiting in the wings – France faces a presidential election in 2017 with Marine Le Pen’s rightist National Front doing well in the polls. The Netherlands in 2017 will have parliamentary elections with Geert Wilders’ nationalist populists emerging as a major party. German parliamentary elections follow, with the nationalist and anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland gaining strength. And Austria, with a repeat of its recent presidential elections, might complete that list.

While the political and economic consequences of Trump’s victory and the fact that both houses of Congress remain in Republican hands are of primary importance, the implications for higher education will be significant, also given the changing global environment in which these developments occur.

Trump’s election is indeed an international trend towards nationalist chauvinism, showing similarities to the first decades of the 20th century.

Concerning a Trump Administration’s broader higher education policies, we know virtually nothing since he did not articulate any specific policies or initiatives during the presidential campaign. To the extent that he mentioned higher education, we refer to our recent article in University World News.

It is likely, however, that the federal government will be much friendlier to the for-profit higher education industry, and much less interested in diversity, affirmative action and other programmes deemed ‘liberal’. The federal government will increasingly rely on the states for higher education policies, regulation and funding of all sorts.

In short, while it is impossible to discuss specifics, it seems inevitable that many of the initiatives of the Obama Administration will be ended.

Internationalisation consequences

The consequences of a Trump presidency for higher education internationalisation will, without question, be most significant, in both the short and long terms. Of great importance is the image of the United States as a ‘welcoming society’ for international students, scholars and programmes.

As is now becoming clear in the United Kingdom after Brexit, image counts for a lot – and once students and others see that significant numbers of Americans do not welcome foreigners and that the broad policies of the US government are critical of foreigners, the US will be a less attractive destination.

Trump specifically identified Muslims and Mexicans for his ire during the campaign – but all foreigners were targeted by implication. The general idea that America is an insular and closed society will have significant implications.

It is important to keep in mind that decisions by international students about where to study are based on emotional and social factors as much as on academic goals. And top international faculty will not want to come to a country that is not welcoming and places bureaucratic and other impediments in the way.

American foreign affairs and trade relations with other countries will also be affected by the diminished US image abroad – with a likely impact on international student flows. For example, once the Trump Administration becomes involved with ‘bringing jobs home from overseas’ and preventing ‘exchange rate manipulation’, US-China relations will inevitably suffer.

Currently there are 304,000 Chinese students studying in the US – 31% of the almost one million international students present here. Will those students be interested in coming to the US if there is a trade war between the two countries? Similarly, will the 60,000 Saudi Arabian students in the US want to study if they are subject to what Donald Trump has called ‘extreme vetting’ and will the Saudi government want to send its scholarship students?

Specific government policies will play a major role as well. It is quite likely that tighter visa regulations, increased scrutiny of Muslims and others and more supervision of foreigners in the US will be put into place.

While actually building a wall on the Mexican border, as Trump has promised, may not happen there is no question that bureaucratic, regulatory and other walls will be put in place. These new and enhanced regulations are quite likely to reduce the attractiveness of the United States as a place to study.

While the American government spends relatively little on international education, it is likely that many of the existing programmes will be reduced or eliminated. The Fulbright Program, which has been a mainstay of American higher education internationalism, is likely to be cut – or worse. Other initiatives are likely to suffer a similar fate.

Also the number of international faculty – a key strength of American higher education and a major contribution to its quality, for instance, manifested in the number of foreign-born Nobel Prize winners – will be affected by limitations on H-1B visa numbers and by the general lack of attractiveness of the political climate in the country with respect to foreigners.

Another potential risk affecting American higher education is a decrease in donations by international alumni. In recent years, universities have been investing in strengthening relationships with their international alumni and in increasing donations from them to their endowments.

Last but not least, programmes for higher education capacity building in the developing world, funded through USAID and other agencies, might be cut as well.

In short, there is a high risk of isolation of American higher education from the international

Bleak future

The mid-term future for higher education internationalisation in the United States – and in much of the world – seems rather bleak in the post-Brexit and Trump world. Almost without question, the US and UK will be less attractive destinations for international students and scholars.

It is not clear if other countries can step in and to some extent replace the two English-speaking giants. Canada and Australia are likely prospects and certainly will see an increase in their numbers. Ireland’s new internationalisation strategy makes a clear effort to position that country in a highly positive light for international students seeking an English-speaking environment in the European Union.

A number of other European countries, as well as for instance, China, India, South Korea, Singapore and South Africa have expanding numbers of academic degree programmes in English, but all are unlikely adequate replacements.

On the positive side, the American higher education system, and particularly its top universities, are strong and remain attractive. After all, most American higher education internationalisation is not the result of government initiatives either at the federal or state levels, but of the policies and programmes of the higher education institutions and communities themselves.

Most of them are located in blue states and will remain open to international students and scholars from diverse backgrounds.

Another positive signal is the fact that voters in the age group of 18-29 voted blue in very large numbers, showing similarity to the votes in the UK on Brexit. Student protests on campuses across the country erupted immediately after Trump’s election, indicating deep dissatisfaction with the results.

The fact remains, however, that we have entered a period, worldwide, of growing nationalism, xenophobia and reactionary politics. About that there is no question. How higher education in the United States and elsewhere will manoeuvre in this new and unwelcome environment is the key question.

* It should be noted in the interest of transparency that we recently predicted in University World News that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. Along with most observers, we were wrong.

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