International educators build bridges, not walls

Hillary Clinton urged the United States to vote for a leader who guides the country to "build bridges, not walls". With a jarring jolt, we learned that Donald Trump’s message to build a wall gained much more resonance.

Many international educators who dedicate their professional lives to building bridges of mutual respect and trust around the world are still processing the impact of this jolt. Broadly speaking, internationalisation is about infusing diverse perspectives and experiences from nations and cultures on all aspects of higher education.

With Trump as the president-elect, the core beliefs and practices of many international education professionals have come under stress. After Brexit, the American presidential election has again shown nationalism, protectionism and disengagement win in times of fear and desperation.

The walls

These sentiments lead to propositions to build walls that are not only physical but also financial, legal and ideological.

Trump’s views on disengaging from the world will erect more ideological barriers as they will attempt to reduce mobility and exchanges. The potential decline in people-to-people exchanges and global learning experiences will further hurt diplomatic and economic agendas.

In an increasingly globalised world, creating ideological walls will not lead us to a better and safer future.

More than a few international educators are concerned that work or study exchange programmes for non-degree students may come under scrutiny. Potential budget cuts could be a threat to the programmes funded by the US Department of State, while self-funded international students could face stronger visa screenings and requirements.

Trump’s strong emphasis on bringing jobs back to the US will likely lead to policy changes aiming, on the one hand, to contain outsourcing and, on the other hand, to restrict work visas. This may affect initiatives including Optional Practical Training that allows degree-seeking foreign students to gain work experience in the US and the provision of an additional 20,000 H1-B work visas for international students.

In sum, with Trump in power, many anti-immigration advocates will find a new champion for regressive policies that will likely hurt global talent mobility and mutual understanding.

The bridges

Over the next four years, international educators must remain optimistic and reaffirm their commitment to building bridges that advance global engagement and mutual understanding.

As the policy environment is likely to shift against the values of international education, there is a need to explore new and stronger collaborative opportunities at the level of professional associations, higher education institutions and individual professionals.

The Association of International Education Administrators released a statement calling for a renewed commitment to global engagement.

It encourages international educators “to advocate for policies that support the education and preparation of students to live in our interdependent society and to engage in positive, ethical and respectful discussion and debate with those within and beyond our campus communities as we continue to provide leadership that brings those from different backgrounds together in support of our diverse students”.

Marlene M Johnson, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said in a statement: “Our society and our world desperately need people who can bridge divides. It is crucial that we stay actively engaged with and continue to learn from people of other countries and cultures.”

She adds: “We believe that isolation and division diminishes us and we believe that nations are more secure when we find common cause and common ground with others.”

Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange, commented on the Alliance’s website: “Donald Trump's visa policy proposal would hurt the United States if applied to international exchange and education... Exchange participants significantly deepen their bonds to our country and strengthen our economy as a result of their stay. Rather than erect new barriers, we should welcome exchanges between Americans and people living in countries that are critical to our national security."

We are at a turning point in the history of international education. Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit asserted that the the future of internationalisation of American higher education is bleak in the next few years. The future may very well be bleak if we do not double down to advocate for and invest in international education. We cannot afford a world of walls. Let’s build bridges.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is a US-based global higher education expert specialising in student mobility trends and their implications for institutional strategies and student success. He is the co-founder of DrEducation, a research and consulting firm focused on campus internationalisation, and interEDGE.org, a training and resources provider for international student success. He is reachable at info@dreducation.com and Twitter: @DrEducationBlog.