Redefining the role of the university in the Trump era

The last few weeks have been tremulous for Canada. The new leadership in the United States is changing all rules and no one knows for certain how far the changes will go. In the world of higher education, universities are trying to determine what the impact will be.

The optimists are eager to benefit from the revenues of foreign students who see Canada as a safe alternative to the US. The pessimists foresee a recession that will injure the Canadian economy. Our crystal ball is hazy at best.

Predictions aside, it is certain that Canadian universities need to renew their mission to develop socially conscious citizens in the hope that Canada is not the next nation swept along in the populist mania.

Financial growth or decline?

There has been much discussion in the last month about the increase of international students, from the US and abroad, that Canada will likely receive.

As a country, we are literally beckoning international students with new pathways to citizenship, and as the protectionism of the United Kingdom and USA makes those countries less attractive, higher education commentators have argued that the forecast demand for Canada as an international education destination has gone through the roof.

The number of university applications seems to confirm this situation with applications from American students already up 20% this admissions cycle.

Indeed, some experts say this increase may have more to do with targeted recruitment strategies and the rate of the Canadian dollar, but concerns about the new administration will only support this trend.

Heightening the attractiveness of Canada are all the recent ratings of Montreal as the most attractive city for international students and Canada as the most desirable English-speaking country. The optimists have a strong argument.

But what of recession? Well, the US has made it clear that protecting domestic jobs will be top priority. If this protectionism extends to Canada the effects could be devastating as more than 75% of Canada’s export value heads to the US. Tighter borders could literally mean closed businesses.

In terms of universities, international students may pay top dollar, but Canadian students remain heavily subsidised by the government. And the Canadian government has a certain history of slashing funding to education whenever the economy is in trouble.

A recession would also put extra strain on disciplines without direct pathways from learning to earning. While people will often return to school during a recession, university programmes may be perceived as less attractive than more affordable shorter-term retraining programmes at other levels.

A chilling ideological shift

So is this it? Is the only threat to Canadian universities related to a potential recession that may lead to funding cuts? If so, then optimists rejoice, for this is a challenge that universities have faced before and one that may be mitigated by a heightened influx of international students.

Unfortunately, there looms in Canadian society a much more serious threat than recession, one that has already reared its ugly head with the mosque shooting in Quebec, not to mention the rise of our very own right-wing television personality as a Conservative leadership hopeful.

While Quebec has had a complex history with its Muslim community, many are saying that the US elections have strengthened and legitimised inter-ethnic hatred. This is serious for society as a whole.

What role might Canadian universities play in countering this new wave of populism and protectionism, both for the integral development of Canadian citizens and the safeguard of the international students whose revenues we are eager to collect?

Of course identifying a clear role for the university in society is always a tall order. The marketisation of higher education has caused an identity crisis that universities have yet to overcome, and which has spread confusion among parents and students who no longer know what type of schooling to pursue, in what manner and to what end.

Are we getting a degree to gain skills, wisdom or just to leave home? Without clearly established ends and means, universities fail to develop socially conscious citizens with integrated minds.

Now more than ever, universities must embrace their role to teach more than skills, educating individuals to take responsibility for their part in society. This would lead universities to the forefront of human development and cultural progress, a parade that desperately needs a noble leader. And contributing in this way will certainly not hurt the employability of students. It may even help.

While the aggressive policies that sought to increase international student populations in Canadian universities did much to put even smaller Canadian institutions on the map globally, programmes that do not contribute to this economic process have suffered, as have underserved domestic student populations.

To be sure, the promotion of international educational exchange is embedded in the Canadian multicultural narrative and should thus remain a mainstay in higher education policy. But rather than simply attract international students for more immediate, and often temporary, economic benefit, we need to redefine the role of the university in our society.

As things stand, the future may bring bigger problems than merely competing for international students on the global market; problems akin to those that American institutions are likely to face in Donald Trump’s US.

Bruno Vompean is the International Admissions Coordinator at Wilfrid Laurier University and a graduate student in Social Justice Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and Grace Karram is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.