International educators in the United States and Europe appear to be moving beyond the twin shocks of last year’s Brexit vote and a Donald Trump presidency and are now engaging in some soul-searching as they enter the recovery stage.
At a recent gathering at Boston College, there were even signs of optimism despite a pervasively populist political climate that threatens to undermine student mobility, international research collaboration and other forms of cross-border engagement in higher education.
“It’s a reality we have to live with,” said Hans de Wit, director of the college’s Center for International Higher Education or CIHE. “The takeaway here is that we have to look differently at the way we [do things]. We also have to look at what opportunities arise from this.”
The mood at the spring annual conference for NAFSA: Association of International Educators, held in Los Angeles from 27 May to 2 June, was one of solidarity and resolve to overcome an anti-internationalisation backlash, according to some of the more than 9,000 professionals who attended.
At the more intimate CIHE gathering on 22-23 June, advocates for higher education internationalisation sought to better understand why recent nationalist tendencies caught them by surprise, how their actions may have contributed to an anti-immigrant sentiment, and how they can recommit to internationalisation in higher education in a way that is more inclusive and creative.
The two-day seminar, “International Education in a New Political Climate”, co-sponsored by the CIHE and World Education Services or WES, a non-profit organisation based in New York, opened with an acknowledgment that higher education must take responsibility for its collective failure to recognise and respond to the warning signs.
In their opening remarks, Francisco Marmolejo, the World Bank’s most senior official for tertiary education initiatives, and Eva Egron-Polak, secretary-general of the International Association of Universities, noted a number of root causes, including growing criticism that the global focus in higher education is elitist, insular and increasingly irrelevant to many stakeholders. In focusing on the global, international educators may have lost sight of the need to tie the global to the local, they suggested.
“This is an opportunity not to be missed to put the house in order,” Marmolejo said.
While Trump administration policies in the United States and the fallout from the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union tend to dominate discussions, the forced removal of leaders from top universities in Turkey, and tightened regulation of cross-border higher education in Hungary serve as even more direct examples of the academy under attack.
Nationalist politics and policies in Poland, the Philippines, Russia and Israel are likely to also affect higher education internationalisation efforts, de Wit and CIHE Founding Director Philip Altbach note in a recent paper.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on fall enrolments. “The sky is not falling at this point,” said Amir Reza, vice provost for international and multicultural education at Babson College. Nevertheless, “We’re nervous.”
A WES analysis of US federal data on student visa issuances between November 2016 and April 2017 found the largest drop from autumn to spring since 2014, suggesting that universities can expect to see a drop in international enrolments. Inward mobility from Mexico fell by 11.5%, one of the earliest indicators of what WES calls the “Trump effect”. Visas for students in Saudi Arabia also show double-digit drops, though the decline is more likely due to cutbacks in a Saudi scholarship programme than international relations.
The WES report also noted a slight uptick in Iranian visa issuances between November and April, which it said may reflect a rush to apply in anticipation of Trump’s proposed visa ban on travellers from Muslim-majority countries. But many US universities are reporting decreases in applications from those countries, the report said.
The picture brightened on Monday when the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case this autumn on Trump’s travel ban on six countries but said in the meantime that foreign nationals who have a “bona fide relationship with any person or entity in the United States,” including, for example, students accepted by US universities, should be allowed entry into the US.
Likely beneficiaries of any change in cross-border enrolment patterns include Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland and New Zealand, where universities have stepped up their marketing and recruitment efforts.
But attention to winners and losers underscores the increasingly commercialised nature of international higher education, which some seminar participants said is a big source of the problem. In the face of diminished public support for higher education in the United States, they argued, many universities came to rely too heavily on international students as a primary revenue source without making a convincing case for doing so.
“The name of the game is making money on international mobility,” Altbach said.
A number of potential approaches were floated to turn challenges into opportunities. For example, the influx of refugees to universities around the world may be adding stress to resource-stretched universities but it also offers new ways to bring international issues into focus on campuses.
A hostile political climate may discourage applicants from travelling to the United States, but could also give rise to more creative deployment of technology, of international branch campuses and of joint degree programmes.
And even though terrorist attacks around the world make it harder to convince parents of the value of study abroad, universities that support academic travel opportunities can leverage the enthusiasm of returning students.
“The one population that is idealistic is the students,” Egron-Polak said. “They have the energy to drive change.”