The US has an instability problem and it’s affecting HE

At the Association of International Educators (NAFSA) conference in Denver this year, there was much discussion about global instability and what this means for international higher education.

Clearly, geopolitical tensions, the diminished but by no means ended implications of COVID-19, the climate crisis and, most recently, global inflation and likely economic challenges to follow all weigh heavily on student and scholar mobility and on broader aspects of internationalisation.

But one aspect that did not seem to get much attention from the largely US audience was the key challenge of the instability of the United States in a more diverse and competitive global higher education environment.

The fact is that the United States is seen by many around the world as a significantly unstable society with an uncertain future. This perception, based largely on reality, has, and will continue to have, implications for US higher education attractiveness and relations with the rest of the world.

It is worth examining the nature and possible implications of this instability. The argument here is not that US higher education is collapsing, or that the United States will not continue to attract the world’s largest international student population in absolute numbers, or that it will not continue to be an attractive environment for postdocs or international faculty; rather, that there are, and will be, significant headwinds and a decreasing relevance and market share.

It is worth examining the largely ignored but serious challenges that are increasingly evident to students and academics outside the United States.

The past and, perhaps, future of Trumpism

The direct impact of the Trump administration and the ideas and practices that underlie it have been influential and are, by now, part of the way that US higher education and society are perceived around the world.

The overall nationalistic and populist ideology that characterised the Trump years, and continues to have a significant influence on a large segment of the American population, in particular the Republican Party, also plays a role. Many around the world – and in the United States – are concerned about a second Trump presidential term or of someone like him.

The recent highly conservative decisions of the Supreme Court, outlawing abortion and expanding the use of guns, and the controversy surrounding these decisions, have also received much negative coverage outside the United States.

All of these trends are especially evident in ‘red’ (conservative) states, and universities in those states may be negatively affected. It is in those states that the public higher education sector is already facing severe budget cuts and lower local and international student numbers and that the private, not-for-profit higher education sector is less known for its international reputation and quality than in the ‘blue’ (Democratic) states.

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