The election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency appears to be another episode in a growing movement towards Rightist and populist politics, which already has been apparent in France, The Netherlands and several other European countries.

The recent Brexit vote in the UK has also been interpreted as a harbinger of a populist revival with its overtones of growing nationalism and a drift towards protectionism in a grass-roots rejection of the liberalist free-trade consensus that began in the 1980s Reagan-Thatcher era.

Writing in University World News Philip G Altbach and Hans de Wit argue that in the mid-term the 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”, adding:

“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.”

If that proves to be the case what might be the implications for Australian higher education?

International market may see positive growth

In my view the international market for education will surely be affected.  While new governments will seek to improve the attractiveness of their own services, the perception and belief within international source markets could well be that students will not be welcome – even unsafe.

Not that many years ago Australia, the clear world leader in international education, created a perception in international markets that international students would not be welcome – a view sparked by significantly increased visa restrictions and reduction in residency and immigration pathways.

Immigration potential is a significant driver behind international student success.

In the vein of ‘Don’t mention the war!’ universities, have long known that key driver of international education success is the potential for migration down the line.  They are just very careful not to mention it.

In Australia today we are starting to see a tightening of both student visas and migration, including most recently discussion about restricting the 457 Visa regime.   This will dampen demand to come to Australia. However, Australia is currently maintaining an excellent low double digit growth up until this point.

In the US the main driver for interest in education has been the potential to live and work in the US.  Should this be perceived to be limited – as it has in the UK following the Brexit referendum – then international student numbers will fall.

Should safety be added to this mix the loss could be exponential quickly turning around gains made by the Obama Administration.

Australia experienced such an impact a decade or several years ago when a number of Indian students were believed to have been attacked in Melbourne.

While these attacks were found to be significantly inflated and in one case fabricated, the Indian domestic media took on the issue with incredible vigour – the result is that Australia has still not fully recovered from the downturn in student demand from India.

However, with a history of stable centrist governments, a healthy multiculturalism, and a robust democracy Australia could start to look an ever more attractive destination to potential international students and academics.

In the words of Altbach and de Wit say – “Almost without question, the US and UK will be less attractive destinations for international students and scholars.”

This would mean opportunities for universities to increase their numbers of international students (and also to recruit academics seeking alternative destinations to the UK and US).

This will not happen automatically. Astute and careful marketing into potential overseas markets will be required: in my view the emphasis here should not be on messages denigrating other nations, but rather emphasising the true and clearly evident advantages of life and study in this country.

Regional universities are here also presented with a potential stunning opportunity to recruit students and academics into natural and built environments of great beauty and high quality facilities.

Academic Leaders may have more influence in public policy

In contrast to marketing built on evidence and reality, the recent US presidential election campaign saw a highly effective but essentially negative marketing based on FEAR – that is, False Evidence Appearing Real.

The use of fear (both the acronym and the noun) to drive change is nothing new.  But when combined with social media those fears gain more strength and subjects begin to believe them with greater conviction.

The elements of this are a combination of many tactics in marketing: repetition, social/crowd reference, challenge, defence, suggestion and tapping needs, including:

●   Constant repetition of words and phrases to create emphasis

●   Creating large social groups of like-minded people that others are enticed to join – especially where they include influencers

●   Challenge to make a point, such as:  “You want something to be better – different to what you are getting today – well if you vote for these guys do you think you will get anything different?”  This tactic does not require you to do anything other than say you will be different not what you will achieve

●   Defence: this can be quite sophisticated such as Trump – a billionaire – suggesting that the Clintons are out of touch because they are wealthy so forcing them to defend this and substantially weakening their attacks at an obvious weakness of his

●   Suggestion – making half truths about nationality, beliefs or criminal behaviour without going far enough to libel but enough to suggest.  In combination with the above a very strong picture can be built in people minds of something being true despite lack of proof.

At some stage communities will look at pushing back against fear by seeking trusted sources. Facebook has recently made announcements about the issue and action it is considering to address some of these tactics using its platform.

While some argue that the above tactics seek to dismiss independent evidence presented by trusted sources – and that this will get worse. Others argue that the trajectory – including issues like climate change will reverse and there is an opportunity to advance the status of trusted independent thought leaders from academia in public policy.

If nationalism and populism are indeed embraced by Western governments what might the other implications be?

Research may gain more Government funding

History suggests that in times of intense nationalism governments will often spend more on research to create international competitive advantages but also to reduce reliance on international partners.

Efficiency is not the goal – national advancement is.  Where an international research capability is better it must be beaten or blocked for the benefit of the protected market.

When international trading is blocked the local providers need to supply credible alternative solutions.

In pre-election conversations, President-Elect Trump stated that he would not let Ford sell its cars into the US without a large tax – he wants automobiles made in the US or not at all.

During the Cold War, the former USSR’s  domestic research and development received substantial government support as the regime sought to build indigenous capacity.  Similar results have been seen elsewhere.

Organisations such as NASA can expect major increases in support as the US Government seeks competitive advantages in future technologies.

Only time will tell what this impact has on higher education. What’s your view?