Over the last few years, my position about internationalization has been pretty consistent: the international student market is going to grow and grow. Talk about a China bubble – one of the education press’s favourite “what-if?” doom and gloom scenarios – is almost invariably overstated. Yes, political instability in a place might China might occur, but Chinese parents think of having students overseas as an insurance policy, a way to get out if need be – so frankly if anything political instability there is likely to increase study abroad, not decrease it. Fears about an economic contraction affecting internationalization? We just had a Great Recession and international student numbers climbed right around the world.
The only thing that I think really stands in the way of continued growth in international student numbers is a major disruption in the international economic/political order, something on the scale of a major war, say. And until now I’ve been pretty confident that this isn’t in the offing. But after the summer of 2016, I’m not so sure anymore: turns out there are ways to effectively poison the prevailing economic/political order short of war.
To me, there are six big things going on right now which individually might not matter much but taken together signal real change: Brexit, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Turkish coup, Trumpism, the French election and the creeping cult of Xi Jinping. None of these phenomenon do much to change outbound student-mobility at a global level in the short term. Brexit might reduce foreign demand for UK education, but those people have options elsewhere; the Turkish coup, if anything, gives a boost to internationalization because there are going to be a *lot* of secular-minded students looking for an exit. But in the medium term, it’s possible these changes herald a very different kind of world than the one we have grown used to.
Internationalization in higher education depends in large part on the notion that mobility – and not just study mobility but life mobility – is desirable. If you’re a kid from an aspiring middle-class family in Buenos Aires or Beirut or Beijing, you want the foreign degree partly because the institution you might attend is better/more prestigious than the education might get at home, and partly because you think your degree will make you more valuable to a wider set of employers. But if laws emerge which constrain businesses from hiring across national borders, that poses a serious challenge to the logic behind internationalization.
Trumpism and Brexit are both expressions of ugly nativism and herald exactly such a challenge. Though they may not play out completely (Brexit may not happen, Trump likely won’t win the general election) they certainly suggest that the twin anglo-saxon motors of globalization are much less keen on immigration than they were. The French election, which Marine LePen is now given a reasonable chance of winning, could see this momentum carried through to another major G-7 country. The Schengen agreement is still wobbly thanks to the refugee crisis and Europe’s mostly short-sighted reaction to it and mobility within Europe may will be curtailed at some point. In the developed world, where we used to see immigration in terms of doors and bridges between nations, increasingly we see only walls. This is not good.
And that’s just what’s going on in developed countries. The aftermath of the Turkish coup attempt has freed President Erdogan’s most authoritarian tendencies, resulting in a wholesale attack on universities and academics. In China, universities are being purged of “western influences.” In themselves, neither of these are going to reduce student flows; but in both cases you see major countries adopting more nationalist positions, and being more restrictive of press freedoms and freedoms of speech. These spaces are becoming less open to the world, not more. These are not conditions in which it seems likely that employers will enthusiastically welcome students who have gone abroad for their education.
Put all that together, we could be going back to a pre-1989 world where the nation-state is much more powerful and paternalist and where individual mobility – at least, beyond simple tourism – is much more restricted than it is today. Some people, I am sure, would welcome such a world. Personally, I think it would be a disaster and a huge step backwards for progress and freedom. Where universities are concerned it would be a disaster because it would erode the foundations of internationalization and student mobility.
I’m not saying this will all happen; a slow-down in the move towards globalization still seems more likely than an out-right reversal of it. But this summer’s events make me much less confident about this than I have been at any time in the last thirty years. Institutions with major stakes in internationalization would be wise to do some contingency planning.