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Studying in the USA – still a thing?

The election of Donald Trump to be the next President of the United States has stunned the world. Given his controversial pronouncements during his campaign, and revelations about his character and behaviour, the next few years could be tumultuous, both in America and elsewhere around the globe.

What of those young people who were thinking of studying in the USA? Thousands of UK students do so every year. But does the election change anything? And, for those who have already applied, is there any reason to be fearful? Do you want to spend four years of a US degree concurrently with a Trump presidency?

It’s important to remember that, behind all the outrage and outpouring, America will still be America and Trump will follow 44 other Presidents, some of whom were decidedly awful (Warren Harding, anyone?). Washington always tames the most extreme ambitions of new presidents, and every politician coming into office finds that there is a gulf between what they intended to do, and what they actually have the power and resources to do.

Remember, too, that Trump supporters are not the majority.

[UPDATE 16/11/2016] You will, in all likelihood, find yourself like the graduate quoted by the Guardian here, who says studying in the US was “the best decision I ever made.”

Americans in all walks of life will continue to be unfailingly polite, generous and hospitable because that’s their way, as a rule. But as with the Brexit effect in the UK, the country will be polarised, and America as a whole may seem a less welcoming and less safe place for outsiders.

Travel writer Simon Calder, quoted by the BBC, says: “The welcoming people, Florida theme parks, New York streets, National Park wildernesses and California sunshine will remain the same. But during the campaign Donald Trump invoked fear and hate, and America may feel more divided than it has done since the Vietnam War, with abundant mutual suspicion and distrust.”

So what grounds for concern are there?

Travel

There may be challenges for international students going to America under the new administration. We saw how some Britons reacted to the Brexit referendum, which became a vote about immigration when it was not originally. But the Trump campaign was more overtly about immigration, with his pledges to stop or vet all Muslims entering the USA and to crack down on illegal migrants, and the country is very much in the mood to keep American jobs for Americans. It does not follow that university places will also be more limited, but entry requirements for students may be stiffer and more complicated.

[UPDATE 16/11/2016] The Times Higher reports that American universities do fear a decline in student numbers because of the Trump effect (registration/paywall).

It is possible that foreign visitors on a long-term stay in the USA may encounter some of the “Go home, it’s our country” spite that Brexiters have been dishing out here, though we should remember that much of America is hugely multi-cultural, especially in urban areas, and those staying legally, whatever their race, faith or culture, are likely to find firm friends.

Keep an eye on the US Government’s website for updates and changes to procedures: www.usa.gov/study-in-us

Quality

Trump has called climate change a hoax and he’s had the support of the “religious right” (despite his decidedly un-Christian conduct over the years). This doesn’t, on the face of it, suggest a bright future for scientific study. But climate change denial and Creationism have always existed prominently in American life without denting the primacy of American universities.

At the same time, Chinese universities are advancing up the global league tables, even though their government is totalitarian, secretive and despising of unorthodox views. So the most important element of success is apparently resources, which China has been flinging at its shiny new universities.

Donald Trump took up the mantle of the anti-elitist, anti-political champion of the working classes, despite being very firmly one of the moneyed elite (much like the wealthy former commodities broker and career politician Nigel Farage did here), so it is reasonable to fear that the new America – both its government and traditional university benefactors – will be less inclined to pump resources into academia.

[UPDATE 16/11/2016] US academics are worried about this too, according to the Times Higher Education (registration/paywall).

However, it was not only the poor and less-educated who voted for him. We’ve known all along that Trump had strong support among college-educated people (see here, here and… well, just Google it), so we cannot conclude that US academia is necessarily going to be under-funded in future. We must watch the manner in which it is funded, though. Trump has had his own forays into offering private education, and look how that turned out. [UPDATE 16/11/2016] There are indeed signs that he would like more private and corporate involvement in the sector.

In Britain, we are facing a future of declining university standards as we roll down the shutters on immigration and turn our backs on EU funding. An insular USA, which discourages people from visiting and which dashes the “American dream” of going there to make a new life through one’s own toil and talent, risks suffering the same fate.

Or we could see our newly protectionist countries decide that our competitiveness is best served by putting more effort and money into higher education. Time will tell.

Freedom of speech

Donald Trump said many things which, on the face of it, look like promises to protect the ordinary man and woman in the street from nasty media intrusion.

As this excellent article in the Columbia Journalism Review explains, his idea of “opening up” libel laws to make it easier to sue news organisations who knowingly write falsehoods is actually nonsense – because that’s already what libel laws do. Furthermore, most US libel laws have been created at State level and are limited by the Constitution, so they’re outside the President’s control.

The American Bar Association found that “Trump and his companies have been involved in…4,000 lawsuits over the last 30 years and sent countless threatening cease-and-desist letters to journalists and critics. But [he] and his companies have never won a single speech-related case filed in a public court.” One could conclude that Trump’s threats have been just so much bluster designed to destroy trust in the media and keep a veil over his own character and conduct.

What’s very concerning, however, is that the ABA put its findings in an article for the publication Communications Lawyer but then spiked the story – because it feared being sued by Trump. With the legislative mood in America having changed right through Congress and at State level, there is the clear and present danger of a chilling effect on freedom of speech in the USA.

Universities thrive on the free interchange and development of facts and ideas, how ever uncomfortable and difficult they may be. There’s less value to be had in studying something when you can’t access the full picture. Again, though, we should note that university standards are rising in parts of the world that don’t have any tradition or expectation of free speech.

Safety

Trump has been a friend to the gun lobby, even suggesting that those who prize gun ownership (so-called “second amendment people”) might want to take matters violently into their own hands to maintain their rights if Hillary Clinton won the White House. Mass shootings, on campuses or elsewhere, are rare even if they grab headlines (indeed, they grab headlines precisely because they are rare). But there is much debate about whether there should be more guns in public places to help defend against those who are determined to commit atrocities, or whether that makes violence more likely and creates an intimidating atmosphere.

From this August, Texas became the latest state to allow students with the relevant permits to bring guns into their classrooms. A Trump administration will certainly embolden the gun lobby and there could be more such laws around the country in coming years. At any rate, it is hard to imagine that we will see more limitations on the legal ownership or carrying of guns any time soon.

Sexism and sexual violence on campuses continues to be a concern, though universities have been rising to the challenge and improving their reporting and punishment procedures in the wake of high-profile cases like that of Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who carried her dorm room mattress through the school year to protest the university’s failure to expel her alleged rapist. Last year, it was revealed that “20 percent of female undergraduates at an array of prominent universities said this year they were victims of sexual assault and misconduct” (read more in the Washington Post here). Before the election, the behaviour of Harvard’s men’s soccer team, for example, looked like yet another reason for universities to take action.

Now, though, America will have a president who seems to believe that 10 is a good age for girls to be thought of as being “dated” by old men, though he might wait until they reach 14. Or he might just grope them anyway.

The rise of Trump may be, in part, an expression of fragile masculinity. And though it’s hard to conclude that it represents outright national misogyny (in the end, women voted pretty much the same this year as they did in 2012 and helped Trump to victory), Trump’s election does appear to be a rejection of what is disparaged as “political correctness” and the strides that have been made on diversity and equality. His win has been called a “whitelash” – a kicking back against the enshrining of minority rights.

American women, fearful of the promised repeal of Obamacare, are hurrying to get free long-term contraception while they can. Trump has changed his mind over abortion rights, but has settled into a pro-life position and said that women who have abortions should face legal punishment.

In this environment, will American universities feel any great need to hasten their work on improving women’s safety, or accommodating and protecting LGBT students? Will they prioritise making progress on widening access for poorer students, and welcoming minorities

The answer is probably “yes”, because…

Politics and humanities

American universities have a long and proud history of political activism. Whether nurturing the suffragette movement in the USA, protesting against the Vietnam war (see this university’s example), or championing racial justice, institutions in the US are good at challenging the orthodoxy.

If America’s reaction to Donald Trump’s election is anything to go by, we can expect plenty of activity not just in campus politics, but in the development of political study and discourse, and social science research. The whole business of polling and understanding of big data, for instance, has been thrown into disarray not just by Trump, but by the earlier Brexit poll and even the last UK general election result.

Then there are the creative subjects, and the creative industries. Hollywood may churn out formulaic blockbusters, but it’s the heart of the world’s film industry because America is really, really good at telling stories. The arts will thrive, because they always do when there is conflict and confusion to feed them, when there is something to be fought for – or against.

It’s going to be an exciting time to study many humanities subjects in America.

Money

The decision about whether to study in the States may simply boil down to money. The value of the pound slumped by 14% against the dollar between the June Brexit referendum and early October, and was down 13% against the Euro. Although the global markets didn’t like the shock of the US election result, initially, the pound is probably not going to recover against the Greenback any time soon. Sterling’s value is a reflection of how the world sees Britain post-Brexit – we’re simply not worth as much, and won’t be for the foreseeable future.

So studying in America is going to cost a lot more over the coming years, regardless of who is President.

The Special Relationship

The mythological “Special Relationship” will doubtless be clung to by many on this side of the Pond, in the wake of Brexit. Though trade deals will take years to devise, there are early signs that the Trump administration wants to do business with Britain (or whatever remains of it, depending on what Scotland chooses to do).

But Donald Trump does not like to share, or even pay up. And the Special Relationship, whatever it is, has largely been a one-way street, operating at the whim of the USA. We only finished paying for their help in the Second World War in 2006, by way of illustration.

Still, our two Anglophone nations could find ourselves brought closer by the democratic decisions of 2016. Donald Trump may admire Vladimir Putin for now, and he may think he can out-negotiate China (like the oily Harry Ellis sleazing up to Alan Rickman’s Gruber in Die Hard). He may think that “extreme vetting” is an answer to fundamentalist violence. The administration of George W Bush intended to pull back from US intervention abroad, too, but events soon put paid to that ambition.

The old Atlantic ideals of democracy and individual rights and freedoms (imperfectly realised thought though have been), are no longer globally fashionable. Protecting those things, if that’s what we choose to do, inevitably means there are “events” to come. So we must hope that the transatlantic exchange of students continues, and keeps offering exciting opportunities to those who cherish innovation, discovery and the power of ideas.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 14 Feb 2017



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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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