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  • Santiago Castiello

There’s No Going Back: International Higher Education After the 2020 US Election

November 3rd finally came and went, and even without an official result yet, we should start discussing what this election means for the future of international higher education in the United States (US).


Using his pen, and the executive powers vested upon his position as President, Donald Trump has been able to single-handedly turn international education upside down in the US. This upheaval has already impacted other places outside the US, mainly by affecting the dynamics and flow of international students (even pre-COVID19). Through his policy agenda, he has made evident his disdain for science, for higher education, and for international cooperation. For the past four years, conversations around colleges and universities’ ties with foreign actors as a threat to national security have been commonplace. A dehumanizing portrayal of international students as criminals, spies, or thieves of jobs and intellectual property has been the preferred nationalistic discourse. Accusations towards higher education institutions for indoctrinating students with liberal ideologies have been incessant.


But Donald Trump was and is still not alone; the fear of the Other as the main threat to an illusion of what ‘America’ means has permeated to most of his base voters. Besides, his agenda keeps transcending borders. Trump was not only leading his country, he was leading the international populist and nativistic movement that keeps expanding to many countries.


As of writing this essay, it is quite possible that Trump will not be re-elected and that Joe Biden will become the next president of the United States. Many are already celebrating what certainly looks like a relief and an opportunity to go back to better days of democracy and liberalism, but as I have said elsewhere, it is naive to keep thinking that ‘the West’ (mainly the UK and the US) are the center of the antiglobalization movement, and it is especially problematic to think that they are in control of the solution. The harm is already done, the divisions have left deep scars that won’t heal easily, scars that are at risk of being reopened. We, the international education community, need to question ourselves: are things really going back to the way they were? But most importantly, is that truly what we want? should we allow for that to happen?


The Not So Easy Path of Going Back

Just as Trump (ab)used his unilateral executive powers to set up policies, a possible President Biden could technically do the same to reverse them. However, in doing so he would have to invest a lot of political capital that frankly, he is probably going to use first in other more pressing domestic issues if he wants to heal and unify the country. The people in the United States did not vote for Joe Biden, they voted against Donald Trump. What we started seeing in the primaries, and what the on-going election results are showing so far, is that a slight majority of the people wanted first and foremost to see Trump out of the White House. But we are also seeing that almost half of the voters were willing to tolerate Trump’s agenda in order to maintain the status quo. The issues of Otherness in the US will (and should!) start at home, not abroad.


An Opportunity of Not Going Back the Same Path

If anything these past years have taught us, is how fragile these democratic and liberal ideals that support internationalization are. What apparently took more than one generation to build, has suddenly been jeopardized by a handful of politicians throughout the world. Could it be that they are fragile not because they threaten our way of life, but because indeed these values have not lived up to their expectations? Critiques of international education as a perpetuator of global inequities, and as a force for expanding neo-colonialism keep growing. These critiques have opened important discussions about our collective naivete of thinking that international higher education is inherently good and politically neutral. So, just as Peters has mentioned, we are facing an important paradox since we need international education more than ever, but maybe just not of the current neoliberal type.


Higher education institutions, particularly in the United States, need to rethink how they fit into the larger global scenario. The process of internationalization here is still by far a utilitarian and functionalistic one. Before engaging in international endeavors, HEIs should evaluate both their role and their approach using lenses that consider power relations, geopolitics, and an ethical engagement with the Other. More than a mere internationalization strategy, institutions also need to design their global engagement stance; a reflection on why, how, and where they will participate in international activities. A reflection based on values and principles such as mutuality that show connection, understanding, involvement, communication, and respect in international partnerships with a joint pursuit of the common good.


After the pandemic, and after the current condemnation of Trumpism, we will face a historical chance. A chance not to patch the damages that this new storm of nativism has inflicted upon internationalization, but a chance to actually rebuild the house with a more solid foundation. A foundation based on a global engagement that is centered on social justice and human rights. We don’t need to make internationalization great again, we need to make internationalization better than what it has been so far.


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