Trump and Brexit: a catastrophic North Atlantic alliance

The election of President Trump and Brexit have created a perception that the US and UK no longer welcome international student mobility, say Aldwyn Cooper and Marguerite Dennis

July 11, 2017
US flag, UK flag, special relationship,
Source: iStock

The US and UK are widely regarded as the leading providers of higher education in the world, proving to be the top destinations for international students at undergraduate, postgraduate and research levels. 

However, policy decisions in both countries are fostering a perception that students and academic staff from foreign countries are no longer welcome. This has the potential for a major impact on university world rankings. 

The US government’s suspension of the expedited processing of H-1B visas will make it nearly impossible for international students to remain in the US after graduation and work under the Optional Practical Training Program. 

According to a survey conducted by PIER online in February, one out of 10 agents indicated that their perception of the US as a preferred study destination had changed, and they were less likely to recommend the country to their clients. 

This is not dissimilar to the UK’s position. Despite resistance from many in her Cabinet, including Jo Johnson, minister of state for universities and science, and Phillip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, prime minister Theresa May stubbornly insists that international students should count in net immigration statistics, which she has previously vowed to reduce to tens of thousands a year. 

The result of the UK referendum to leave the European Union was a surprise. Article 50, which starts the two-year negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, was initiated on 29 March and must be completed two years from this date. 

Over 2016-17 127,440 students from the continental EU have been studying in the UK, generating more than £1.3 billion in fees and delivering other economic and social contributions. They also have the right to receive full fee loans from the Student Loan Company, some of which will never be paid back. 

Despite a guarantee from the British government that continental EU students starting university in the UK between September 2017-18 will be guaranteed loans for the full period of their study, applications have fallen by 7 per cent. There is likely to be a further reduction for September 2018. 

There is understandable anger among young Europeans following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, fueled by a belief that Britain is no longer welcoming and that higher education quality will diminish. 

Formal negotiations about future UK-EU relations began on 19 June. Key elements will be the free movement of people between the UK and the EU, the right to remain in each other’s countries, and the benefits people will be able to access. 

A highly likely outcome is that EU nationals will be required to hold the same Tier 4 visas as all other international students. Additionally, it is expected that these students will not be able to receive UK student loans, and may also be required to pay higher international student fees. 

The catastrophic result for the Conservative Party in the last general election may bring about changes to immigration policy and soften the impact on students and academics, but this will be too little, too late. 

Along with the growing view of those seeking to study in the UK that they are no longer welcome, academics feel that their research will be hampered by bureaucracy and restrictions. As a result, in the UK prospective students are beginning to look East, while in the US they are looking North. 

While recruiting and enrolling international students is not the same as selling a bar of soap, the fundamental marketing principal that perception often becomes reality is applicable to the current state of international recruitment and enrolment in the UK and US. 

According to a survey conducted by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers, nearly four in ten US universities have reported a decline in international applications. 

In May, The Australian reported that several large US public universities with substantial international student populations have reported a 20 to 26 per cent decline in applications for the fall semester. Estimates of undergraduate and graduate applications from India and China are similarly reported to have declined. 

The greatest decline in international student applications is from the Middle East where, according to the AACRAO survey, 39 per cent of colleges and universities have reported a drop in applications from the region. 

Graduate schools appear to be experiencing the worst declines, according to a report by Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. In the UK, the greatest falls are in undergraduate applications. 

Further to this, The Economic Times of India recently reported that changes to the visa program have negatively impacted student applications from India, a significant development given that almost 16 per cent of all foreign students in the US come from India. It was, until recently, one of the fastest growing markets for US colleges and universities. 

Among the short-term implications of the Trump election are that the majority of colleges and universities in the US, and especially schools with little brand name recognition, will enrol fewer international students in September 2017. 

Many American colleges and universities will experience serious financial shortfall. In the survey of global agents, it was reported that every 10,000 international students enrolled on US campuses deliver approximately $325 million in economic impact and support 5,000 jobs. It is clear that any significant decline in international student enrolment will have a detrimental effect upon the country. 

All of this indicates that current international strategic plans are irrelevant. The long-term impact of the Trump election and current Brexit plans will create a number of new winners, not only this fall but for years to come. As the US and the UK make it more difficult to gain a visa and post-graduation employment, other countries, such as Canada, are making it easier. 

China is a big winner in the current political climate, appearing to be more stable than either the UK or US. America’s withdrawal from the Transpacific Partnership Agreement leaves a vacuum in the region that China will fill to the benefit of its long-term interests. 

Regional educational hubs, especially in Asia and Southeast Asia, will welcome large segments of the international student population this year, who may otherwise have once enrolled in US and UK colleges or universities. 

As an example, there are currently 11 branch campuses in Malaysia and the government has created two education zones for future campuses. Additionally, the creation of the Asian Universities Alliance at Tsinghua University in Beijing has the potential to create powerful education networks in the future. 

Despite this somewhat bleak outlook there is some hope. It remains to be seen whether President Trump and future UK policy will change course with regards international students. One thing is certain: it will take a long time to alter the effects of current perceptions and reality. 

This is not a time to rehearse whether international strategic plans will eventually match political reality. Universities need to expand ideas and develop pragmatic approaches to international recruiting based on data, research, and creativity. 

Successfully embracing change will be the currency of successful colleges and universities in the future. No one can predict with absolute certainty what will happen next, but implementing a robust international strategic "plan B", rather than waiting until enrolment numbers in the Fall are known is highly advisable.

Aldwyn Cooper is vice-chancellor of Regent’s University London. Marguerite Dennis is a trustee of the university and a higher education consultant. 

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