The pre-eminent position of UK and US universities is being put at risk by the political changes sweeping through the two countries, according to the president of the American Council on Education, the nation’s main higher education lobbying organisation.
Molly Corbett Broad, the former president of the University of North Carolina, told Times Higher Education that the UK and US were “not necessarily on a path that is going to keep our two countries having the best higher education in the world”.
A new ACE report on US-UK sector collaboration says the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as US president “have brought about a parallel set of challenges for colleges and universities” in both nations, “particularly when it comes to internationalisation”. The report calls for “deeper engagement” in higher education collaboration between the two nations to meet these challenges.
The ACE report on collaboration, UK-US higher education partnerships: firm foundations and promising pathways, says: “In the context of similar political climates, the US and UK higher education systems are wrestling with the need to define and articulate their societal and economic contributions; both systems also face challenges when it comes to access, equity, and completion.”
Ms Broad expressed particular concern about Mr Trump’s plans to cut funding for higher education in the US.
The president’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year, which must pass Congress to come into force, outlines a 13.6 per cent cut in the Department of Education’s funding, which would mean huge reductions in student aid packages, including saving $700 million (£545 million) by ending the Perkins Loan programme providing low-interest federal lending for students with “exceptional financial need”. The budget plan also includes a 22 per cent reduction for the National Institutes of Health, which provide federal funding for biomedical research, including research on conditions such as cancer.
“This latest budget announcement is outrageous, in the sense that it takes money away [from] NIH,” said Ms Broad during a visit to the UK. The NIH’s counterpart in federal funding for non-medical science and engineering, the National Science Foundation, would be cut by 11 per cent in the plans.
Ms Broad warned that such combined cuts in vital funding for universities would put “our standing internationally at risk”.
But she added: “I think members of the Congress get that. I think we’re going to end up not where we’d like to be, for sure, but sustainable…We’ll be working very hard to make a persuasive [argument] to convince folks we need to think again.”
Ms Broad said there were also “grave concerns” about the impact of the budget on student aid. “Students in the US are carrying very significant student loan burdens already,” she added. “The implication if we can’t find a path [to a solution on the budget] – which to me is unthinkable – [is that] the quality of our workforce and the strength of our economy are going to be affected.”
On another key concern for US universities, the immigration regime, Mr Trump has signed an executive order to overhaul the H-1B visa system, through which 85,000 foreign workers a year enter the US, with the aim to “put America first” by awarding them only to “the most skilled and highest-paid applicants”.
Ms Broad said she had been involved in talks with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration, and its secretary John F. Kelly to put the sector’s case on foreign academic staff who will need to take up posts in the US this autumn.
There had been promises to “consider making adjustments”, she said. “I do think we have a reasonable chance to smooth those waters,” she added.