By Fraser Raeburn 

Donald Trump has been in the news lately, for some reason. Academics, with all those expectations to be ‘relevant’ and live in the real world (Glyn Davies notwithstanding), have been venturing any number of opinions about this. For historians, the most common question seems to be whether or not Trump is a fascist, and other such weighty, epoch-defining issues.

All this is well and good. Yet it is a bit of a departure from standard practice. When 2016’s other major apocalypse loomed, a good chunk of academic opinion was spent discussing what Brexit would mean for universities in Britain. While perhaps a bit parochial, this was not a bad thing – after all, Higher Education is a sector that stands to lose a great deal from leaving the EU. It also throws academic coverage of Trump into stark relief: have we all been consumed by the big, unsightly picture of a Trump presidency that we haven’t considered what it might mean for universities?

So, with just a week or so to go before President Trump becomes a potential reality, here’s what we can surmise about Trump’s impact on higher education.

  1. Trump does value universities (sort of)

In a post-expert age, it might be reasonable to assume that the international standard-bearer of anti-intellectualism hates academia. Yet a frequent cornerstone of Trump’s boast to be a ‘really smart guy’ was his attendance of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania – an Ivy League institution. Trump clearly sees some value to being associated with a prestigious university, but it’s also not clear that he thinks of Wharton as a place where he learned things. Rather, it’s more about the status that having attended this school confers, which gives some insight into how Trump views higher education. In fact, I’m almost certain this is why Trump continues to believe that Trump University was legitmate. Attending was never about learning anything, it was about giving people the chance to associate themselves with Trump’s brand and use it as a tool to sell themselves – that’s what degrees are for, right?

What this means for Higher Education: Clearly Trump sees the utility of universities as status symbols – being home to places like Harvard and Stanford reflects well on America, and they are therefore Good Things. I think it’s safe to say that these already-privileged institutions will survive well enough under Trump. On the other end of the scale though, it’s hard to imagine the fetid quagmire of for-profit colleges getting anything but worse with Trump at the helm.

trump and higher educationLike many things, really.

  1. America will be less attractive for researchers

America is currently the world’s largest academic marketplace. US universities dominate just about every league table, and for generations have more or less had their pick of international talent. Under President Trump, it’s likely that all those liberal, wishy-washy academics will want to avoid the country if at all possible. Just as British universities are reportedly finding it harder to recruit internationally post-Brexit, American universities may start to lose their lustre.

What this means for Higher Education: For starters, it may reverse some of the impact of Brexit – Britain, the second-largest academic marketplace, may all of a sudden seem like the lesser of two evils. If not, then other English-speaking systems may find themselves with the chance to chip away at US-UK dominance (increasingly likeable Canada and EU-member Ireland seem especially well-placed). Yet equally, without its two most important bastions, the status of English as the academic lingua franca might also start eroding. There is no obvious single replacement for English as a global language, so it’s possible that the very international fabric of academia will start to fracture, and research will become more sharply defined by linguistic spheres.

  1. Trump has some interesting thoughts on student debt

Trump’s plan to deal with America’s student debt crisis is surprisingly radical – capping payments at 12.5% of income, and writing off any remaining debt after 15 years of repayments. Needless to say, this would go a long way towards bringing the US into line with other fee-paying systems such as the UK or Australia, where student debt is generally less commercialised and less of a lasting impediment. While still a burden, it would not be the sort of massive disincentive to studying it currently is (especially for lower-income students). It would also do a lot to start addressing intergenerational inequality in America.

What this means for Higher Education: Probably not much. The plan isn’t even properly costed, let alone budgeted for, and there’s no indication that Trump would assign it a high priority. It may well have simply been a ploy to see how many Sanders voters he could pick up, which Trump has little intention of actually following through.

  1. Adapting to a post-apocalyptic research landscape

Should those weighty, epoch-defining questions turn out to be relevant, things will probably not go well.

What it means for Higher Education: Depending on the nature of the apocalyptic events a Trump presidency leads to, universities located well-away from population centres and/or military installations will likely be better placed to continue their research into the future. There will probably also be a reassessment of funding priorities, and fields such as purifying water and dealing with radiation will doubtless see an increase in resources. All is not lost for the humanities though: preserving the memory of our civilisation, and finding a way to communicate a warning to future generations/species may well be necessary.

Fraser is a third year PhD student who isn’t finding it that difficult to see the contemporary relevance of his research into 1930s Europe. However, his academia.edu profile and Twitter both demonstrate his lack of REFability in a post-apocalyptic research environment.

(Cover image (CC) https://www.flickr.com/photos/notionscapital; Images 1 and 2 www.wikimedia.org)

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