What a week it has been to be a guest at the 41st conference of the American Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), the theme of which is higher education and the public good.
When I left for the airport the presidential race had not been called, but the outcome was clear when I boarded the flight and arrived in Columbus, Ohio, to a conference community in shock. The feeling was similar to being on campus following the EU vote in the UK, but this being America, there were tears and emotional speeches, hugging and grieving. No English stiff upper lip here, nor yet a resilience to get on with the job.
It is some irony to be at a conference about the public good of higher education where the delegates have painfully realised that they do not understand their public. Debate focused on how higher education research has failed the academy, that the tried-and-tested theories have looked in the wrong direction, and that the research and practice community has deluded itself within a peer reviewed bubble.
The new resentment of privilege, rebellion at exclusion, and indifference to higher education institutions has forced reflection on some hard truths. Why should academics enjoy tenure when factory workers have no such security? How has expertise become so easily dismissed as the voice of the privileged defending self-interest?
The conference reminded me somewhat of debates in UK universities before EU referendum. These were hardly debates at all, as no-one could be found to speak for the case to Leave. Speaker after speaker asserted the good sense of remaining, preaching to the choir. Those in favour of Leave felt they had to be silent, or their voices were simply absent. Here in the US it is much the same. Those present have studied the exclusion of white working class males without a college education who were Donald Trump most enthusiastic supporters, but they do not know them, and their voice is completely absent from the room. And yet they have powerfully spoken.
The conference delegates’ fears have turned to the president-elect himself; that he will attack universities’ funding, scare away international students, put undocumented students at new risk, make racial and religious discrimination socially acceptable, and promote anti-intellectualism. Trump wants colleges to cut tuition fees, stating that “if the federal government is going to subsidise student loans, it has a right to expect that colleges work hard to control costs and invest their resources in their students.” He also wants to end the tax-exempt status of colleges with large endowments, stating that colleges need to “spend endowments on their students, not themselves.” He is expected to encourage more privatisation and corporatisation of higher education. Since the election the for-profit education sector’s stock has moved into the ‘buy’ column.
Is there any way to move forward from this existential angst? At least the US and UK academic communities now share a range of common concerns: on internationalism, on working-class exclusion, on limited education pathways for blue collar communities. By proudly standing up for internationalism, developing degree apprenticeships, and beginning to understand the exclusion of angry working-class men, perhaps we are making a start.
The past week’s events has shown us that the case for the public good of higher education has not been convincingly made on either side of the pond. Never has this task been more important, and the work must begin with renewed urgency.