Voldemort and the elephant in the room

Voldemort and the elephant in the room

Last week, I attended the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) conference in Washington DC together with EAIE Vice-President Sabine Pendl. Just a month after the presidential inauguration, it should perhaps not have come as a surprise that the event was dominated by an outrage against the (suspended) executive order to ban travel from seven countries, a genuine concern over where the USA is headed politically, and what the outcomes would be for international higher education globally. The elephant may be a symbol for the Republican Party, but it soon became clear that there was another, rather visible, huge, long-nosed animal in the room.

In Harry Potter books, the supreme villain is one whose name should not be spoken. At the AIEA conference sessions, keynote speakers and conversations among colleagues did make repeated reference to the new President and his allies. He was almost constantly talked about, both indirectly and in name.  And his policy initiatives both ridiculed and riled against.

Consequences for all

International conference attendees felt sympathetic towards our USA-based colleagues. After all, restricting immigration and talking about walls – let alone building them – can have serious and long-lasting consequences for the entire USA higher education system, which has a significant dependency financially and otherwise on immigrant students and faculty members. And these consequences are by no means limited to just the countries immediately affected. No, in the worst case, the US may be perceived as unwelcoming and inward looking by applicants and those seeking academic employment abroad.
Just in case some of you are now thinking that the adverse effects of a Trump presidency could be beneficial for us Europeans (or others), I would argue that there are bigger things at stake. After all, we have our own political uncertainties, such as Brexit and the upcoming elections in France and the Netherlands. Depending on their outcomes, we might find ourselves in just as sticky a situation as our American colleagues and friends. Internationalisation has benefitted from significant tail wind for many years now, but the rise of nationalism and xenophobia has the potential of turning the direction of that wind and diminishing the support we have had.

Advocacy and partnership

At the end of the conference, the EAIE and AIEA co-organised a Transatlantic Dialogue with a theme of advocacy. The theme was actually picked well before the American presidential elections, and I have to confess that we did not foresee how topical the theme would become. We had some 40 senior international officers at the dialogue, discussing the role of advocacy and how we would continue to make the case for internationalisation in the future.
There was one topic that rose above all for me: partnerships. More than ever, we must partner around the world to make sure that our commitment to internationalisation remains strong. We must equip ourselves and our peers with heightened awareness and tools for advocacy – whether internal at our institutions or external towards decision makers at all levels. But we also must find common ground with students, business, and industry. After all, we are preparing our students for a world where language and intercultural skills will be particularly needed, and where major employers have interests very similar to ours. At the end of the dialogue, I assured our USA-based colleagues, on behalf of EAIE, that their battle is ours as well, and that we would not leave their side.
We cannot be passive, as much as our ‘dementors’ would like us to. We must gather facts, evidence, and testimonials, and be able to disseminate them with the same vigour that our opponents do. If we do not, then the Voldemorts of this world are sure to prevail…
Markus is President of the EAIE.

Markus Laitinen
University of Helsinki, FinlandMarkus Laitinen is Head of International Affairs of the University of Helsinki and is the immediate past President of the EAIE.