Obama on Higher Education


We are living in interesting times. The world is in economic chaos, we are under the persistent threat of terrorism and now there is also a pestilence. Those prone to drama could be forgiven for suggesting that the four horsemen are abroad.

Not a time to adopt the presidency of the United States then. Or is it?

Greatness is generally measured by one’s achievements and their contrast against those of our peers. Political achievement, like customer service or IT support is rarely observed when there is nothing to fix. Obama has come to power at a time when there is much to repair with his closest peer and predecessor having been arguably amongst the worst presidents in history (US News & World Report). With that backdrop in mind, it is perhaps no surprise that his first 100 days seem to have been broadly chalked up as a success.

But what is it all going to mean for higher education, both domestically and globally?

University rankings acknowledge the US to have a good lead but also suggest that this is being, albeit slowly, eroded. The strategies the US pursues are clearly both deeply influential on and closely scrutinized by the global higher education sector.

In late October last year, we ran a seminar circuit in North America visiting the University of Toronto, Boston University, Columbia University, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago. Predictably the topic was the background, methodology and results of the THE- QS World University Rankings. It was an exciting time to be in the US – I was in Chicago the weekend before Obama’s victory party – and I was trawling through the candidates’ manifestos to seek out references to higher education that might contextualise the content of our sessions. There was very little – higher education is clearly not much of a campaign gambit at present. Anything I could find was talking about widening participation, increasing diversity and provided fiscal support to enable more people from less-privileged backgrounds to make it to college or university – certainly an important agenda, but not necessarily one that gave much of a lead on support directly for the institutions to imporve their ability to educate and further their pursuit of basic science.

Still, it doesn’t take a tempered political analyst to recognise that what gets one elected can be different from what needs to be done, or indeed, what will maintain the support of the people.

It seems certain that, given his background and repeated rhetoric to this point, that Obama considers education one the central priorities of his administration, in his speech before Congress on February 24 he identified education as one of three pillars of long-term economic recovery and specifically stated, “our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for”. It seems that the international exposure of future generations of American graduates and, ultimately, leaders is at the forefront of the President’s mind.

Perhaps, then, the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act, formerly known as the the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Act will now get the support it needs in Congress to be passed as law. With lofty goals to send 1 million US students (representing apporximately 50% of US college graduates) per year overseas for study abroad within 10 years, this would have a dramatic impact on the global higher education sector – particularly since the act is also focused on increasing diversity of both the people going and the destinations. (There is good infomation on the Act available on the NAFSA website)

According to the UNESCO Global Education Digest 48,329 students from the US studied overseas in 2006 – so the ambitions of the Simon legislation represent a dramatic change in pure numbers alone, but it is the side-effects that may prove even more interesting. US institutions will open themselves up to partnership with institutions around the world in a far more proactive way than ever before and whilst these partnerships will begin with exchange and study abroad it seems inevitable that many of them may evolve in to something more. There will also be an associated fiscal injection which, whilst it may be comparatively insignificant to the US institutions supplying the students, may be impactful at some of the institutions in developing countries that are the target.

The social implications for the US – and its international relationships – over the next 50 years could be revolutionary. Even if we ignore the growing numbers in the lead up to the target, the Act aims to send over 40 million American citizens out for study abroad in the next half-century – approaching 15% of their current population. Since only in the region of 20% of US citizens hold a passport (various source data available here), this represents a dramatic shift which can only have long term benefit for the US against the backdrop of globalisation.

It seems the whole world is watching this new President to see whether his walk will match his impressive talk. Universities and their stakeholders are no exception.

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