Eduvation Blog

2016 in 6 words: Populism, Protectionism, and Post-Truth (p2)

Ken Steele’s 10th annual higher ed “year in review” continues with part 2, a look back at populism, protectionism and post-truth in 2016. (Check out part 1).

There were some significant, and even terrifying, political events last year:


Oxford Dictionaries have declared “post-truth” the word of 2016. It was used 200 times more than any year previous, mostly because of the US election and UK referendum. Thanks to social media, deliberate misinformation and the layoff of journalists and editors, many people no longer know what to believe. Russian hackers and trolls waged cyberwarfare last year to influence elections and destabilize NATO. Propaganda and “fake news” has proliferated. George Orwell’s dystopian vision (from his novel 1984) was set just a few decades too early.

Britain, we heard last year, has “had enough of experts.

Widespread support for Brexit, Donald Trump, Rob Ford and “Boaty McBoatface” exemplifies the anti-intellectualism that is rampant. Universities will be popular targets in this “post-truth” era. President-elect Trump has said emphatically how he “loves the poorly-educated“.


Across Europe and the US, populist movements have spread anxiety about immigration and led to tougher border enforcement, racist hate crimes, and plenty of xenophobic rhetoric. (From “poisoned skittles” to “extreme vetting.”) Trump campaigned for president on a platform of literally building a wall.

It is estimated that Brexit will cost UK universities £3.7 billion, and 34,000 jobs. It also led to a 36% decline in international student interest.

A survey conducted prior to the US election found that 60% of international students would be less inclined to study in the US under a Trump presidency. On election night, 200,000 Americans tried to access the Citizenship & Immigration Canada website simultaneously, crashing it for 10 hours. The next day, American Google searches and web hits to Canadian colleges and universities tripled or quintupled!

The US brand for international student recruitment has shifted, and Canada, Australia and New Zealand may be well positioned to gain market share over the coming years.


In international education, several other major shifts in 2016 focused on Saudi Arabia. Plummeting oil prices have impacted the Kingdom’s budget, and inevitably the King Abdullah Scholarship program, which has sent more than 200,000 students abroad. Enrolments in US language schools showed the first drop, but overall Saudi students in the US have declined 20%. Universities not ranked in the world’s top 200 can expect Saudi enrolments to drop to virtually zero. And in Ontario, we saw significant controversy last year over gender segregated college campuses operated in Saudi Arabia by Niagara and Algonquin College, sparked by the premier’s declaration that they are “unacceptable.” In the end the controversy dissipated, but the lasting effect came from financial troubles. Algonquin College announced that, after losing about $1.5 million on its Saudi campus, it was pulling out.
Next time, in part 3, we’ll look at the pivot in the fortunes of for-profit higher education, triggered by the US election. The policy positions of president-elect Trump and his proposed Education Secretary will pave the way for some interesting years ahead!

Stay tuned until after the closing credits for some bloopers!

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