Attacks on universities ‘harness HE resentment and graduate woes’

University of Oxford professor Simon Marginson says populist targeting of higher education by Trump, DeSantis and others is finding favour with both graduates and non-graduates alike

February 15, 2024
Source: iStock

Political attacks that seek to frame universities in terms of a “conspiracy of the elite” have their roots in the sense of isolation felt by those left out of rising higher education participation and the disappointment felt by struggling graduates, a leading tertiary education scholar has argued.

In a keynote lecture at the Centre for Global Higher Education’s annual conference in London, its director Simon Marginson claimed the increased targeting of universities in the US, UK and in eastern Europe was also partly explained by the expansion of higher education since the 1960s and the greater presence of higher-earning graduates in the workforce.

Giving the Burton R. Clark lecture at the UCL Institute of Education on 15 February, Professor Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, observed that “now that participation has expanded to half of the population but not everyone, the stratification and exclusion effects of higher education are more visible on a large scale than either its contribution to the earning power of graduates…or its potentials to lift opportunity and mobility.”

“Segmentation between people with and without higher education is readily mobilised in populist political campaigns,” he added.

Furthermore, universities were wrongly being blamed for failing to deliver high-paying careers for their graduates following the global financial crisis, which had led to falling faith in higher education institutions as engines of social mobility or indeed important centres of “cultural formation” that lead to social and economic renewal, continued Professor Marginson.

“Disappointed expectations [of graduates] undermine public support for higher education, which at any moment can flip over into perceptions of higher education as a conspiracy of the elite. Then disappointed expectations merge with the resentments of those excluded altogether,” he said.

The political flak was worsened because universities were, in most cases, highly international organisations that have been encouraged to recruit and operate across borders, yet were now being viewed by governments through a “lens of methodological nationalism”, said Professor Marginson. As demonstrated by Brexit and the policies of Donald Trump, “the belief that national state and society are the natural form of the world” was now deep-rooted, he explained.

“By the mid-2010s nation-bound thinking, economic protectionism, nativism and opposition to migration were all increasing. A fault line between national polities and globally engaged universities had opened up,” said Professor Marginson, who added that this had manifested in the “blanket securitisation of research” and policies to restrict foreign student numbers.

“There is now pressure on institutions and persons in Euro-America to choose to maintain their position in the national scale, where higher education is housed and funded, by disavowing the global,” he continued, adding that this “weakens learning, research and the autonomy of the sector”.

That was perhaps best illustrated by his recent trip to Tsinghua University, which he called the “leading STEM university in the world”, given its prodigious high-quality output. “They told me that had not been visited by a US university president since 2018 when previously they had them coming through every month,” recounted Professor Marginson.

Given how the “shared global space crucial to higher education is being diminished” and “the old imperial perspective, methodological globalism with a US national centre [was] fading, replaced by pure methodological nationalism and the projects of the nation and its allies”, universities need to have “courage” and reject such “methodological nationalism”.

“Institutions must defy methodological nationalism and maintain plural geographical scales, finding new ways to remain global by operating separately from the states that fund and regulate them,” Professor Marginson said.

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Reader's comments (1)

Really interesting perspectives presented by Simon Marginson. If only universities were in a position to be as challenging as Prof Marginson suggests. Many of us don't have enough economic and social capital to be able to challenge our main funding sources, or can generate alternative revenue streams which are ethically acceptable. Moreover, there is little likelihood of benevolent patronage coming our way either. Provocative article, though.