Covid ‘provides cover’ for autocrats’ higher education power grab

From party faithful imposed as leaders to scholars sent into ‘civilian death’, institutions face a range of grave threats, argues editor of new collection

October 5, 2021
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Student-led democracy protests in Hong Kong proved a tough test for academics and university leaders

The Covid pandemic has provided further cover for the many governments already targeting universities with their neo-nationalist rhetoric, a professor has warned.

John Aubrey Douglass, senior research fellow and research professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, said nationalism was being used in China and Russia as “a tool to revive older as well as new forms of control and suppression”.

In both those countries, Professor Douglass told Times Higher Education, “you see overt efforts at making universities less autonomous” and ensuring that the “party faithful” are in charge. He could feel the results even in his own classroom: “When I used to ask Chinese students a difficult question about China, they would answer. They just don’t do that any more.” It had also proved difficult to “find anyone based in China who could provide an honest analytical discussion” of developments there.

Such themes are explored in a new collection edited by Professor Douglass, Neo-nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats, and the Future of Higher Education, which covers everything from Brexit and Trumpism through to developments in Brazil and Turkey, Poland and Singapore.

One of the analytical tools described in Professor Douglass’ book can help to track what is happening in particular countries. Leading universities everywhere perform a spectrum of activities, from their “basic societal role” – training the local workforce, developing the economy and preserving national culture – through to “global engagement”, addressing “social problems” and offering “critical analysis of society”. A shift in the balance of such activities may be an indicator of the political pressures universities are coming under.

In the past, universities have helped prop up nationalism by developing eugenics and racial “science”. So to what extent are they now active players in neo-nationalism? Professor Douglass acknowledged that they might sometimes contribute to “the intellectual side of rationalising nationalism”, but he was more concerned about the ways they were being forced into compliance by “political pressures on institutions”.

“There is not a lot of room for institutions to be critical of the party or societal ills,” he explained. He pointed, for example, to “the mass firing of over a thousand faculty and academic staff” in Turkey. This left academics in what he called “civilian death mode – they can’t get jobs, they can’t leave”.

Hong Kong offered another powerful example. When he and his contributors started work on the book, Professor Douglass recalled, “I think we still had a little glimmer of hope that the ‘One China, Two Systems’ approach might be retained.” Students were “major components of the democracy movement”, and university leaders, who were “largely Western-trained” and had inherited “values from the British system”, might have been expected to offer support. Yet in the event, most understandably proved “very scared and very cautious. They try to be constructive about engagement with mainland China – there were only a few academics, who were jailed, who were engaged with the demonstrators.”

The pandemic was probably making an already bad situation even worse.

“In the more authoritarian states in particular,” Professor Douglass argued, Covid has provided cover for directions they were already taking. The simplest example was restricting gatherings for demonstrations. Furthermore, despite the huge achievements of scientists in developing effective vaccines, “it’s not terribly clear that is making a significant difference to populations in many parts of the world…[Jair] Bolsonaro is still in power in Brazil and retains a significant amount of support for his anti-science approach.” Concerns about masks and vaccines as well as environmentalism were also being effectively exploited by neo-nationalists elsewhere.

Asked about what Western universities could do to address the fate of institutions in other countries, Professor Douglass pointed to a limited range of options. “Best-practice consortia” could offer “some sort of moral support”, showcase “global interaction” and bring in “foreign academic talent”.

“We want our universities to be agents of social change,” reflected Professor Douglass, citing student movements in favour of civil rights and against apartheid. Yet we needed to acknowledge that such movements could “backfire”: “Tiananmen Square was an important moment, but it at least contributed towards the move to the right under Xi [Jinping].”


Print headline: Takeover: autocrats ‘use Covid as cover’ for power grab

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