Research Excellence Summit: Debt-burdened students ‘could turn to populism’

Historian says Trump could attract educated young people if he promised to tackle their debts, while rector tells summit Czech universities remain ‘strongholds of critical discourse’

April 27, 2018
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Indebted students and graduates are ripe for recruitment by illiberal, populist politicians if they were to promise to cancel their debts, a historian of European fascism has warned universities.

John Connelly, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that he knew of students who were “literally malnourished” as a result of the financial pressures caused by high tuition fees, and who, without the prospect of a “life of dignity” before them, could turn to the political extremes as people had done during other periods of history.

His warning was part of a debate during the Times Higher Education Research Excellence Summit: New Europe 2018, held in Olomouc, the Czech Republic, about how universities should respond to the new political forces amassing in North America and Europe, which are often described as populist.

Discussing where fascism did – and did not – take root in Europe before the Second World War, Professor Connelly pointed out that students had once been some of the chief backers of populists, whom he defined as those who claim that the “political order, usually a liberal order, dominated by a liberal elite, has fallen out of touch with the needs of the people”.

German students in pre-First World War Vienna and Prague were enthusiastic backers of proto-fascists, while universities in inter-war Romania and Spain became known as “fascism factories”, he said.

Students were not on the whole taking a similar path now, he observed. But in the US, because of the enormous burden of tuition fee debt, students were not able to plan their lives in a stable, predictable way and could not look forward to a “life of dignity”, Professor Connelly said.

“That could in theory, given the historical precedents, open them up for aliberalism,” he warned.

By loading students up with debt, “universities may be, at least in the USA, more part of the problem as far as populism is concerned, than the solution”, he continued.

“I get emails about this every day, twice a day sometimes. It’s a major political issue. And if Donald Trump were indeed a smart populist…he would do something about this enormous student debt,” Professor Connelly said.

“Students who we know are literally malnourished” because of the pressures of financing university costs that run to more than $50,000 (£35,890) a year see a bleak future ahead, he added.

“If I were Trump…I would fund those students, I would send billions of dollars to try to take care of that debt crisis and thereby show actually that liberals don’t care, but Trump cares,” Professor Connelly said. “That’s not what he’s doing. He is, in fact, maybe a very poor populist in that sense.” Of course, he added, the president was hampered by requiring support from Republican congressmen who were opposed to government spending.

At the summit, delegates also heard from Mikuláš Bek, rector of Masaryk University in Brno, about the role that universities were playing in the Czech Republic as it, too, enters uncharted political waters.

Last October, the traditional governing parties of the centre-left and the centre-right were swept aside by ANO, which is led by the billionaire Andrej Babiš, who has sometimes been compared to Mr Trump.

But the party has struggled to form a stable government, and Mr Babiš has been dogged by a corruption scandal. ANO has said that it wants to focus research funding on economic growth and to make university education more “practical”, but higher education is not seen as one of its top priorities.

Czech universities have strong legal autonomy, said Professor Bek, which allows them “to play an important role in the present Czech political situation”. They remain “strongholds of critical discourse”, he said.

He stressed that the Czech Republic was experiencing only “soft populism”, which was not comparable to that in Poland or Hungary, where academics have faced much more direct challenges. In Poland, historians have warned that a recent change to the law could restrict study of the Holocaust; while in Budapest, the Central European University remains under threat of closure from a hostile government.

We are still successful at persuading society that we offer some value,” Professor Bek said of Czech universities. Degrees still guaranteed a “huge increase” in individuals’ earning power, he added, while graduate unemployment was “practically zero”. Universities had helped cities such as Brno to turn away from bankrupt communist industries towards more modern areas like IT, he argued.

Czech universities were, therefore, in a reasonably strong position to go on the “offensive” against populism in the country, he said.

There was a “high degree of solidarity” among Czech rectors, academics and universities, he added. “Without that solidarity, the case would be lost.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Student debt ‘could fuel populist fire’

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