In a populist era, Europe’s universities are progressive strongholds

Higher education institutions are vital not just to research and economic growth but also to ensuring the health of liberal democracy on the continent

April 26, 2018
march for science protestor
Source: Getty

Populism, according to Emmanuel Macron, is bringing “civil war” to Europe.

Using the deliberately emotive language of the demagogues he was critiquing, the French president warned last week that the European Union was being endangered not by Brexit so much as by the rise of anti-migrant politicians in countries such as Hungary and Poland.

The shift in some central and eastern European countries spoke of a “fascination with illiberalism”, he suggested, in which “nationalism and egotism take precedence over what brings us together”.

Macron’s comments follow Viktor Orbán’s re-election as prime minister of Hungary this month, and an ongoing battle over judicial freedom between the EU and Poland, which is also pursuing a nationalist agenda under the ruling Law and Justice Party.

Austria is governed by an alliance between the right-wing Freedom Party and the conservative People’s Party, while the prime minister of the Czech Republic is a billionaire businessman who has drawn comparisons with Donald Trump.

Populism is never good news for universities, not least because those who pursue what Macron calls “authoritarian democracy” tend, like out-and-out autocrats, to be suspicious of institutions that deal in ideas and expertise. Universities are a potential source of political opposition to those in power.

One high-profile example of this clash is the Central European University, which has been a lightning rod for Orbán’s animosity towards its billionaire founder, George Soros.

In what has become something of a cause célèbre, the CEU has been battling to maintain its base in Budapest after Orbán brought in legislation placing extra requirements on universities that offer degrees accredited overseas (as the CEU’s are).

The prime minister, who once studied at the University of Oxford on a scholarship funded by Soros, has claimed that the CEU is “educating liberal activists” as part of a Soros plot, while the CEU’s president, Michael Ignatieff, has accused Orbán of trying to “asphyxiate” his institution. In the latest sinister turn, a pro-government newspaper named academics as “Soros agents”.

For those who believe that universities are a vital check and balance – as crucial to a properly functioning democracy as a free press – the plight of the CEU, and the wider political atmosphere, is deeply worrying.

Speaking at the Centre for Global Higher Education at UCL this month, Ignatieff pinpointed this crucial argument for universities as they fight back: the defence of academic freedom must not be made in terms of a scholarly privilege, he said, but rather as something that protects us all.

“We are not just fighting for a corporate privilege for ourselves; we are defending a counter-majoritarian institution whose function is to serve and protect and defend the whole society’s capacity to know anything at all,” he said. “If we defend it as a corporate privilege, we’re done for.”

This week, Times Higher Education is holding its Research Excellence Summit: New Europe at Palacký University Olomouc in the Czech Republic, and the ramifications of political populism are high on our agenda.

In this week’s cover story, meanwhile, we assess the health of higher education in central and eastern Europe, and ask why the development of research capacity has failed to match economic progress.

What is clear from our analysis is that the economics of science does not work in quite the same way as the rest of the economy, as low wages for researchers do not create a competitive advantage but rather spur them to emigrate. European funding schemes based on excellence, then, are not doing much to assist in the development of research capacity in the east.

Whether this warrants a reconfiguration of Framework Programme Nine to redistribute funding from west to east, or if it puts the onus on universities in the so-called EU13 countries to build a more efficient system that produces more European Research Council grant winners, is among the topics that will be debated at our summit this week.

What’s not open for debate is that the future success of European integration, and the health of liberal democracy as a founding principle in the continent, depends on strong, autonomous universities. This is just as true in the rest of the world, too.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Progressive redoubts

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