Universities: ‘the collateral damage of blood and soil nationalist politics’

The massification of higher education has made it a polarising issue, says Simon Marginson

March 5, 2017

It is a crucial time for global higher education, in an extraordinary political landscape that no one saw coming a year ago. Universities, science, experts, mobile foreigners, mobile locals: all are on the alt-right blacklist. 

Remarkably, the toxic, unresolvable debate between global mobility and national monoculture has not only paused the evolution of Europe, it is now more potent than the goal of economic prosperity, which a year ago ruled policy in the UK and the US.

We have long struggled with the domination of higher education policy by solely economic indicators. We now have a larger problem.

Ending free movement in Europe is now a higher priority for the UK government than either economic enrichment or attracting global talent. The UK’s two most successful global sectors are financial services, and higher education and research. Different though they are, each is likely to be collateral damage of blood and soil nationalist politics. 

Former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage even argues that in trade agreements, the UK should give priority to countries that speak English. That’s some export strategy. I doubt that Germany is about to give priority to trading partners that speak German, or Finland to countries that speak Finnish.

And suddenly, higher education and research are negatively positioned in both the UK and the US. University cities in the UK’s Midlands and the North that voted Remain sit amid strong Leave majorities in the smaller towns and rural areas for whom global connectedness is not working. And a rogue alt-right US administration targets both US universities and climate science.

This all forces us to reconsider not just higher education, but our understandings of globalisation, society and politics. Even of determination in social science.

The global political changes intersect with a higher education sector already undergoing transformation. Three great tendencies have reshaped the sector in the last generation: massification, globalisation and marketisation. Across the world, these tendencies impact the sector in varied ways.

Marketisation has transformed the English-speaking higher education systems, Russia and much of Eastern Europe and India. It has had less impact in Western Europe and much of Latin America, has been partly reversed in Poland, and been contained in China and East Asia.

Global convergence and integration have built a world system of knowledge based on networked universities, a fundamental and decisive change, and there is a continuing secular expansion in mobility, despite increasing opposition to migration in some countries.

Of the three tendencies, however, it is massification, linked to urbanisation and a growing middle class, that is truly universal. In the past two decades, the world gross tertiary enrolment ratio jumped from 17 per cent to 34 per cent. More than 50 countries enrol half of each school-leaver age cohort. Only in the US and the UK are student numbers falling.

Perhaps this is because in these highly stratified systems, in societies becoming more unequal, the social value of participation in bottom-tier institutions is being emptied out, while private costs are rising. But overall, worldwide, the story is of continuing and rapid enrolment growth.

So here’s the new paradox of high-participation higher education. On one hand, higher education has never been more central to economic, social and cultural life; never reached more people, never been more inclusive. On the other hand, it is painted as a rootless elite conspiracy.

When the UK’s former Conservative education secretary Michael Gove said “people have had had enough of experts” in the build-up to the European Union referendum, that resonated with many who had never entered a university. When Prime Minister Theresa May said “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”, we felt the hurt.

As if people must choose between singular identities, national or global, and it is unnatural to be both.

I don’t think we yet fully understand why higher education is now so central, and higher education and globalisation so closely intertwined. Perhaps our inherited social science tools are inadequate to the task.

Human capital theory embodies an important insight into the way that higher education builds human capacity and potential, yet only part of that is captured by measures of productivity based on the market value of graduate labour. Theories of credential signalling and positional competition also provide only part of the story. And all are, in essence, proxies – how higher education does it remains a black box.

The key, I think, and herein lies the lasting democratic potential of the sector, is higher education’s role in fostering student agency. Higher education changes people. It builds capacity and confidence so that graduates are less trapped by their personal circumstances.

Higher learning fosters collective social agency, and global agency.

Let me give you an illustration. Recently, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development published Perspectives on Global Development 2017: International migration in a shifting world. It contains a table comparing the cross-border mobility of people with and people without university degrees.

Among those without university degrees, the tendency to move across borders is correlated to income. As you might expect, as income rises, people have more scope for mobility. The capacity for mobility is associated with economic advantage, and it furthers those individual advantages. The wealthy benefit most from globalisation. End of story.

Except that it isn’t.

Among those with university degrees – and current participation rates suggest that this will soon be one-fifth of all people in the world – the pattern is different. First, at a given level of income, those with degrees are much more mobile than those without degrees. In other words, higher education helps to democratise mobility – although only provided that you can get to higher education in the first place.

Second, for those with degrees, as income rises, once a modest threshold of income is reached, there is little change in potential mobility. My conclusion is that higher education not only helps graduates to achieve greater personal agency, it actually reduces the effects of economic determination in their lives.

Education in itself brings graduates greater freedom. An effect not captured in graduate salaries and employment rates, but profoundly important.

This conjunction of higher education, mobility and agency freedom also helps to explain why educated persons and experts, and mobile and cosmopolitan persons, are joint targets of the alt-right. Although economic inequality and social closure have provided fertile conditions for the backlash, the political polarisations engineered by Ukip and by Donald Trump do not turn on income or class. There are poor and wealthy on both sides of the divide.

Those political polarisations turn on culture, and higher education is part of the cultural mix.

We gain some sense of this from the voting patterns in the June referendum on Brexit and the November US election. A word of caution. Binary voting calls up heterogeneous voting blocs. By no means all Brexit supporters were persuaded by alt-right arguments. Some were left of centre, including many in Labour Party branches.

In the US, Trump drew the votes of many lifelong Republicans who support the party of Lincoln. The polarisation also partly differed between the US and the UK, with ethnicity (“race”) and gender playing a larger role in the US. But the momentum of both Brexit and Trump was driven by the alt-right, inescapably, and there was convergence in the arguments, particularly on migration, national identity and the negative referencing of “experts”. 

The best overall predictors of how people voted were: whether they lived in large cities, where they voted Remain and for Hillary Clinton, or small towns and rural areas, where they strongly supported Leave and Trump; and whether they had a degree.

Degree holders concentrate in cities. In the UK, just 26 per cent of degree holders voted Leave, compared with 78 per cent of people without qualifications. Young people, the most educated generation in UK history, overwhelmingly voted Remain.

In the US, Trump celebrated the “uneducated” and secured a sharp swing among those who had never attended college. Clinton secured more than half the vote from only one group of white voters: college-educated women.

It is ironic, isn’t it? Once higher participation higher education, and also climate science, become more central, they can be used to polarise an electorate on the basis of identity. You can’t divide an electorate this way when only 5 per cent of people go to university.

But while mass higher education is more politically vulnerable, there is a positive side. Because higher education changes people, because graduates have a greater capacity to manage difference, change and complexity, and are more comfortable with mobility and plural cultures, the continuing spread of higher education cuts the ground from under the alt-right (provided that higher education is able to continue to attract first-generation students, and sufficiently attuned to the communities in which universities and colleges are nested).

In countries where market forces have let rip, we need to moderate stratification, strengthen the quality and standing of mass institutions, and focus on public goods as well as private benefits of higher education. Undue emphasis on private goods, and on selective higher education institutions inaccessible to the average family, means that higher education is more readily isolated.

Simon Marginson is director of the Centre for Global Higher Education. This blog is an edited version of a speech he delivered at the CGHE Annual Conference held in London last week.

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