Global higher education, social solidarity, and the new nationalism

Higher education serves both national and global interests in the pursuit of knowledge and student learning. Given populism’s nationalist roots, there is mounting pressure to redefine the university’s mission. How should universities respond?

The last twelve months have seen a great shift in the North Atlantic political landscape, with only Canada immune (so far). Nobody in universities saw it coming. It is urgent to grasp the nature of this shift. Higher education has become central to societies; it is inevitably caught up in all big political changes and it is directly involved in this particular shift.

There has been a surge of support for ethno-nationalism of the blood-and-soil kind, fearful of global openness and resentful of globally connected persons, whether migrants, traders, or cross-border professors and students. This surge has been strong enough to take the UK out of the European Union and, against the odds, propel a white nationalist protectionist into the White House. Donald Trump is bristling with threats to wage war on a long list of internal and external enemies; he is trying to turn those threats into policy. The alt-right political polarization, grounded in identity, not class (although white nationalism actually claims the mantle of the proletariat, capturing class within cultural identity) turns on an opposition between singular ethno-national identity, and global openness and plural identity. This has rendered Anglo-American higher education and science more controversial and vulnerable, affecting every higher education institution.

What is different about the alt-right?

Though the alt-right is more nuanced and modernist in Western Europe, there is strong support for ethno-nationalist populism in France, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands. In fact, Marine Le Pen may have won the French presidency by the time this article is published, and while Geert Wilders failed to sweep the March elections in the Netherlands, his fundamentalist Dutch identity has colonized the political language of the mainstream parties, just as the anti-migration anti-Europe rhetoric of Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party have remade the strategies and policies of Theresa May’s Conservative Party in the UK.

Nationalist populism and the rhetorical targeting of elites (often by politicians who draw their own support from the rich and powerful) is an old gambit. In efforts to shore up their power, many other politicians have and are currently leveraging nationalist sympathy, including Vladimir Putin in Russia and Hindu-centric Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India. President Xi Jinping in China has also sharpened the patriotic rhetoric. However, alt-right populism is different from nationalist populism: a break from the past in two ways.

alt-right populism is different from nationalist populism

First, the alt-right is explicitly and consistently anti-globalization. It rejects the neoliberal globalism that has shaped politics for the last 25 years, with its world-market dreaming and free flows of capital, labour, and products. Here the alt-right differs from Xi in China, Modi, and even, despite habitual Russian closure (a hangover from the Soviet past), from Putin. Open economic borders still facilitate the rise of China and India; but in the US, UK, and France, part of the economic elite has drawn the conclusion that open borders no longer translate into global dominance. Hence Trump’s emphasis on that other source of US global power, military capability, and the reported desire of his chief adviser Steve Bannon for a “cleansing war”. Second, the alt-right pitches itself against science, higher education, experts, and even graduates, which are all positioned on the wrong side of its simplistic elite/people divide.

A post-neoliberal world

Trump’s abrupt switch from free trade policy to American isolationism has been startling. Nevertheless, US policy never fully discarded all protectionism. Perhaps the abandonment of multilateralism by a mainstream political party in the UK is the larger change. Since the Brexit vote, Prime Minister Theresa May has made it clear that ending free migratory movement from continental Europe is a higher priority for the UK government than either economic enrichment or attracting global talent. If necessary, the UK will leave the single market in Europe to end free movement. In the last generation, the UK’s two most successful global sectors have been financial services, led by the City of London, and higher education and research. Different though they are, each has become collateral damage of ethno-nationalism. UK finance will no longer provide international firms with single-stop access to European markets —the passport to Europe which has been primary in building London as a global business centre. Nigel Farage even argues that, when selecting partners for bilateral trade deals, the UK should give priority to countries that speak English. It is hard to imagine export nations like Germany or Korea giving priority to trading partners that speak German or Korean.

Who would have thought it? The UK and USA have entered a post-neoliberal world in which the goal of maximum capital accumulation has been partly eclipsed. This is a result of a hard-nosed politics of securing and maintaining power in fractured societies rife with material insecurity and frustrated hopes. Alt-right and mainstream centre-right politicians find it easier to scapegoat than to implement reforms to confront the one per cent and reverse growing inequality. This strategic shift may create openings for other opponents of neoliberalism, but it is not the post-neoliberal world that higher education wanted. We long chafed under the dominance of solely economic policy. We now have a larger problem.

Rampant global markets are associated with inequality, the undermining of labour conditions and the social wage, and pressures to privatize education. However, global convergence has not been solely economic. Since the 1990s, open borders and free movement have also been associated with the roll-out of worldwide communications and common databases, a renaissance in higher education with unprecedented international collaboration, and the spread of indigenous scientific capacity and global research to more than fifty countries. A combination of widespread authoritarian national governments and border blockages would be the worst possible outcome for higher education and research at home and abroad.

It will be hard for Canada to remain entirely insulated from pressures to restrict cross-border movement. Nevertheless, the Canadian social consensus about multiculturalism and migrancy should protect the nation from the worst extremes of the alt-right. This is vital for Canadian higher education. Consider the effects already unfolding for higher education institutions in the US and UK.

The UK has 2.9 million resident EU citizens and 2.15 million in the workforce. This includes 43,000 EU citizen staff and 125,000 EU students in higher education. Their position is radically uncertain. Until last June, EU nationals were quasi-citizens with an unquestionable right to remain. That has disappeared. The UK government refuses to announce a blanket guarantee for existing residents. It has been overwhelmed by the volume of applications for residency (it kept no records of EU citizens that would confirm the validity of their applications) and is nudging as many EU citizens as possible back across the border by imposing a difficult 85-page application form and steep requirements for proof of UK residency. This includes a record of private health insurance, though most EU citizens in the UK use the public National Health Service. Universities face the loss of many of their best faculty—in recent years 40 per cent of all new applicants for UK academic posts have gone to Europeans—and a massive drop in EU students entering the UK. After Brexit, EU students will no longer have access to income contingent loans for tuition and will face increases of 120 to 200 per cent in tuition fees. Further, UK researchers will no longer be eligible to participate in large-scale collaborative EU research programs, slowing the exchange of ideas between the UK and the continent.

In the US, Trump’s ban on citizens from six Muslim countries immediately blocks large-scale flows of students, researchers, and faculty visitors. It imposes a discriminatory framework, violating the ideas of secularism, cultural diversity and equal respect, and academic freedom and democratic rights. It undermines the capacity of universities to provide the free cosmopolitan global space integral to their role. Further, Trump has targeted climate science and already cut the budget for Environmental Protection Agency research. No doubt National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health budgets will come under scrutiny. Trump’s early confrontation with the University of California, Berkeley over free speech—on behalf of an alt-right leader who was, ironically, attempting to deny free speech to Muslims—suggests that a long culture war with US universities and colleges is likely.

Higher education and electoral polarization

A culture war that targets universities would be a conscious political strategy driven by alt-right ideology. Not only do universities embody values and cross-border practices that Trump detests; not only do they harbour many of his articulate critics; the social divide between those with college degrees and those outside higher education was crucial to his 2016 electoral strategy. The education/non-education divide, and attacks on experts also figured in the Brexit campaign in the UK.

A culture war that targets universities would be a conscious political strategy driven by alt-right ideology

We can see this by examining voting patterns. A word of caution here: binary political systems trigger heterogeneous voting blocs. Not all supporters of Brexit were persuaded by the alt-right—including many members of the British Labour Party for whom the EU is a bankers’ conspiracy. In the US, Trump drew votes from lifelong Republicans who support the party of Lincoln while disagreeing with the candidate on some issues. Electoral polarization also differed between the US and UK. Ethnicity and gender were larger factors in the US, but there was convergence in the winning ethno-nationalist arguments, particularly in relation to migration (“give us back our country”), national aggrandizement (“make America great again”), and the negative references to experts.

The best overall predictors of how people voted in the US and UK were not whether they were rich or poor. Support for Trump and Brexit cut across class lines, and in different ways: in the UK, the average income of Brexit supporters was less than that of EU supporters; in the US, the average income of Trump voters was higher than that of Clinton voters. The clearest indicators of how people were likely to vote were
(1) whether they lived in large cities (they tended to support the EU and Clinton), or small towns and rural areas (they supported Brexit and Trump); and (2) whether they held degrees. The two factors are related. Like global connections, degree holders are concentrated in cities.

This association between higher education and global mobility is instrumental, not coincidental. Recently the OECD published Perspectives on Global Development 2017: International migration in a shifting world. The report contained a table comparing the cross-border mobility of people with, and without, university degrees. Among those without degrees, the tendency to move across borders was correlated to income. As income rose, people had more scope for mobility. The capacity for mobility is economically driven and it furthers the economic advantages of those already advantaged. End of story.

Except that it isn’t. Among those with university degrees—and current participation rates suggest this will soon be one-fifth of all people in the world—the OECD found a different pattern. 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 democratize mobility, providing you can get higher education in the first place. Second, for those with degrees, above a modest threshold of income there is little change in potential mobility. This suggests that because higher education helps graduates to achieve greater personal agency, it reduces the limits set by economic determination and class, constituting greater personal freedom in its own right. Conversely, those who lack higher education have less freedom, which helps to explain the virulence of push-back mobilized by the alt-right.

Nate Silver’s analysis of the November 2016 election in the US shows that in the 50 least educated counties, as measured by the proportion of the electorate with college degrees, Trump made major gains. When compared to Obama in 2012, Clinton lost ground in 47 of these 50 counties with an average slide of 11 percentage points. In the 50 counties with the highest level of college education—otherwise diverse in terms of income and ethnic composition—Clinton improved on Obama’s 2012 vote in 48 of the 50 by an average 9 percentage points. These highly educated counties include many with high proportions of white voters, who elsewhere tended to support Trump. Clinton secured more than half the vote from only one group of white voters: college educated women. In the UK, only 26 per cent of degree holders supported Brexit, far less than the 78 per cent of those without degrees who voted in favour. Young people, the most educated generation in UK history—more comfortable with mobility and complex identity—overwhelmingly voted for the UK to remain in the EU.

Ironically, Trump could not have used level of education as a means of dividing the electorate if only 5 per cent of people went to university and it was solely an elite affair. Only when participation reached a third or more of all young people, and higher education had become much less elite, could it be used as a binary political weapon. The alt-right, which positions itself as egalitarian, yet supports low taxes for the rich and demonizes destitute refugees with nowhere to go, is bristling with Orwellian ironies of this kind.

It might be a weapon with diminishing power. If participation in higher education continues to expand then, in the long run, the potential alt-right base must shrink. Yet that is not the only possible scenario. In the neoliberal policy settings that have affected Canada and other countries, higher education has been rendered more vulnerable to alt-right populism because of its growing focus on elite universities and private rates of return to degrees, rather than the contributions of higher education to the common public good. Universities defined as self-serving corporations are painted into a corner, and there is a danger that as the cost of public education rises and its social value is emptied out by stratification, the growth of participation will stop. This is already happening in the US.

Global, national, and local

Higher education institutions suddenly find themselves walking on eggshells. EU-voting UK university cities in the Midlands and the North sit amid strong Brexit majorities in the surrounding regions. Educated city-based people, comfortable with global mobility, have been pitted against those for whom life and self are geographically constrained and global engagement is on the wrong side of the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. This newly constructed social division has entered the political mainstream, as shown by Theresa May’s savage put-down of global values soon after the Brexit vote: “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. You do not belong in the UK. As if people must choose between singular identities, national or global, and it is unnatural to be both. This poses dangers for higher education institutions that are local, national, and global at the same time.

Higher education serves national objectives. It also works with universal knowledge and focuses on common global problems. This leaves universities ambiguous in the face of the essential ethno-national question: “Shouldn’t we do more for our own citizens than those of other countries?” One virtue of universities is that they refuse to be trapped by that question. Nevertheless, when the choice becomes a dualistic national-vs-global, they are immediately suspect.

How should higher education respond to this new political landscape? There is no magic key but the following seem essential:

  1. Universities must be even stronger advocates of open borders, global connectivity, and the cosmopolitan ideal, finding every way around ethno-national barriers. Mobility is a human right. Closer cross-border integration coupled with genuine diversity is the way forward. Universities must be relentless, articulate critics of national chauvinism and racism in every form. This is part of their historic mission. The alternative, that universities would be complicit in the slide into militarism in an ethno-nationalist world, is unthinkable.
  2. The struggle over the freedom and validity of science is equally important. Only universities can effectively advance and defend research and the scholarly ideal.
  3. Higher education institutions, regardless of
    individual mission, should maintain their role in nation-building and reposition themselves in solidarity with local and regional communities. They should focus more on their role as producers of public goods, as well as private goods. National social democratic policy alone will not defeat ethno-nationalism and advance global connectivity. The battle for a more global approach must be won in its own right. However, in the long run, only social democratic sensibility can pry class identity away from alt-right demagoguery. Universities can and must be local and global at the same time, combining social solidarity with multicultural and international solidarity. AM
Simon Marginson is a Professor of International Higher Education at the University College London Institute of Education in the United Kingdom, Director of the ESRC/HEFCE Centre for Global Higher Education, and is Joint Editor-in-Chief of Higher Education with Jussi Valimaa.