The Rise of Neo-Nationalism: Are Universities the Canary in the Coalmine?

By John Aubrey Douglass
In the new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education I offer a what I call a political determinist view: that the national political environment, past and present, is perhaps the most powerful influence on the mission, role, and effectiveness of universities, and the higher education system to which they belong—more than internally derived academic cultures, labor market demands, or the desires of students.

Further, the particular national political norms and environment largely, but not completely, determine the internal organization and academic culture of universities and their interface with the larger world. Their level of autonomy, in governance and internal academic management, for example, is to a great extent dependent on the political culture and determinants of national governments.

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 appears to simply reinforce the central role of the nation-state, in particular the societal controls of nationalist-leaning governments. The power and authority of national governments, right or left leaning, only increased in response to the pandemic. In many cases, autocratic governments used the crisis to expand their authority, with a direct impact on the operations of universities and the civil liberties of academics and students.

China’s imposition of its National Security Law passed in July 2020 is a case in point; it provided Beijing a path, already chosen it appears, for an expanded and harsh crackdown on dissidents, including university students and faculty in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Restrictions imposed as a consequence of COVID-19 on social and political gatherings arguably provided an improved environment for Beijing to pass the law and to put a desired end to mass prodemocracy protests.

At the same time, China’s national response to the virus has boosted nationalism and the claim that its one-party autocratic system of government is superior to Western democracies, specifically a politically chaotic and seemingly weakening United States.

The concept that the political environment is determinative in shaping the mission, organization, and academic culture of universities is not in itself a revelation. Sociologists focus on institutional theory that, in part, sees universities as significantly influenced by their environment and traditions that shape their internal “institutional logics”; economists look at resource dependency that, in the case of higher education, is largely furnished by the state; policy historians chronicle the essential role of governments in chartering and shaping universities to meet political ideals and perceived social and economic problems.

In my view, these various analytical approaches are inadequate in themselves in explaining the context and behaviors of universities. They tend to focus on internal universal norms of universities and not on the larger and specific political context driving their organization, mission, and national role.

At the same time, there are weaknesses in the political determinist viewpoint. Political culture and organizations are, after all, the sum of complex social, economic, geographic, and demographic variables over time.

There is also a global trend toward organizational convergence in some aspects of university management, including the adoption of “best practices.” Yet this political determinist view provides an interesting starting point for assessing the meaning and impact of neo-nationalism, in its varied national forms, on universities and their role in the societies they serve.

Political geography still matters.

Hence, in exploring the topic of neo-nationalism and universities, this book is organized as a series of national case studies, including Turkey, Hungary, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States, along with two pan-national essays focused on the European Higher Education Area. We can, in short, test the concept of the pivotal role of the state, historically and currently, relative to other influences on academe.

These case studies also provide a rudimentary assessment of the meaning and impact of the worst pandemic since the so-called Spanish flu around the time of World War I. Has COVID-19 accelerated trends in each case study, or is there some other complex outcome?

In the introductory chapters of the book, I also ask the question: Are universities, and more specifically their follower or leadership roles in the societies they are intended to serve, good indicators for understanding the political nature and trajectory of nations? I think they are and for the following reasons.

Universities are unique social organizations within nation-states. Universities, for example, provide a clear window into the extent of civil liberties allowed in a nation-state. The composition of their student bodies reflects the socioeconomic stratification of society. Their utilitarian role as the primary source of skilled labor and often as a significant player in applied research, provides insights into the composition and future of economic development. Their governance and management structure, including level of autonomy and legal authority to manage their affairs, offers a glimpse into the relationship of a government with other public and private organizations and businesses.

The extent of their global engagement—their ability to attract and retain international talent (students, faculty, and staff), their participation in collaborative research across borders, or the freedom of academics to travel—offers a glimpse into political priorities and the fears and opportunities perceived by national leaders and governments.

Global events, like the COVID-19 pandemic, create a more complicated picture of the future. But it seems that the pandemic only reinforces the concept that universities are a barometer of the socioeconomic health of nation-states. Universities, in effect, are a proverbial canary in the coalmine.

This article is based on excerpts from the new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education published by Johns Hopkins University Press that is a free Open Access eBook accessible via Project Muse.

John Aubrey Douglass is a Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor - Public Policy and Higher Education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education - Goldman School of Public Policy - UC Berkeley. He is the author of The California Idea and American Higher Education (Stanford), The Conditions for Admissions (Stanford), The New Flagship University (Palgrave Macmillan) and Envisioning the Asian New Flagship University (Berkeley Public Policy Press), and is the Founding Principal Investigator of the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium based at Berkeley.
Related News
Russian Universities During and After Putin
The invasion and brutal attack by Russian forces on Ukraine has brought tremendous suffering to millions of Ukrainians, including those in higher education sector. Dozens of universities have been bombed, and hundreds of thousands of students and academics...
photo of the Kremlin
Unwelcome Guests
By Steven Diner There is extensive public discussion today about how colleges decide whom to admit and about the need for affirmative action to ensure minority access to higher education. Colleges today are ranked not only by academic selectivity but by their...
Unwelcome Guests