Berkeley Blog, Opinion

Globalism and the future of higher education

(These remarks were delivered at the opening of a Nov. 16-17 conference observing the 60th anniversary of UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, held in partnership with University World News, and exploring the influence of nationalism on major national universities around the world.)

With varying levels of intensity, university are extensions of the societies that gave them life and meaning. As much as any single institution, and beginning in earnest in the early 1800s, the rise of the modern university aligned and were driven by the rise of the nation-state. The forces of globalization tug and pull at this reality; but as we will discuss in this conference, geography still matters. All globalism is, in reality, local.

At the time of proposing a conference observing the 60th anniversary of UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education to the Carnegie Corporation in early 2017, the wave of nationalism in various parts of the globe was gaining momentum. Donald Trump’s surprising quasi-election as president, Brexit and then pending elections in France, Britain, and Germany – each had their own elements of nationalist rhetoric and threats marked by populist anti-immigrant, anti-globalization sentiments.

Like populist movements in the past, many voters appeared to be reacting to a sense of waning political power and real and perceived declines in social status and economic opportunity – of a fear in the other.

Brexit is a classic example of leaping before you look. A bare majority of voters in England fell for the promises of regulatory freedom from Brussels and the mirage of financial gain, dragging Scotland and Northern Ireland with them. The reality of a hard- or soft-Brexit is complicated and possibly a financial disaster for the United Kingdom.

The fate of England’s universities is an example: in whatever form Brexit finally takes, suddenly two pillars of the UK’s higher education system are in peril: attracting talent and income from international students, and the outsized claim on European Union research funding and influence on the EU research agenda.

It’s complicated

If there is any one theme we will discover in this conference, it is that nationalism comes in many different forms, and with different meanings and consequences for universities. In some cases, nationalism is driven by populism – a grass roots movement, often fed by demagogues, to preserve or reclaim a seemingly lost national cultural and political identity. The Golden Age myth remains a powerful political tool. In this spirit, New Nationalism movements are found in Poland, Hungary, France and in the Netherlands, that may further tear at the European Union and the concept of a European Higher Education Area.

Populism can also take the form of student movements that, in reaction to neo-liberalism and the seemingly commodification of higher education, claim that higher education should always be a “free” public good – witness South Africa’s “tuition must fall” demand of student unions. But who knew it could be so complicated. The “tuition must fall” movement is linked to the political agenda of national labor unions and anti-Zuma efforts to alter the leadership within the African National Congress.

In other cases, nationalism is the tool of the power elite; a way to leverage and shape popular sentiment, and often to limit or control any form of opposition. In Turkey, the solidification of national power by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s following the July 2016 coup attempt is having a profound impact on civil society, and Turkish academics.

Since the coup attempt, and under the rubric of their potential (not necessarily real) ties with Gulen supporters, some 7,000 faculty and staff members at Turkish universities have been fired.  At least 553 university employees and students have been taken into custody or named in warrants on suspicion of using an encrypted messaging to organize anti-government protests. Dismissal bars faculty from future government employment and requires them to apply for a new passport. “A climate of fear now prevails in universities, where academics fear making any kind of comment in the classroom about government or politics,” notes one Turkish academic who fled the country.

But attempts at suppression reach across Turkish borders. Erdoğan’s government recently announced plans to charge Turkish academics living in Germany with cooperating with terrorist after they signed a petition against military operations against Kurdish militants.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government threatened significant operating restrictions on Central European University as part of a nationalist impulse to expunge foreign influences, and a battle over Hungary’s future with Central European University founder George Soros.

In Russia, Putin-style nationalism has led to full or partial reversals of programs once intended to send and bring academics from outside of the old Soviet Block to the Russian Federation, and arbitrary crackdowns on dissidents has led to many important scholars leaving the country. For academics in Russia, there is a sense of instability, all in the name of sustaining the current order in the Kremlin.

In China, one of the early policy statements by Xi Jinping was a call to avoid Western values in the nation’s universities, ordering them to “adhere to the correct political orientation” and the need for firm Party leadership. It seemed like a clear warning sign to Chinese academics that the rules had changed; even more so than in the past, any criticism of the party of national policies is suspect.

Understanding the code of China’s party leaders is always complicated. There is a push and pull nature to China’s rising tide of universities – a push by successive ministerial edicts to engage internationally with universities throughout the world, via academic collaborations and partial adoption of management practices that mark the world’s best universities. The One-Belt One Road policy is a multi-regional socioeconomic initiative and a form of Chinese soft-power colonialism that, interestingly, also includes encouraging Chinese universities to engage strategically with academics.

The pull is Xi’s macro-goal of the Chinese Dream that includes suppression of any oppositional force, including an anti-corruption campaign that seems a mix of attacking a real problem and power consolidation. The growth in enrollment and academic standing of many of China’s leading national universities stands as a major national goal for the government in Peking.

But the increased efforts to restrict access to information, and control the voices of potential critics, continues to escalate. It recently reached beyond China’s borders with a nearly successful demand that Cambridge University Press block access to specific articles critical of the government in its journal China Quarterly.

Add to this mix, Trumpian nationalism has proposed restrictions on visa for academics, students and professors alike, reversing policies for allowing the undocumented to enroll in college. The Trump administration also proposed dramatic funding cuts for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health – largely as part of the effort to make room for a huge tax cuts and, finally, a legislative victory that, thus far, has remained elusive to Trump’s “art of the deal.”

The North Reading Room of UC Berkeley’s Doe Library. (Photo courtesy of UC Regents.)

Trump and Republicans, who control the House and Senate in the United States’ Congress, have not voiced any specific policy agenda for higher education. The impact of nationalism on universities is, generally, the impact of the larger “Make America Great Again” agenda.

Yet even UC Berkeley is not immune to tweeted pot shots: when an alt-right speaker generated an Antifi (Anti-Fascist) show of force, and a mini-riot ensued, Berkeley officials called off the speaking engagement. Media attention generated a sense of Berkeley as intolerant, and no longer the home of the Free Speech Movement. Trump tweeted: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

A waning?

Some of the nationalism momentum appears to have ebbed. Elections in France and Germany resulted not in La Pen but a Macron; and Merkel remains Germany’s chancellor, even if there is larger contingent of anti-immigrant nationalists in the Bundestag that may force a snap election.

The current versions of the federal budget in the House and Senate in the U.S. retain similar levels of funding as last year academic research, and modifies threatened cuts in financial aid.  At the same time, the devotion to tax cuts in the U.S. could still mean broader cuts to higher education – the result of small stabs at reducing the ballooning $1.5 or $2.2 trillion deficit hole (depending on who you believe) the Republicans will create to get a legislative win.

The fate of Brexit, and of UK’s universities, remains a semi-mystery – will a deal be made to keep UK’s universities in the EU Research Area? Will a sizable number of international students decide to not go to England’s universities?

It’s complicated: Part II

Again, in looking at the landscape of the current version of nationalism for our CSHE conference, it is also clear that nationalism, and our label of “new nationalism,” is a complex concept that has different meaning and manifestations in different parts of the world.

Universities have been at the forefront of both national development and global integration. They undoubtedly will continue to play this dual role. But the political and policy world in which they operate is once again undergoing a transition. We may be entering an era that in certain regions of the world will alter the flow of global talent, the opportunities for joint research and for shared research agendas across national borders.

Or perhaps New Nationalism is only passing phase – a temporary halt and, in some countries and regions, regression from the inevitable march of globalization?

Xi’s warning to universities as simply an example of two steps forward and one step back.

Erdoğan’s crackdown an effort at stabilization and later re-opening the desires for a civil society, and perhaps even entering the EU?

We thought it best to focus this conference on a national-regional or case study approach. The sessions focus on the UK and Brexit, on the European Higher Education Area without the UK, on Hungary and Turkey, on China and more generally the Asia region, on Russia, and South American and Brazil.

But we could have added many other nations and regions – the position of universities’ separatist movements like in Catalan; the role of universities in the Philippines . . .

Four policy realms

In the regions we are discussing, we do ask the panel members and conference participants to consider four macro-policy realms in thinking about the past, current and future role of universities in the political and culture environment that must operate in:

  • Academic freedom and civil liberties – How and to what degree are national governments restricting or influencing freedom of speech and teaching and learning within universities?
  • Autonomy and university governance – To what degree are governments seeking controls and steering of universities, and influencing their management capacity to meet government political needs
  • Talent mobility and immigration – What national policies are emerging and influencing the in-flow and out-flow of academic and student talent?
  • Learning and knowledge production – How are current or potential restrictions, sanctions and government controls influencing knowledge production and societal reflection?
  • International engagement – How do nationalistic government priorities shape and possibly restrict the ability of universities to engage with the international community?

Finally, I want to note a theme to keep in mind as we look at the role of universities in the nation-states in which they live. In each of these policy realms, and in other dimensions of their mission and activities, when is it that universities are societal leaders and when are they followers – reinforcing the existing political order?

We often think of universities, and their students and faculty, as catalyst for societal progress – the Free Speech and Civil Rights movements, Vietnam War protests, anti-apartheid demands, Tiananmen Square. That universities can be the locus for not only educating enlightened future leaders, but also for opposing oppression and dictators.

Yet this question, are universities leaders or followers, in promoting a civil society, in promoting talent mobility, in researching challenging social problems, or in reinforcing and supporting an existing social and political order, has different answers in different parts of the world. Are Chinese universities leaders or followers? Russian universities? How about in South Africa and Brazil and in Chile? How about in Trump’s America?