Rise of populism is a wake-up call for universities

In the wake of the rising tide of populism that has seen the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union and the United States elect a former reality television star as president, one respected educator warns that academia is not immune to the sentiments behind these events.

Indeed, by ignoring certain criticisms, higher education risks ending up on the wrong side of history.

“This is an age of alternative truths,” said Professor Sir Peter Scott. And recalling a phrase used by the Trump administration, he warned: “Alternative facts can never be suppressed.”

He believes that one alternative truth being pedalled by populists that universities should not ignore is the concept that higher education favours the middle class and is, in effect, “too elite”.

Dr Scott was speaking to an audience of academics in Canada at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, as part of the 2017 Worldviews Lecture on Media and Higher Education, for which University World News is a media partner.

He framed his talking points by drawing on his experience as a journalist, professor of higher education studies at University College London and the recently appointed Commissioner for Fair Access to Higher Education in Scotland.

While the event was meant to focus on the difficulties Canadian universities face in dealing with a rising tide of populism, Scott’s perspectives provided insights applicable to the broader, global higher education communities. With an increase in what Scott calls “the usual suspects targeting academia”, he laid out both his own views on what has caused this recent surge in populism, and his thoughts on how higher education can effectively respond.

The most visible manifestations of populism are, of course, the election of Donald Trump as US president and the UK’s Brexit vote. To Scott, both those events evinced a trend towards the simplifying of complex ideas to attract a wider audience for relative purposes, and are part of the current age in which, as he puts it, “Trump governs through his Twitter account”, and, “Politicians and political parties have to sort of become brands”.

This process of ‘dumbing down’ ideas merely for the sake of gaining wider public access is not something academia should embrace, according to Scott: “We should not try to simplify things,” he said, nor should academics surrender to relativism.

But he is adamant that higher education must be aware that simplism is not confined to the political arena, and that issues such as economic grievances, racism or worries about immigration add to the perceived threat to identity that some individuals feel. Taken together, the wave of populism has very direct implications for academia.

Scott made it clear as to what he believes are the problems, starting with the voting records in last year’s most notable political events.

“[T]he majority of college educated in the US supported Hillary Clinton and in the UK voted to remain in the EU – and in both cases ended up on the losing side.”

Scott noted that in the Brexit referendum, only 27% of graduates voted to leave, compared with 75% of those with no qualifications who voted to pull away from the EU. And in the US presidential election, fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Trump.

Compounding this is the populist concept that expertise is being outweighed by emotion, or even lies. Academia is seen by some as ivory towers inhabited by elitists, leading to a distrust of experts.

“Higher education seems to have been bracketed with those other global elites, political and financial, which have been the target of populist revolt. It has almost felt in the past 12 months that we have ended up on the ‘wrong side’ of history,” he said.

Four-point plan

To address these problems, Scott proposes a four-point plan, one that could be summarised as widen, resist, open and reinforce.

Scott’s first proposal is, in his own words, the most controversial. He feels there should be a widening of participation in universities, extending the higher education ‘franchise’ to the masses.

His second idea is to resist the commodification and commercialisation of learning, because as Scott put it quite simply, “Learning is a shared experience.”

Third, Scott feels that opening up research and developing new forms of research is another vital component.

And finally, Scott emphasised the need to engage with communities, reinforcing the connections that higher education institutions have with their neighbours. Without a strong connection to the communities that serve universities, Scott worries academia could fall prey to the same populist forces that have taken over political discourse.

“Maybe it is partly universities’ fault,” he says. “In many countries, the strong sense of social purpose, and expanding opportunities to new social groups and disadvantaged communities, has been diluted by the drive towards becoming ‘world-class’.

“It is hardly surprising that talk of being in the ‘top 100’ turns off those left behind, including the middle classes coping with the aftermath of a global financial and economic crisis in which the perpetrators have not only gone unpunished but seem more dominant than ever.

“Even when universities were trying to reach out to new, and less advantaged groups, they were not always very successful. At times, mass higher education seems to have entrenched rather than eroded the privileges of the already fortunate.”

Yet the sky is not falling on higher education, at least not yet, according to Scott. He remains a forceful proponent of the need for universities to generate alternatives and maintain the courage of imagination that has defined academia. And he believes that higher education communities can adapt without giving in to populist trends.

But Scott does feel that populism’s rise has created a wake-up call, and what is needed is a strong sense of purpose and identity, coupled with a renewed engagement with communities and individuals outside academic life.

“Now – perhaps – we are not even trying very hard. Maybe the rise of populism is a welcome call – not just to speak up more loudly for open societies, but also to recover that sense of social purpose we are in danger of losing.”