Neo-nationalism is a threat to academic cooperation

In 2017 Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit cautioned against the rise of the new nationalism and its potential impact on the internationalisation of higher education, noting that “maintaining [the vision of the university] will likely fall to the academic community, while… society, as well as many governments, push in nationalist directions”.

Almost three years later, at the turn of a new decade, with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting international higher education in different forms, the fall-out resulting from neo-nationalism is globally evident.

The idea of an international academic citizenship begs the question of whether the international academic community is stepping up to maintain a vision of the university that supports internationalisation of higher education. Without proper identification and valuation of the different elements of such a vision, maintaining and actualising it may be difficult to achieve.

One element that seems to be increasingly under threat due to recent nationalist governmental policies is international academic cooperation. The breakdown of international academic cooperation is worth further investigation in terms of what it entails, whether it is worth maintaining and how it may be affected by neo-nationalism.

International academic cooperation

International academic cooperation requires the willing participation of national governments in policy-making related to higher education with the purpose of achieving globally desirable outcomes.

Cooperation may be formal (including agreements and contracts) or informal cooperation between academic researchers and may include international research collaboration, international research funding structures and the pooling of expertise and resources as well as student exchanges.

As a component of the internationalisation of higher education, international academic cooperation has developed in response to globalisation and to attempts to resolve globally relevant problems.

The direct and indirect benefits of international research collaboration have been recognised worldwide: an increase in research quality, the potential for research with a broader scope and on a larger scale, a reduction in the need for investment by individual institutions or nations and social benefits, such as increased trust and commitment and shared understanding.

These tangible benefits of international academic cooperation are not always easy to evaluate. Thinking about international academic cooperation using the concept of global public good(s) can be helpful if we want to understand its value.

A case in which international academic cooperation may be treated as a relatively pure global public good would be the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, which would arguably benefit all people and countries, and perhaps all generations.

These cannot be achieved without the global public goods of international research collaboration, international funding structures and the sharing of knowledge, among other forms of international academic cooperation.

If we value international academic cooperation as a global public good, we must consider how increasingly neo-nationalist policies are threatening its provision, how the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these effects and what our response must be as an international academic community.

Effects of neo-nationalism and COVID-19

The rise of populist nationalism over the past few years has prompted scholars across academic fields to raise concerns about possibly diminished support for the internationalisation of higher education, largely in terms of student and scholar mobility, but also in relation to other forms of international academic cooperation, such as international research collaboration and international research funding.

The Brexit decision is one instance which has been widely discussed in relation to its potential detrimental effects on international academic cooperation, including formal cooperation benefits, such as student flows, data exchange and significant research funding issues for the United Kingdom.

It also implies limitations to the benefits of informal research collaboration, such as the research productivity and freedom of movement of scholars.

The growing fear of Chinese ‘espionage’ or ‘security threats’ in United States higher education and elsewhere is another illustration of blatant political intrusion into our international academic community. (Although, there may be grounds for concern around talent recruitment and intellectual property loss as a result of Chinese recruitment programmes.)

In this US context, this has resulted in the investigation of foreign gifts (a relatively minor, but valuable contribution to US research funding), and accusations by government committees of Beijing turning US higher education institutions into “indoctrination platforms”.

This has led to recommendations to the higher education community, from government intelligence and legal agencies, around the need for funding transparency, enhanced background checks, cataloguing of student and scholar travel for audit purposes, the development of a relationship with local FBI offices and increasing management and oversight aimed at addressing ‘threat analysis’ and ‘risk mitigation’, all under the name of ‘export control’.

Unfortunately, these fears have largely been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The US-China cold war has deepened over this time, with the repercussions being felt globally.

Most recently, the US higher education sector has been on tenterhooks regarding whether the US post-study work programme – Optional Practical Training – is at risk. Also, plans by the Trump administration to cancel student visas for Chinese graduate students who have ties to institutions affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army are raising alarm bells.

The direct effect on international research collaboration is severe. Collaboration between Chinese and US researchers have shown gains for the US in particular – China’s leadership on a majority of US-China research publications has resulted in increased US research productivity and has contributed to a significant amount of US research funding.

However, due to neo-nationalist threats, the benefits of this fruitful relationship may end up being re-directed to Europe and Southeast Asia.

International opposition from academics

The international academic community has not taken these moves lying down. Indeed, strong opposition has been voiced, with calls to strengthen multilateralism, to disrupt traditional modes of internationalisation, to respond with international collaboration and to reaffirm the core value of universities, that is, to “return to the ethics and values of cooperation”.

One positive effect of COVID-19 on international academic cooperation has been the accelerated shift to open access publications and the sharing of research data and medical expertise. This aptly demonstrates the enormous benefits of developing a global research culture based on international academic cooperation and collaboration rather than competition.

Recognising the dire threat neo-nationalism poses to our identities as citizens of an international system of higher education is necessary if we are to meet the challenges of our time. And in doing so, we must uphold those values that make us an international academic community, especially international academic cooperation.

Tessa DeLaquil is a research assistant and doctoral student at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States. E-mail: