Decreasing democracy: A direct threat to higher education

The notion of civic space is essential to democracy. Even if we cannot have democracy without solid institutions, laws and elections, these are not sufficient to create and maintain democracy. Democracy is not just about formal arrangements. Democracy is also, and maybe above all, about attitudes and behaviours, about commitment and engagement. Democracy is not only representative, but also participative and deliberative.

In brief, democracy builds not only on institutions and laws but requires a culture of democracy to flourish and thrive.

Collectively and individually, higher education is an important civic actor. Institutions as well as individual members of the academic community of staff and students play a double role in developing a culture of democracy in new generations as well as in engaging in the public space. Higher education is, and should be, an essential part of civil society.

Barriers to participation

By civic space, we understand the ability and also will of citizens and civil society organisations to organise, participate and communicate in and with broader society. That ability depends on legal regulations as well as on many less formal factors. If laws penalise those who engage civically, the obstacles to practising a culture of democracy will be insurmountable to many and will inhibit most members of society.

Even if there are no legal obstacles to civic participation and engagement, factors such as financial conditions, social control or a narrow view of the role and mission of higher education can reduce the role higher education institutions, staff and students can or wish to play in broader society.

Financially, public authorities as well as private sources of finance may set funding criteria that encourage civic engagement or they may do the opposite. If financial rewards encourage research and development that may improve on currently accepted solutions but discourage probing whether such technically less imperfect solutions will further the good of society, fewer institutions and individual academics are likely to conduct research and teaching that question the basic assumptions on which those solutions rest.

If thinking out of the box or questioning fundamental aspects of our societies is frowned upon, social control may stifle the creativity that is required to devise research that reimagines society and the courage needed to transform research results into societal practice.

And if our view of the role of higher education is limited to producing conformity, the obstacles to higher education being an engine of society may easily prevent it from fulfilling all its major purposes.

The importance of critical thinking

Therefore, challenges to citizen participation and engagement are challenges to higher education.

I am writing these lines a few days after what would have been Dr Martin Luther King’s 92nd birthday. It may be a good opportunity to recall that Dr King saw the function of education as teaching us “to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education”.

Intelligence and character, intensive and critical thinking need to be deployed above all where their absence would be felt most strongly: to develop the kind of societies in which we want to live.

In the process of developing the Council of Europe’s Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture, one of the more difficult discussions was whether education should seek to develop critical thinking.

In part, that may be because those who opposed this notion saw being critical as synonymous with ‘tearing down’. ‘Finding fault’ is, however, the least difficult aspect of critical thinking. The more challenging part is devising viable alternatives. Granted, those who are concerned about ‘tearing down’ may be even less happy about the idea of devising alternatives.

Another difficult discussion was about whether teaching and learning a culture of democracy should be kept theoretical or also include practice. Education, however, must develop practical abilities as well as theoretical reflection. If democracy were to remain theoretical, it would be surreal rather than real.

Democratic decline

Large parts of the world, including Europe, are witnessing a backsliding of democracy. We see increasing attacks on citizens exercising their democratic right to participate in civic life, decreasing acceptance of diversity, increasing nationalism and pressure to conform, restrictions on electoral participation and choice and, in general, a lowering of the threshold for what are considered unacceptable statements in terms of tone and content.

Eric Zemmour, the far-right candidate who aspires to run for president of France, recently said we need to overcome our “obsession with inclusion” and that we need specialised education institutions “to take care of” those he persists in referring to as “handicapped”. The world of education rightly joined the chorus of strong reactions – it would not have fulfilled its mission had it kept silent.

The European Higher Education Area also suffers the consequences of democratic backsliding. That is why its fundamental values are now discussed and developed rather than taken for granted. The 2018 European Higher Education Area (EHEA) Implementation Report singled out three countries – Hungary, Russia and Turkey – for violating academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

These are not the only examples, however, and Belarus was admitted to the EHEA in 2015 with a roadmap that included commitments to these same values. Three years later the report by the chairs of the group overseeing implementation of the roadmap concluded that these were among several areas in which Belarus had made little or no progress.

Facts do matter

At the very least, education and higher education should not keep silent in the face of what has come to be referred to innocuously as “alternative facts” or “post truth”. We may no longer consider the saying, often attributed to US politician Daniel P Moynihan but in reality likely to be considerably older, that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts, as a piece of elegant humour but as a statement that regrettably seems to go against our zeitgeist.

It does very clearly go against the basic values of higher education and research. If facts do not matter, neither does education. If we do not need to observe decorum and decency when referring to others, we run the risk of stifling the development of ideas.

If higher education tries to climb into the proverbial ivory tower that has never truly been an apt metaphor or keeps its head down for fear of funders or social opprobrium, it will neither develop intelligence nor build character.

Decreasing democracy and a shrinking civic space are therefore direct threats to higher education. They are also threats to our broader society and these threats cannot be met unless higher education plays its part.

Higher education needs to defend, exercise and develop its democratic mission if democracy is to survive and thrive. If we succeed, higher education will have fulfilled all of its purposes. If we fail, the purposes that relate less to who we want to be than to what we want to do will not matter as much.

Sjur Bergan will retire from his position as head of the Council of Europe’s Education Department on 31 January 2022. He is a long-time member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group and has played a role in developing the Council of Europe’s work on the Democratic Mission of Higher Education, in cooperation with the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy, the Organization of American States and the International Association of Universities.