Why so quiet? Opposing politicisation of HE is mandatory

Perhaps not since the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and the Soviet era in Russia and its satellites have we seen the kind of political pressures on universities that are evident today.

In today’s politicised world, governments intervene in university life for their own political purposes, seeing academic institutions as useful tools without regard to the norms of academe, or fearing that an independent and critical academe may threaten authoritarian tendencies.

Contemporary politicisation is different from the traditional reasons for government involvement in higher education and centres around fiscal problems, policies to expand access or a variety of academic purposes. Of course, politics has always influenced university-state relations, with governments ‘steering’ policies to reflect political trends and state priorities, but in general respecting autonomy and academic freedom.

Even during past periods of fiscal crisis, or when political parties proposed reforms opposed by the academic community, the fundamental values of universities were not violated, with the exception of some isolated authoritarian regimes.

Contemporary politicisation of higher education is directed against these key values of higher education – not only by such isolated regimes as North Korea and Myanmar, but also in the United States and Europe and by other key players such as China, Mexico, Russia and India.

Government politicisation of universities takes place generally in right-wing populist and so-called communist, authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. The purposes of politicisation vary. In some cases, states see universities as a convenient tool for building populist support.

Others want to stifle anti-regime views, control faculty, students and administrators, or dictate what can be taught or researched. Typically, these regimes, with considerable accuracy, see the academic community as a source of independent or oppositional thinking or action.

Illustrative examples

In the US state of Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, has used higher education as a weapon, with the support of the Republican legislature.

He has interfered with the curriculum of the public universities by forbidding the teaching of Critical Race Theory and related topics. He has replaced the board of trustees of New College of Florida, a liberal arts institution with a liberal reputation, with conservatives, and it fired the president and is reshaping the curriculum.

Most recently, irked by actions of the regional accreditor, he has ordered all of the public colleges and universities in the state to find another accrediting agency – a perhaps impossible task.

Unsurprisingly, the situation in Russia is significantly more serious. It is worth remembering that, during the Soviet period, universities were instruments of the state with little autonomy. Scientific research, tightly controlled, did flourish in some STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas, but in general higher education was insular and separated from the rest of the world.

After the end of the Soviet Union, universities received more autonomy, although remaining tightly linked to the state. Academic freedom expanded. The Ukraine war exacerbated restrictive trends already evident in Russian higher education. At the start of the war, it was suggested that the Russian rectors sign a public letter in support of Russia’s actions – almost all did. There was little dissent.

New courses focusing on nationalism have been introduced, and the security services carefully monitor academic life. Many professors have fled abroad, and some have been fired. Russian higher education is back to its Soviet era isolation.

Hungary is another example. Viktor Orbán’s soft-authoritarian regime changed the legal status, governance patterns and leadership of the country’s universities so they are loyal to the regime. The innovative and independent Central European University (CEU) was expelled from the country and is now located in Vienna, Austria.

China, under the current government, is also actively imposing its ideology on governance and curriculum in higher education on the mainland and in Hong Kong. In India, universities feel political pressure from the government to limit the academic freedom of professors who write critically about the Modi regime.

Mexico’s populist president has eliminated the country’s main research organisation, has interfered with the formally autonomous public universities and regularly attacks higher education as elitist.

In Nicaragua, the government has confiscated the assets of the Jesuit-run Central American University and closed its campus, later reopening it with a new name and leadership loyal to the regime. Other restrictive measures have been imposed on other universities.

Muted responses

Standing up against authoritarianism is never easy and, depending on the country, can sometimes bring severe consequences to individuals and institutions. But it is fair to say that the academic reaction to these serious crises has been muted, to say the least.

In Florida, none of the presidents of the state’s 40 public colleges and universities quit or even raised much objection (except for the president of New College, who was promptly fired). Some faculty groups spoke out, but no major demonstrations (still permitted) have been observed.

To a large extent, the Hungarian academic community has silently accepted its fate, expressing little solidarity with the CEU.

At Ashoka University in India, in reaction to the pressure by the Modi regime to punish a professor for publishing an article critical of the government, a student leader stated: “While critique and debate are an essential part of academia, stifling research is not. Time and again the university has failed to stand up for its faculty.”

Core values under threat

History shows that higher education can be politically transformed in a short time – with implications for the entire academic environment. The Nazis fundamentally changed German universities, which never regained their world-leading status. The Soviet imprint remained strong in Russian universities after 1992, and is now being reimposed.

Less dramatic but nonetheless serious were, for example, General Augusto Pinochet’s restrictions on Chile’s universities during his 17-year dictatorship. Other cases could be mentioned – in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.

In other words, politicisation is not new, but it is moving rapidly from the margins to the centre of global higher education, and as a result core values are being undermined or destroyed.

Clearly, politicisation must be challenged and vocally opposed by the academic community. So far, as noted, with few exceptions, opposition has been weak or non-existent.

Public opposition, of course, involves risk. For academic leaders, it may well result in the loss of positions or, in truly repressive regimes, worse. Faculty members may be punished or fired, and students jailed.

These sanctions are still exceptions, but are part of academic reality in a growing number of countries. But if universities and academic systems are to keep their academic freedom and autonomy, recognition of the deep problems presented by politicisation and opposition to it is mandatory.

Philip G Altbach and Hans de Wit are professors emeriti and distinguished fellows, as well as former directors of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, USA.