Nationalist Universities, Higher Education and the Pandemic

Universities are facing a shortfall in the hundreds of millions due to the pandemic, they are now being used in a nationalistic game by populists to try and stem the tide of globalisation. At the same time the pandemic has demonstrated just how desperately society needs higher education institutions not only to be free and independent but cooperative with one another

Unfortunately, universities have come under scrutiny during the current pandemic from populist and nationalist politicians who wish to use them as a testing ground for their hardline stances on immigration. The Trump administration floated a rule which would enable them to deport any international student whose university was holding only online classes, which rightly generated outrage as a majority of universities were only able to hold online classes. It took a combined effort from several universities, including a few lawsuits before the administration hastily backtracked and removed the policy from the books. But that the administration felt it could get away with this is a sign that universities are now no longer free from the political rhetoric of their governments.

Of course this should already have been obvious due to the decade long push to reduce immigration from international students done by governments in the UK and elsewhere. Student immigration was usually seen as an easy target for administrations looking to play on voters’ immigration fears, due to their ability to threaten universities with a withdrawing of funding and grants unless they complied with requests that were ultimately more damaging to universities in the long term.

Similarly in authoritarian countries such as China and Hungary, the independence of universities has been challenged and often cast aside. In China, this has taken the shape of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ a method of teaching and learning meant to develop a new generation of scholars and students loyal to the Communist Party and Jinping in particular. Undermining the purpose of a university which is to teach independence and critical thinking. 

In Hungary, the Orban led government pushed and pushed until the Central European University-founded by Orban’s former mentor George Soros- decided to leave and open a new campus in Vienna, Austria. The reason Orban pushed so hard? He felt the University was undermining Hungarian society and values and trying to destroy what Orban and his government stood for. Another example of an authoritarian government trying to crush university independence.

With all of this going on though, the pandemic has highlighted how desperately society needs universities to ensure its advancement. Just look at how Oxford University has led the fight in developing a vaccine for Covid-19, or how universities in both Hong Kong and Singapore are leading the push for a sustainable way of life as the world faces up to climate change. 

Universities are key institutions not only for their ability to churn out critical thinkers and the next generation of the managerial class, but also for their ability to conduct ground breaking research that can help make the world a better place. The attempts to make universities nationalist is either an ill thought out plan that is going to hinder everything, or something that is being badly managed. Universities must be independent enough to serve their purpose without being used as a political football for those who don’t understand them.

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