Universities and society: we need each other

Universities and society: we need each other

The breakdown of political systems, the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, and populism are hot topics these days, as well as issues that have been prominently discussed at the EAIE Conference in Seville and in the field of international higher education. The UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) celebrated its 60th anniversary with an international conference on ‘New Nationalism and Universities’ in November 2017. Considering the recent controversy at UC Berkeley regarding free speech, the theme of the conference was timely, both locally and globally. Furthermore, it provided food for thought for the international higher education community when it comes to the role that universities play in national development and global integration.

What is the impact of new nationalism on universities? Exploring the relationships between universities and the nation state, the conference covered a wide range of regions over the course of two days, including Brexit in the UK, Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, South Africa, Russia, China, Japan and, of course, American universities in the age of Trump. These discussions raised the question of whether or not this new nationalism is just a temporary response to globalisation. Is it merely a rejection of the status quo and an unavoidable future? Is this a case of the principle of two steps forward and one step back, with people retreating to the past because it’s perceived as a ‘golden age’?

The inherent tension

Henry Brady, Dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, explained the natural tension between nations and universities. Nations are constructed based on a notion of inclusion that of course, at the same time, also implies exclusion: firstly members versus non-members, and then further based on race, class, religion, ethnicity, language and residence. On the other hand, universities are inclusive, global and set limits based upon achievement (merit and effort). On top of that, while nations provide meaning and encourage patriotism and loyalty, universities search for truth and innovation. They encourage dialogue, discourse and doubt, which sometimes undermines the state’s legitimacy.
At the same time universities and nation-states need each other. Although universities need the nation-state financially and legally and in turn do things for the nation in terms of human capital, innovation and preservation of history and culture, they do not want to become the tool of the nation. This tension becomes truly problematic when populist nationalism proves to be anti-intellectual, anti-cosmopolitan, and distrustful of elites and elite knowledge and authority.

Is global citizenship real?

In the international higher education field we frequently talk about global citizenship. Here though, it was stated that citizenship is historically always linked to nations, raising the question of whether or not there is such a thing as a European or global sense of citizenship. For instance, has 30 years of Erasmus indeed created a European identity? The driving force behind the Erasmus programme has always been European integration and the creation of European citizenship. This begs the question though: do we feel as though we are not only Dutch, Finnish or French but also European, or do we consider ourselves to be European in the first place and only belonging to a specific nation in the second? This is more difficult to answer than maybe a few years ago, given the developments concerning regional independence within European countries that we have recently seen.

The burning question

The question that remained unaddressed in this conference was how universities could play a better role in countering this populist nationalism in order to prevent things like Brexit from happening in the future. Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, was one of the few who hinted at this by stating that not only does society need universities, but universities need society. We shouldn’t be lecturing at people, but listening to them.
It goes without saying that there is still a lot of work to do. As we continue to see countervailing forces to the ideals we’re trying to achieve as international educators, we need to step back and consider how we’re engaging with society. If those of us working in the internationalisation of higher education want to have a bigger impact, we need to step out of our own bubble and face outward into the world. We need to try harder to make sure the next generation has a global outlook and acquires the skills we feel are necessary to become effective global citizens.
Leonard Engel is the Executive Director of the EAIE.