Europa: Contexto político y educación superior
Febrero 2, 2023

Universities and elections: Democratic actors or reactors?

When one explores the issue of universities and elections, as University World News does in this and its previous edition, one should ask at least three questions: are universities affected by elections? Are they democratic actors? Are those who govern universities themselves elected?

Are universities affected by elections?

The most obvious answer is ‘yes, like everyone else’, but this answer needs to be qualified.

At least in fairly consensual societies, higher education is rarely at the heart of election campaigns.

One recent exception was the parliamentary elections in Norway in September 2021, during which one party promised to reinstate a decentralised teacher education offer in Nesna, a small locality in the north of the country.

It is difficult to say to what extent this influenced the election, but the initiative had strong local support, and the party in question is now part of the governing coalition. The minister of research and higher education is a prominent member of this party, and the study programme has been (re)established. This was done even though the university responsible for the programme had closed it because of concerns about its quality.

Regional politics overrode higher education policy, and the programme has problems recruiting students and staff. The university did receive extra resources to (re)establish the programme.

At the same time, however, there have been cuts in other parts of the sector. Even if there is not a one-to-one relationship, it is legitimate to ask whether the programme was at least indirectly established at the expense of other initiatives that the sector as a whole would have given higher priority.

The Nesna case points to two areas that are of great concern to higher education and that may be strongly affected by elections: resources and values.

In most European countries, rectors’ conferences and individual universities work with political actors to ensure the best possible funding and working conditions for the sector, as do representative organisations like the European University Association and EURASHE – European Association of Institutions in Higher Education – at European level.

This work, however, does not often entail taking a position in favour of a specific party or potential government coalition. I would even argue it would be risky for universities to do so, as they will have to not only live but also work with whichever government is in place.

The equation may well change, however, in less consensual societies where universities feel the stakes are higher.

In University World NewsMarcelo Knobel and Elizabeth Balbachevsky describe the impact of the Jair Bolsonaro presidency on higher education in Brazil. In a starkly divided country, new President Lula da Silva faces high, probably unrealistic, expectations when it comes to restoring both funding and fundamental values.

As described by Nathan M Greenfield, the administration of Donald Trump and the dominance of the hard core right within the Republican Party have similar consequences in the United States. Concerns about the level of federal and state funding combine with the Republican hard right’s campaign to determine the content of teaching, exemplified by states such as Florida and Texas.

Even if much of the US higher education community tries to maintain a bipartisan neutrality, at least in public, Republican policies are highly detrimental to higher education.

In Europe, we are seeing similar concerns about the fundamental values of higher education in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

While the 2018 Paris Communiqué makes it clear that “academic freedom and integrity, institutional autonomy, participation of students and staff in higher education governance, and public responsibility for and of higher education form the backbone of the EHEA”, these same values are violated in some EHEA members.

In Hungary, changes in legislation eventually forced the Central European University (CEU) to move most of its operations to Austria. Even if they were overshadowed by the prominence of the CEU case, measures banning gender studies and pressure against the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and some universities combine to show that a change of government would very likely benefit higher education in Hungary.

This is underscored by the recent European Union threat to cut Erasmus+ funding for so-called foundation universities, where politicians appointed by the Hungarian government have influential positions on the governing bodies. Ironically, these include Tibor Navracsics, the minister for regional development, who is also the immediate past European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth.

In Poland, legislation on the remembrance of the Holocaust may make it difficult to publish research on potential complicity in Nazi crimes by Polish citizens and institutions.

In France, the then minister for higher education and research caused an uproar in 2021, not only in academic circles, when she asked for an investigation into “Islamo-leftism” (Islamo-gauchisme).

And in the United Kingdom, a prominent parliamentarian from the government party caused similar outrage in 2017 when he asked universities for an overview of professors involved in teaching European affairs “with particular reference to Brexit”.

Are universities democratic actors?

If rather than ask whether universities are affected by elections, we ask whether they engage as societal and electoral actors, we take one step further in exploring their possible political role.

A word of warning may be in order: academics are no more natural born democrats than other citizens. The Peruvian left wing terrorist organisation Sendero Luminoso – Shining Path – was set up and run by a professor of philosophy. The Pol Pot regime did not lack defenders in the academic community.

Less than a year ago, Russian rectors massively endorsed the invasion of Ukraine and declared that serving the state was their main duty. In Germany, a professor of economics was one of the founders of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland, and a recent party leader also had an academic position.

If we turn to democratic politics, Emil Constantinescu was rector of the University of Bucharest before becoming president of Romania. Josef Jaab, a Communist era Czech dissident and later rector of Palacký University Olomouc, became a senator and a member of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, where he was the leading force behind a recommendation on academic freedom and university autonomy.

Both were elected to political office after they had completed their term as rectors, but both were known to the public primarily as academic leaders.

In democratic societies, it is rare that universities or their leaders engage directly and overtly in elections, even if members of the academic community may do so as individuals.

This is not to say, however, that universities are or should be politically neutral. Through their teaching and research, universities can and should provide an important part of the factual basis for political choices.

Rising to the overriding challenges that face our societies requires academically based knowledge and understanding. How else could we face climate change, promote sustainable development, address issues of equity, or be able to weigh long-term and short-term consequences of the choices we make as societies?

How can we meet the backlash against democracy without higher education?

University leaders may not often run for political office outside of academia, nor universities align with political parties. They nevertheless have a key role in setting societal agendas and in providing their students with the competences they need to exercise their rights and duties as citizens of democratic societies. They have an important role to play in their local community by working not only in it but with local authorities and civil society.

This is the background for the Council of Europe’s Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture, which includes a specific guide to how universities can make use of it.

The need for universities to contribute as democratic actors is also the motivation for the Global Cooperation for the Democratic Mission of Higher Education run by the Council of Europe, the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy, the Organization of American States and the International Association of Universities.

The latest Global Forum, held at Dublin City University in June 2022, focused precisely on the need for higher education leadership if we are to achieve democracy, sustainability and social justice. The civic role of higher education is also the reason why the Council of Europe is now exploring how European cooperation can strengthen the local democratic mission of higher education.

Are university leaders elected?

If we explore the role of universities in elections and as democratic actors, we should also ask whether universities elect their own leaders democratically.

The traditional governance model for European universities is one in which rectors, deans and other leaders are elected by the academic community. This model balances competence in the main purposes of higher education – learning, teaching and research – and representativity, so that academic staff have greater representation than students, who have greater representation than technical and administrative staff.

In many European countries, there is now a shift towards strong external representation in governance bodies and-or leaders being hired rather than elected.

The new model represents a significant but largely unspoken shift in how we view the competences required to govern a university. It emphasises broader societal competence, including competence in the societal outreach of higher education but also economic competence, over competence in research, teaching and learning.

There are good arguments for giving greater weight to the role of universities as actors in broader society. However, it is difficult to see running universities on a business model as a recipe for success in making them democratic actors.


Universities generally keep some distance from day-to-day politics and relatively rarely take a position in favour of specific parties or candidates in elections. Their position on issues that the higher education communities view as important, ranging from funding to fundamental values, are nevertheless often known.

Not least in fairly consensual societies, this seems like a reasonable balance between distance and involvement. Where higher education and the values on which it builds are threatened, however, there are good reasons for universities to engage more directly to argue their views.

If we look beyond elections to broader societal engagement, not only are there good reasons for universities to bring their competence and values to bear on debate. Broader society needs them to do so.

We cannot build a culture of democracy unless universities see it as their role to contribute. We cannot build democracy unless universities educate intellectuals who bring their subject specific competence into public space, ask critical questions and help find the answers to them. We cannot build democracy unless universities are democratic actors in society – unless they are pro-active and not only reactive.

Universities must help shape the development of our societies and not merely help us adapt to the choices made by others. Universities may not often be electoral actors in a narrow sense, but they are crucial in developing the culture of democracy we need to make our elections democratic in practice.

Sjur Bergan was head of the Council of Europe’s education department until the end of January 2022 and a long-time member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group. He remains a member of the European Higher Education Area’s Working Group on Fundamental Values and has written extensively on higher education, including as series editor of the Council of Europe Higher Education Series. In June 2022, Dublin City University awarded Bergan an honorary doctorate.


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