Iliberalismo se toma agenda global de las universidades
Mayo 6, 2024

New deceptions: How illiberalism is hijacking the university

In recent weeks, the international press has reported a story about the often-masked role of nationally centralised higher education systems in seeking to transform political constituencies, exposing a big political event that had, until then, remained under the radar of global audiences.

The place was Brussels and the event, banned by the local mayor, was the ultra-right National Conservativism Conference (NATCON), an event sponsored and coordinated by the Hungarian government-funded Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC).

While the cancellation of the event went all the way to the courts in Brussels and was ultimately overturned, the likes of Nigel Farage and Suella Braverman and many other far right influencers were there to share their views, all in the name of ‘freedom of speech’. The attempt to cancel NATCON and its ultimate reinstatement is perhaps a less surprising set of events in the current political landscape.

What went under the radar, however, is where the funds come from to lavishly fund such ‘free speech’ events. MCC is now one of a growing set of institutions serving as a proxy far-right academic institution, housed in both Budapest and Brussels.

It is emerging as a central financial hub for political lobbying and is behaving more like a right-wing think tank and training ground for a broad form of political socialisation into global ultra-right conservative values rather than a degree-awarding body. It is university as patriotic virtue platform.

The Collegium was founded by a Fidesz oligarch, András Tombor. Fidesz is Viktor Orbán’s political party. The Collegium is directed by Zoltán Szalai, a German studies scholar with humble academic achievements, for a rather large €190,000 (US$203,000) annual salary.

As part of an endowment, €1.2 billion of public money has been channelled through the bonds of national oil company MOL, hotels, estates, harbours at Lake Balaton and bookshops and its annual budget, €329 million, almost equals the entire Hungarian higher education budget of €322 million (based on the 2022 budget).

How did Hungarian higher education reach the point of developing a centralised parallel higher educational system that is not only designed to finance “the breeding ground for Fidesz’s elite” but to ensure elite capture of the state abroad? Public deception through elite capture globally, it would seem, is the new policy instrument in 21st century Hungarian higher education.

Why do universities matter?

In Europe, the foundation of universities occurred in waves: in the 12th century, universities emerged because of increasingly autonomous city states and kings linked to the Catholic Church, then during the Renaissance, the Counter-Reformation and the ‘post-imperial’ era of modern nation-state building.

Each of these periods is characterised by increased funding for universities and the associated institutions that facilitate knowledge production and dissemination and energise academic authorisation.

After 1945, there were two distinct waves of modern institutionalism undertaken within European higher education. The first occurred after the student protests of 1968, when students and educators compelled the state to invest more in higher education and adapt the curriculum to match the evolving political context and to offer politically relevant education to the diverse masses rather than only serving homogenous and largely elite ‘citizens’.

The second wave was associated with EU integration, during which institutions like the European University in Florence, Italy, and the Central European University, previously in Prague, Warsaw and Budapest, and now only in Vienna, Austria, or the European Humanities University in Minsk, Belorussia, now in Vilnius, Lithuania, were established. These are both public and private universities aimed at responding to the changing political, economic and intellectual landscape of the post-Cold War era.

However, regardless of these earlier political shifts, a shocking four decades have passed without any noticeable initiatives designed to establish universities as places that are capable of addressing the mounting challenges associated with today’s growing ultra-rich, ultra-right form of authoritarianism, whether they see themselves as radical libertarians or illiberals engaged in ‘free speech’, that is opposed to immigrant communities, sows division and turns academics against one another, repealing almost a century of transatlantic peace and equity initiatives.

Parallel with managerial transformations in the private sector, European higher education institutions prioritising ‘efficiency’ and ‘excellence’ have either led to the narrowing or closure of social sciences and humanities programmes due to allegedly insufficient funding while the demand for military-relevant knowledge production continues to increase as nations respond to a new era of conflict, fragmentation and geopolitical alliance building.

Instead of new, critical institutions, today we witness a new wave of universities founded on the virtue platforms of the global ultra-right which seek to capture the space of the university as a modern institutional form but fill it with their own ideological warfare, serving as a planned attack on liberal political perspectives and creating and fighting culture wars.

The illiberal takeover

Under the surface of such managerial takeovers and a renewed emphasis on new Cold War securitisation strategies, a major transformation of European higher education is happening which is connected to financing that often goes undetected.

In the United States, Isaac Kamola calls this “dark money”, including the financing and governing of higher education institutions by a small number of ultra-conservative libertarian influencers, alongside the use of taxpayers’ money to privatise higher education and subvert inclusive democratic values.

Historically, of course, funding of higher education has always been connected to specific goals and has an enduring historical role in the bureaucratisation of state and transnational actors: Humboldt University, for example, financed the training of new Prussian state servants while the European University Institute trains bureaucrats and intellectuals committed to the current European project.

What is different about the current higher education trends is the emergence of new waves of funding designed to create a new kind of institution while claiming to address the structural problems of the underfunded and disenchanted higher educational system through efficiency, good ‘public’ management and, more importantly, in the name of ‘the people’.

These institutions look like universities, they are called universities, but they are not universities. Their degrees are not necessarily acknowledged because those who are studying in them do not attend to obtain a degree; rather they wish to build global far-right networks that result in higher earnings for them, big money and a transnational elite. Fact, truth and critical knowledge are not important.

Such parallel polypore institutions, which claim to duplicate universities yet empty out their core mission of autonomous democratic principles, call themselves ‘independent’. But their strategic aims result in a paradigm shift in higher education financing, impacting the kind of knowledge being produced, disseminated and authorised.

Universities of this ilk do not speak truth to power; instead, they deceive wide political constituencies by introducing their own new-found ‘freedoms’ (against ‘anti-whiteness’, for example). Donald Trump, for example, not only considers existing higher educational systems dysfunctional but wants to found a new university to offer free courses in business.

The new strategy is to destroy the existing higher education system as a hotbed of critical thinking but also to fund new institutions which are based on the national and transnational capture of state institutions and governing practices that transform the mindsets of a new illiberal, nationalist generation.

Their task is to look patriotic (in spite of their transnational agenda), affiliate with right-wing think tanks and philanthropists, transform transatlantic political conduct and behaviours that split and fragment robust political constituencies and reshape knowledge production practices. With the anti-woke free speech ticket as their Trojan Horse, the illiberal forces normalise exclusionary and hate speech.

Universities built on deception

A first principle of these new deceptive higher education institutions is the resourcing strategies used in a new illiberal political landscape. These seek to present a viable, liveable and appealing alternative to liberal mindsets, backed by seemingly unlimited resources to support the establishment of new universities.

First, these institutions look like private universities, but they are financed often indirectly through public money and-or a combination of ultra-right private philanthropy and media outlets that are hard to trace.

Some illiberal politicians are using opaque or formally undeclared resources to purchase universities, funded by money diverted largely from public coffers, as seen in the case of Modul University in Vienna, which was bought via a Hungarian GONGO, an organisation that claims civil society status, but is by all accounts funded by the illiberal Hungarian government.

Its company name is Univinvest GmBH, a subsidiary of Mathias Corvinus Collegium (which has 90% ownership; the remaining 10% is owned by the Vienna Chamber of Commerce).

This institution also offers scholarships. As a Modul University advertisement states: “This year, you could be one of the 25 ambitious, highly motivated students who have their studies partially or even fully funded by the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Foundation Scholarship at Modul University Vienna.”

The second model involves the use of private funds, such as in the case of Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, originally financed by coffee firm Jacobs and now renamed Constructor University. It is now funded by Swiss investor Serge Bell (born Sergey Belousov).

We might also look to the University of Buckingham, opened by Margaret Thatcher and now housing scholars seeking to analyse woke culture through private funding. It is also connected to the Danube Institute in Budapest, a partner of MCC. Other private institutions support scholars who wish to defend the idea that white populations are in decline.

A third model might be the idea of the university as a venture capitalist operation that supports libertarian conservative ideals and the concept of heterodox science. On the one hand, these reproduce a selected elite and, at the same time, train an expandable labour force.

In such institutions, the idea of pseudo-science or troll science might form the basis of such an education.

It is not just that in the so-called ‘fight against gender’, methodologically unsubstantiated surveys are quoted as scientific proof, for example, about children growing up in rainbow families. These new universities also create a parallel, alternative social science, such as heterodox social sciences, which seek to discredit previous results of knowledge production using the concept of freedom of speech or to deny global warming or the impact of vaccination.

Free and unregulated market capitalism

What might these new models mean for the future of the concept of the university? As the late US anthropologist David Graeber aptly stated: the concept of universities as truly public institutions has long been dead and the idea of the intellectual has now become the ‘administration’. Here administration, with its managerial language, easily translates into private business governance for a smaller and smaller number of constituencies where the question of whose knowledge is of most worth is no longer asked.

The global far right do not see themselves as benefiting from the post-1968 world. Instead, aiming to benefit from the polycrisis the most, they view themselves as clever and persuasive entrepreneurs who can benefit financially from hijacking higher education while undermining the infrastructure of the state.

These polypore higher education institutions and their postgraduate networks can influence the future of politics, transform geopolitical alliances, change the shape of wars and live off virtue platforms and anti-tax movements.

This is perhaps the easiest way to buy a large percentage of the populace globally, while stealing public tax-paying dollars in the name of their illiberal truths, all in the service of an unregulated and state-free free market capitalism whose ultimate aims they wish to disguise. It is highly questionable that the only response so far to this movement – banning the NATCON meeting in Brussels – will help.

Jo-Anne Dillabough is a professor at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Andrea Peto is a professor at the Central European University, Vienna, and a fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest, Hungary.

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