Derechas extremas europeas ante las universidades
Julio 8, 2024

What Europe’s far-right surge means for universities

The results of the 2024 European elections are deepening political cleavages in Europe. This outcome confirms that troubling nativist, authoritarian and populist trends are on the rise in Europe, and globally as well.

Historically, far-right parties have been relatively minor players in Western Europe, securing an average vote share of 12.5% in national elections by 2017. However, their recent surge is catapulting them into the mainstream political arena.

Far-right parties are projected to hold almost a quarter of the 720 seats in the European Parliament, a significant increase from one fifth in 2019.

Although radical right movements tend to position themselves as a democratic, anti-establishment alternative to neoliberal globalisation trends that have dominated for years, their resurgence centres neonationalism, authoritarianism, and populism.

Their rise is marked by a shift towards exclusionary practices, strict societal order and the contestation of societal openness.

These changes are already evident in countries where they have gained power, such as Hungary, Italy, and Poland. Collectively, these ideologies challenge the inclusive and liberal approaches established post-World War II.

‘Spillover’ into mainstream

The presence of far-right parties in European governments has doubled from seven in 2000 to 14 by February 2018. The once-existing barrier between far-right parties and centre-right parties is eroding in multiple countries, leading to shifting political alliances and a noticeable ‘ideological spillover’ from the extreme right to mainstream policy.

Populist, radical right parties often do not self-identify either as ‘populist’ or ‘radical’, and they may actively reject such characterisations.

Instead, they emphasise their anti-establishment allegiances, their critique of neoliberal globalisation and their commitment to upholding the will of the people.

As for the traditionally dominant centre-right and centre-left parties, they have increasingly adopted positions and priorities typically espoused by far-right populists.

This shift is particularly evident in policies related to immigration, minorities and law enforcement, creating a corrosive blend of ‘liberal-authoritarian’ policies.

Factors such as the asylum crisis, the proclaimed death of multiculturalism and fears of Islamic fundamentalism have further fuelled authoritarian, neonationalist and anti-liberal sentiments.

Markus Wagner and Thomas Meyer (2018) encapsulate this shift, observing that “the mean position of the mainstream left today is about as authoritarian as the mean radical right position in the 1980s”.

While there is a possibility that far-right parties may be ‘tamed’ as they approach positions of power, and that their provocative rhetoric, intended for populist consumption, might not ultimately challenge the prevailing neoliberal economic policies, there remain distinct threats posed by this shifting political landscape to universities.

Below, I outline the areas in which universities operate that could be impacted by the strengthening of populist right-wing government alliances and movements. These reflections move from more tangible areas of activity to broader, more encompassing and abstract notions such as academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Migration policy

The tightening of migration controls, a hallmark of far-right alliances, could significantly impact the inflow of international students to universities. These students not only contribute financially but also play a vital role in fostering cultural diversity within academic institutions.

For instance, in early 2018, a public debate emerged in the Netherlands, wherein the increasing number of international students was viewed as a problem by certain stakeholders within the academic and policy sectors. Similar debates have also surfaced in other regions, such as Switzerland, Flanders and Denmark.

In Denmark, under the persistent advocacy of the Danish People’s Party, government policy was enacted to limit and decrease the number of university courses taught in English.

Policy measures may become more stringent, including tougher visa requirements – particularly concerning family members and dependants – reduced work opportunities for students and limitations on post-study work visas, in addition to higher bureaucratic costs.

Such restrictions could pose substantial challenges for universities attempting to attract international students as well as researchers and academics, who are crucial for maintaining the quality of higher education and research.

Although the primary targets of these far-right policies are often perceived to be low-skilled migrants, due to the competition they pose to domestic blue-collar workers, the broader anti-immigration rhetoric and increasing social authoritarianism could deter both students and academic staff.

Even though university students and staff may not be the direct targets of these restrictive migration policies, the perception of an unwelcoming environment and reduced social tolerance generated by such policies may discourage them from choosing institutions in affected regions.

International collaboration

The Mertonian norms of science advocate for communalism, universalism, disinterestedness and organised scepticism. These norms promote the open sharing of knowledge, reflecting a spirit of scientific globalism.

They remain desired and upheld in the academic profession despite criticism that they are tinged with idealism and nostalgia for a bygone era and its ethics.

International collaboration, embodying these principles of research practice, recognises that the advancement of scientific knowledge is not confined by national borders. However, far- and hard-right-wing concerns are more focused on national security through the lens of friendly or hostile nations.

Foreigners are often viewed as prioritising their respective countries’ interests over the communalism and universalism essential to scientific conduct, especially in STEM fields that hold the largest potential for national advantage.

Concerns about academic espionage and theft of intellectual property take precedence over publishing and sharing within the global scientific community.

Universities are accused of becoming soft targets for accessing intelligence and sensitive information and technology that can be exploited to benefit foreign nations.

Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy exemplifies this perspective, proposing limitations on foreign STEM students from certain countries to prevent intellectual property transfer to competitors, while still recognising the need for a highly skilled technical workforce in the US.

Moreover, universities were tasked with countering espionage and theft as part of this strategy, echoing similar restrictions and debates from as early as 1949, such as those during the McCarthy era and the Cold War.

Interference with research

The rise of far-right alliances poses serious risks to research agendas and the longstanding frameworks designed to safeguard scientific autonomy and support the conduct of the research enterprise. Far-right political shifts could potentially threaten funding across various fields, including medical research, climate research and the social sciences and humanities.

A notable instance occurred in 2015 when Jair Bolsonaro, then a federal deputy in Brazil, introduced legislation to authorise the production and distribution of Synthetic Phosphoethanolamine as a cancer treatment, despite it lacking proven efficacy.

This action bypassed expert medical and scientific consultation, exemplifying the broader trend of his administration. He was often described as the “Trump of the Tropics” or “Tropical Trump” by sources like Nature.

Bolsonaro’s administration frequently ignored scientific consensus in favour of political motives and a disregard for scientific facts.

This tendency was further exemplified during the COVID-19 pandemic when Bolsonaro, with the support of alt-science preachers, endorsed the use of an ineffective treatment combo of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, contrary to medical advice.

His stance led to the dismissal of two health ministers who challenged his claims. Their replacement by an interim military officer who supported Bolsonaro’s views contributed to a lack of transparency in managing the pandemic in Brazil.

Moreover, the Bolsonaro government consistently attempted to undermine scientific institutions and discredit scientific data, particularly evident in its handling of increased deforestation in the Amazon.

This systematic assault on the credibility of science is part of a global pattern among far-right movements, which seek to consolidate power by propagating disinformation and challenging established sources of authoritative knowledge.

Knowledge politics

The legitimacy of universities is often disputed by far-right populists, who tend to depict them as breeding grounds for liberal or leftist ideologies.

For instance, Bolsonaro’s polemical piece, “Antes e depois da Federal” (“Before and After the Federal University”), asserts that public universities transform students into leftists, gays, drug addicts and perverts.

However, not all far-right populists discredit universities outright; their educated sectors recognise the strategic role these institutions play in conferring epistemic authority, which is crucial in their broader battle for epistemic hegemony.

By exerting control over these institutions, both overtly and insidiously, they can advance their nationalistic and authoritarian agendas.

This control may manifest as direct challenges to the legal status and independence of universities that oppose their moral and ideological views, as evidenced by recent government actions against the Central European University in Hungary, the European University at St Petersburg in Russia, and the shutdown of several universities in Turkey following the 2016 coup attempt.

Alternatively, it could involve setting up new institutions designed to subtly steer knowledge transmission production toward supporting nationalistic objectives. A prime example of the latter is Hungary’s National University of Public Service Ludovika, revitalised under Viktor Orbán’s administration.

Similarly, the establishment of the Institut de sciences sociales, économiques et politiques (ISSEP) in France and Spain by Marion Maréchal represents an effort to cultivate a new class of professionals trained under the auspices of far-right values of globalist illiberalism, who can transform European and global institutions from within.

For instance, Orbán in Hungary and Maréchal in France, along with other far-right actors, envision a world where nationalist states lead the march in a market-driven society while concurrently rejecting the liberal cultural norms promoted by global institutions like the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union.

Unlike the withdrawal advocated by some populist movements in the United States, these European leaders propose a nuanced approach that blends globalist engagement with a weighty illiberal governance framework.

They are keen on training elites for traditional state roles, such as diplomatic services, and have mastered leveraging the power of movements and networks.

Their ongoing critique against gender studies and critical race studies, along with resistance to other academic fields like climate change, evolutionary theory and bioethics, highlights a global movement aimed at redefining the epistemological frameworks that underpin plural and non-essentialist university-based knowledge generation.

In Hungary, the government has actively engaged with academic content by transforming gender studies programmes into ‘family studies’, reflecting a strategic interest in moulding academic curricula without completely dismissing their significance.

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy

As far-right ideologies increasingly threaten academic freedom, understanding their approach and tactics becomes crucial, as these ideologies shake the very foundations of scholarly and scientific inquiry.

Far-right groups and movements not only have made political gains by moving towards the mainstream, they also position themselves as legitimate knowledge producers, thereby undermining trust in academic institutions and eroding the foundations of knowledge advancement and evidence-based decision-making.

The 2022 Global Observatory on Academic Freedom report documents a widespread crisis of academic freedom in various parts of the word, including political attacks that range from insidious repression to overt administrative and regulatory interference, as presented in the section above.

These attacks vary from marginal to severely malignant impacts. Far-right discourses establish norms that cast doubt on the scientific merit of academic findings while they work to support a post-trust world view and political landscape.

This troubling shift towards ‘post-truth’ politics, highlighted by misleading campaigns such as Brexit and the US presidential election in 2016, led to ‘post-truth’ being named the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries.

Additionally, these ideologies promote a concerning conflation where the principles of free speech are mistakenly equated with academic freedom, suggesting that all opinions, regardless of their grounding in evidence, intellectual integrity and scrutiny by competent members, should hold equal legitimacy in society.

Protecting academic freedom and institutional autonomy in these times is critical for ensuring that universities not only maintain their role as pillars of societal progress and the global body of knowledge but also as democratic beacons that reflect and scrutinise power.

The 2024 results of the European elections, where nativist, authoritarian and populist trends have continued their unsettling rise across Europe and globally, emphasise the urgency of this task.

Dr Vassiliki Papatsiba is a reader in the School of Social Sciences, University of Cardiff, United Kingdom.

This article is a commentary. Commentary articles are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of University World News.


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