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Universities in an Era of Neo-Nationalism

  • 22 October 2021
  • By John Aubrey Douglass

This blog was kindly contributed by John Aubrey Douglass, Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor at University of California, Berkeley.

To varying degrees, universities are feeling the brunt of the rise in neo-nationalist movements and governments, usually led by powerful political demagogues.

For the purpose of generating populist support and solidifying authority, we have entered an era in which universities are often attacked as hubs of dissent, symbols of global elitism and generators of biased research; places where academic freedom is being more overtly suppressed, faculty and administrators fired and jailed and university governance and management altered to insure greater control by autocratic leaning politicians.

The new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education offers a contemporary view on this movement, providing a framework for understanding the spectrum of neo-nationalist environments in which universities operate and a series of national case studies.

This includes an examination of United Kingdom and the uncertainty of Brexit; Trumpian neo-nationalism in the United States and its legacy; Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; China under Xi Jinping; Hong Kong and Singapore; Vladimir Putin’s Russia; Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil; a comparative look at Germany, Hungary, and Poland; along with a larger consideration of trends in the European Union and an assessment of the impact of neo-nationalist movements on global academic talent mobility.

Nationalism Redux

While the characteristics of neo-nationalism are similar to historical forms of the populist nationalism, the circumstances are different and important for understanding the contemporary political environment in which universities operate.

Neo-nationalism is a radical form of populism with specific characteristics, including the protagonists leveraging the politics of fear to attack and blame perceived enemies, domestic and foreign, wrapped in the mantle of patriotism.

These are predilections of previous forms of populism.

But the catalyst of today’s breed of nationalism (and hence the prefix neo) has modern characteristics: the rapid pace of globalisation leading to economic uncertainty; the pace of immigration and demographic changes among and within many countries; and the ability of a new generation of populists and demagogues to use technology and social networks to promote themselves and their movements.

This last advent allowed right-wing populists to bypass conventional media and build a following: in the United States, almost all of Donald Trump’s significant policy directives were announced on Twitter, sandwiched between vindictive comments and aspersions of political opponents; in another extreme, in China, Russia and elsewhere, new technologies offer new paths for monitoring and punishing dissent.

In the modern world, universities are institutions that promote both national development and global integration – codependent pursuits, particularly for research universities. Yet in a number of important national examples, the contemporary political environment poses a major challenge to the societal role of universities.

Three themes emerged in organising this book.


One is that, historically, universities have played an important role in nation building and in shaping or being shaped by various forms of nationalism and they continue to do so. Geography, and nation-states, still matter in understanding the organisation, behavior, and status of universities. Indeed, universities can be conceptualised largely as extensions of the nation-state.

In this view, the national political environment and governments, past and present, are the most powerful influence on the mission, role, organisation and effectiveness of universities and the higher education system to which they belong – more influential than internally derived academic cultures or globalisation and international norms of university management.

As I note in the first chapter, universities are subordinate to and usually a participant in the national political ecosystem; they are rarely outside of it, even if many still cherish the concept of the ivory tower and seek to protect their autonomy.

Hence, their internal worlds, as well as their international networking opportunities, are largely determined by prevailing political norms and are exemplified in the extreme by the controls exerted by neo-nationalist and autocratic governments.

Different Forms of Neo-Nationalism

A second and related theme is that neo-nationalism has different meanings and consequences for universities in different parts of the world, depending on their historical role, their academic culture and the current political context in which they must operate.

To help unpack these movements, and their consequences for universities, and their students, faculty and administrators, I developed a spectrum of types of Neo-nationalism.

This ranges from various forms of populism as political movements, neo-nationalist leaning governments that includes the Trump era in the US and to some degree the UK, to the formation of illiberal democracies, and finally nationalism as a vehicle for retaining and enhancing authoritarian power – or what could be termed state-led nationalism.

Consequences for Universities

And a third theme is that universities have different roles in their societies and face different consequences, largely depending on where a country stands on this spectrum.

One sees certain commonalities in how, for example, illiberal democracies and authoritarian governments foster policies seeking isolation from global influences, and greater control of the activities of universities and their communities. Universities are specifically targeted as potential threats to state led forms of neo-nationalism, even with stringent social controls enhance by new technologies, as in China with its Social Index Score.

Restriction on civil liberties, which extend throughout the societies on this end of the spectrum, focus on tempering or eliminating criticism of government authority and societal problems, and punishing state defined sedition. The consequence for universities is increasing government control of university governance and management, often after a period of relaxation and claims of granting greater institutional autonomy.

This extends to restrictions on state funding of faculty sponsored research to assure conformance with the conservative agenda of the government, as in Hungary, to the firing of faculty viewed as disloyal, as in the Turkey following the 2016 coup attempt of Erdogan, to recruiting students to monitor and report the behaviors of faculty, as in China.

On the other end of the spectrum, political movements and neo-national leaning governments tend to be nativist, anti-immigrant and therefor anti-international students, doubtful of science, and view globalism as a negative force for their nation, and therefore generally seek isolationist policies. Followers are attracted to calls for greater sovereignty, resurrecting a mythical era of power and glory, and racial homogeneity.

These are traits one sees in illiberal democracies and many autocratic governments, which generate increasingly restrictive visa policies and a significant impact on talent mobility and, often, a growing sense of isolation for academics and students. 

But, as discussed in the book, there are nuances that illustrate a major finding in the book: political geography still matters. While Hungary and Poland are strongly anti-immigrants, Russia, China and Turkey are selectively engaged in recruiting international students, although not so much faculty, and almost exclusively from their traditional sphere of influence, and in the case of China as part of its Belt and Road initiative.

Here is a contradiction that we do not yet know the full outcome: China has pursued a tempered, nationalist form of globalization, that includes universities as vehicles for generating talent and international engagement, but increasingly in a restrictive form that fits President Xi’s China Dream agenda — a world power that increasingly is self-reliant. In that world, the promise of One China, Two Systems for Hong Kong seems doomed, with large consequences for the city-state’s universities.

An ebbing?

For a period leading into 2020, nationalist momentum in Western nations appeared to have ebbed, or at least become more muted. European elections resulted not in Marine Le Pen but Emmanuel Macron in France, and Angela Merkel remained Germany’s chancellor, although with a larger contingent of anti-immigrant nationalists in the Bundestag.

The US Congress repeatedly denied the Trump administration’s budget plans to severely cut funding for academic research and student financial aid. And, of course, Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.

Perhaps the current wave of neo-nationalism is only a passing phase – a temporary halt and, in some countries and regions, regression from the inevitable march of globalisation and a once powerful movement toward democratic forms of government. Perhaps Xi’s warning to universities is simply an example of two steps forward, one step back: exerting political control to expunge enemies and limit talk of sedition, before again moving toward a more open society. The lesson of Brexit will moderate British politics, and eventually install a stable relationship with the EU, in research funding and trade.

Similarly, Erdoğan’s crackdown may be an effort at political stabilisation that could set the stage later for reopening Turkish society and perhaps even then re-start the country’s bid to enter the EU.

Unfortunately, this more optimistic scenario seems doubtful for many nations, in part because nationalism in its more extreme forms has found more strength during the pandemic, not less. Right-wing populists and autocrats retain popular support and are increasingly effective in controlling the media and social networks, monitoring and suppressing criticism, and shaping a nationalist narrative.

In many cases, and technology is abetting the ability of authoritarian leaning leaders and governments to identify and track its potential and real opposition.

These are all issues discussed in the book, including what steps universities and governments can take to promote democracy and global interaction.


Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education published by Johns Hopkins University Press is available in paperback and as an Open Access book accessible via Project Muse.

John Aubrey Douglass  is a Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor – Public Policy and Higher Education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education – Goldman School of Public Policy – UC Berkeley.

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