Debt fu­els pop­ulism

EU13 risks at Re­search Ex­cel­lence Sum­mit

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - david.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

In­debted stu­dents and grad­u­ates are ripe for re­cruit­ment by il­lib­eral, pop­ulist politi­cians if they were to prom­ise to can­cel their debts, a his­to­rian of Euro­pean fas­cism has warned uni­ver­si­ties.

John Con­nelly (pic­tured inset), a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, said that he knew of stu­dents who were “lit­er­ally mal­nour­ished” as a re­sult of the fi­nan­cial pres­sures caused by high tu­ition fees, and who, with­out the prospect of a “life of dig­nity” be­fore them, could turn to the po­lit­i­cal ex­tremes as peo­ple had done dur­ing other pe­ri­ods of his­tory.

His warn­ing was part of a de­bate dur­ing the Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search Ex­cel­lence Sum­mit: New Europe 2018 (pic­tured right), held last week in part­ner­ship with the Czech Repub­lic’s Palacký Univer­sity Olo­mouc, about how uni­ver­si­ties should re­spond to the new po­lit­i­cal forces amass­ing in North Amer­ica and Europe, which are of­ten de­scribed as pop­ulist. Dis­cussing where fas­cism did – and did not – take root in Europe be­fore the Sec­ond World War, Pro­fes­sor Con­nelly pointed out that stu­dents had once been some of the chief back­ers of pop­ulists, whom he de­fined as those who claim that the “po­lit­i­cal or­der, usu­ally a lib­eral or­der, dom­i­nated by a lib­eral elite, has fallen out of touch with the needs of the peo­ple”. Ger­man stu­dents in pre-First World War Vi­enna and Prague were en­thu­si­as­tic back­ers of proto­fas­cists, while uni­ver­si­ties in in­ter­war Ro­ma­nia and Spain be­came known as “fas­cism fac­to­ries”, he said.

Stu­dents were not on the whole tak­ing a sim­i­lar path now, he ob­served. But in the US, be­cause of the enor­mous bur­den of tu­ition fee debt, stu­dents were not able to plan their lives in a sta­ble, pre­dictable way and could not look for­ward to a “life of dig­nity”, Pro­fes­sor Con­nelly said.

“That could in the­ory, given the his­tor­i­cal prece­dents, open them up for al­ib­er­al­ism,” he warned.

By load­ing stu­dents up with debt, “uni­ver­si­ties may be, at least in the USA, more part of the prob­lem as far as pop­ulism is con­cerned, than the so­lu­tion”, he con­tin­ued.

“I get emails about this ev­ery day, twice a day some­times. It’s a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal is­sue. And if Don­ald Trump were in­deed a smart pop­ulist…he would do some­thing about this enor­mous stu­dent debt,” Pro­fes­sor Con­nelly said.

“Stu­dents who we know are lit­er­ally mal­nour­ished” be­cause of the pres­sures of fi­nanc­ing univer­sity costs that run to more than $50,000 (£35,890) a year see a bleak fu­ture ahead, he added.

“If I were Trump…I would fund those stu­dents, I would send bil­lions of dol­lars to try to take care of that debt cri­sis and thereby show ac­tu­ally that lib­er­als don’t care, but Trump cares,” Pro­fes­sor Con­nelly said. “That’s not what he’s do­ing. He is, in fact, maybe a very poor pop­ulist in that sense.” Of course, he added, the pres­i­dent was ham­pered by re­quir­ing sup­port from Repub­li­can con­gress­men who were op­posed to gov­ern­ment spend­ing.

At the sum­mit, del­e­gates also heard from Mikuláš Bek, rec­tor of Masaryk Univer­sity in Brno, about the role that uni­ver­si­ties were play­ing in the Czech Repub­lic as it, too, en­ters un­charted po­lit­i­cal wa­ters.

Last Oc­to­ber, the tra­di­tional govern­ing par­ties of the cen­tre-left and the cen­tre-right were swept aside by ANO, which is led by the bil­lion­aire An­drej Babiš, who has some­times been com­pared to Mr Trump.

But the party has strug­gled to form a sta­ble gov­ern­ment, and Mr Babiš has been dogged by a cor­rup­tion scan­dal. ANO has said that it wants to fo­cus re­search fund­ing on eco­nomic growth and to make univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion more “prac­ti­cal”, but higher ed­u­ca­tion is not seen as one of its top pri­or­i­ties.

Czech uni­ver­si­ties have strong le­gal au­ton­omy, said Pro­fes­sor Bek, which al­lows them “to play an im­por­tant role in the present Czech po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion”. They re­main “strongholds of crit­i­cal discourse”, he said.

He stressed that the Czech Repub­lic was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing only “soft pop­ulism”, which was not com­pa­ra­ble to that in Poland or Hun­gary, where aca­demics have faced much more di­rect chal­lenges. In Poland, his­to­ri­ans have warned that a re­cent change to the law could re­strict study of the Holo­caust; while in Bu­dapest, the Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity re­mains un­der threat of clo­sure from a hos­tile gov­ern­ment.

“We are still suc­cess­ful at per­suad­ing so­ci­ety that we of­fer some value,” Pro­fes­sor Bek said of Czech uni­ver­si­ties. De­grees still guar­an­teed a “huge in­crease” in in­di­vid­u­als’ earn­ing power, he added, while grad­u­ate un­em­ploy­ment was “prac­ti­cally zero”. Uni­ver­si­ties had helped cities such as Brno to turn away from bank­rupt com­mu­nist in­dus­tries to­wards more mod­ern ar­eas like IT, he ar­gued.

Czech uni­ver­si­ties were, there­fore, in a rea­son­ably strong po­si­tion to go on the “of­fen­sive” against pop­ulism in the coun­try, he said.

There was a “high de­gree of sol­i­dar­ity” among Czech rec­tors, aca­demics and uni­ver­si­ties, he added. “With­out that sol­i­dar­ity, the case would be lost.”

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