The Irish Postgraduate Research Conference, held in DCU, heard from speakers who warned against the power of populism, and the effects it can have on academia, and university autonomy. Tom Boland, the former chief of the Higher Education Authority, spoke of the danger populism posed, especially to academics. He told them “you are well educated; some argue over-educated. Opinionated, maybe over-opinionated. And they feel that you are overbearing. So you are a target.”
Since the 1960s, the share of seats won in European elections by populist parties has tripled, from around 4% to 12%, according to a report published by two leading US academics. In the past decade alone, the world has seen the resurgence of right-wing populism in nearly every part of the world, from Europe to the USA, the Philippines to Brazil. The two authors define populism as “resentment of existing authorities, whether big business, big banks, multinational corporations, media pundits, elected politicians and government officials, intellectual elites and scientific experts, and the arrogant and privileged rich.”
Populism has already proved dangerous to many in academia. The University Observer has already covered how the ultra-nationalist right wing government in Hungary has begun to exert control over what its universities may or may not teach, by cutting off funding for gender studies courses. The former rector of the Vienna University of Economics, Christoph Badelt has also spoken about the danger posed to universities, and has been quoted as saying that higher education institutions must “steel themselves and join forces”, against “radical political changes marked by increasing populism and alarming trends towards sedition against groups of people or institutions”.
Dr Mathias Mösche of Hungary’s Central European University spoke at the Irish Postgraduate Research Conference on this issue, saying “you start with gender. But the next element might be human rights? So then we don’t need accreditation courses for human rights? We don’t need these experts. So where does that stop?” The conference also heard from other academics, who decried the actions of the Hungarian government.
Other issues raised at the conference was how the public perception of academics and experts has shifted in recent years, epitomized by Michael Gove’s now infamous declaration that the “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Dr Mösche warned that it was this type of “delegitimization” that has led people to become so hostile of academics and experts. He is quoted as saying that “They say ‘we don’t need experts; businesses don’t need these experts. We don’t need these experts anymore; we don’t need accreditation for these fields” and warned that this was a slippery slope.
Gove and others have ridden this wave of anti-academic sentiment by claiming in a Times piece he wrote in 2016, that the very same experts who the public were being asked to trust foresaw the economic crash. This laying of blame for the 2008 financial crisis at the feet of “experts” and others has long been a popular talking point for resurgent right wing populists, from Trump to Fargae. Indeed, the latest group of “celebrity academics”, such as Jordan Peterson and Stephen Pinker, have fuelled claims that academics and universities are not as great as they once were.
The numbers seem to back this up. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a comprehensive study that examines the level of public trust in institutions such as NGO’s and government has found that levels of trust among the public has been declining year on year. In the USA the figures are stark, with a Gallup poll reporting that only 12% of Republicans have a good deal of confidence in universities, with Democrats on 37% and Independants at 22%.
In Ireland too, the level of public trust in higher education has had an impact. Former head of the Higher Education Authority Graham Love said that universities must earn the trust of the public if they wish for larger amounts of funding. The reputation of higher education in Ireland has been shaken in recent year, after a string of scandals, such as the UL whistleblower case. While no major party has capitalised on these low levels of public trust, such a scenario can not be ruled out. Irish universities have recently launched a joint campaign aimed at improving the standards of third level education. This comes after a decade of underfunding, and the consistent falling of Irish universities in the world rankings.