Universities on the Frontlines: Tackling the Rise of Illiberalism

Global Threats, Local Battles

GRIP organised a session, “Tackling the Rise of Illiberalism”, on the opening day of the SDG Conference 2024. The session brought together students, researchers, and academics to explore the chilling effects of far-right populism on educational systems worldwide. From the U.S. to Hungary, examples abound of attempts to curb academic autonomy and freedoms, threatening the foundations of democratic societies.

Neoliberalism’s Vulnerabilities

Andrea Pető from Central European University highlighted how neoliberal ideologies, emphasising competition and metrics, create academic vulnerabilities. This focus on marketisation and efficiency risks undermining the core values of academic freedom and open inquiry. Gender studies, critical race theory, and LGBTQ+ inclusion have become frequent targets of the far-right, reflecting a broader attempt to silence dissent and limit crucial social discourses. Peto outlined various methods used to exert control over academia, including hijacking quality assurance processes, employing non-transparent hiring practices, and fostering self-censorship among academics and students. These tactics create an environment of fear and stifle open discourse. Peto’s emphasis on recognising these disciplinary attacks as red flags for democratic erosion set the tone for the session, urging vigilance in safeguarding academic freedom.

Subtle Signs, Profound Impact

Amy Kapit from Scholars at Risk warned of seemingly minor changes, like restrictions on posters or event cancellations, as early warning signs of eroding liberalism. Her organisation tracks attacks on academic freedom globally, emphasising the interconnectedness of illiberalism with democratic backsliding. The organisation aims to raise awareness and advocate for protecting academic freedom by monitoring these attacks.

Building Resistance, Fostering Solidarity

Şansal Güngör Gümüşpala from the University of Victoria shared firsthand experience of the chilling effect of illiberalism in Turkey, where students and academics face censorship and self-restraint. This silencing effect stifles intellectual growth and discourages open dialogue within educational institutions. Building strong community ties and fostering open dialogue within academia were identified as crucial tools for resistance.

Reclaiming the Narrative

Jens Jungblut from the University of Oslo delved into the role of neoliberal policies in undermining academic freedom, citing privatisation as a key factor fuelling illiberalism. He revealed that populist parties prioritise shaping education content and promoting national identity and traditional values over academic exploration. This shift undermines critical thinking and independent learning.

Moving Forward: Collaboration and Innovation

Kapit and Jungblut stressed the importance of fostering spaces for diverse voices and critical discussions, while Peto urged the exploration of alternative institutional models prioritising academic freedom and progressive values. Rethinking higher education’s structure and values offers a path to a more inclusive learning environment. The session underscored the urgent need to defend academic freedom and democratic principles amid rising illiberal threats, highlighting links between neoliberalism, political inequality, and academic autonomy. It suggested avenues for resistance and solidarity within academia, emphasising the importance of structural analysis for understanding illiberalism’s complexity in higher education.

Addressing the need to safeguard academic freedom and democratic principles, researchers should devise innovative strategies against illiberalism while advocating supportive policies. Collaborative efforts across disciplines and borders are crucial for academia’s collective impact in confronting this challenge.


Questions for Further Discussion emanating from the session:

  1. How can universities effectively counter the influence of illiberal forces within academia?
  2. What role can international collaborations play in defending academic freedom and promoting democratic values?
  3. Are there specific policy recommendations from the session’s findings for addressing the rise of illiberalism in higher education?
  4. How can researchers from diverse fields collaborate to amplify their impact in resisting illiberalism and promoting political equality?

For those who missed the session and would like to catch up, please watch the recorded session on GRIP’s YouTube channel or the video below: