Beyond the university gate: Why the politics of higher education matter

Graduation Concept

We often think of universities as being about education, and they are. Universities are also political. Higher education rarely takes center stage in political issues, but sometimes does and is often a player in the background. In fact, higher education is an essential social sector related to some of the most prominent political questions today. For that reason, scholars have growing interest in the political dimensions of higher education.

How is higher education political? There are the politics of higher education which are about setting goals and allocating resources in the sector. Political issues about other topics also sometimes involve higher education. University politics take place within individual institutions and address budgetary, HR, and academic matters. Most universities operate through politics. National politics deal with higher education at the budget time, and when governments grapple with how to promote social mobility and help citizens find good jobs. Higher education can even be geopolitical, for example, when states try to outcompete rivals by investing in high-technology and research and development.

To show the role of higher education in contemporary politics, let’s consider a few examples of how universities are involved in current debates.

Free speech and discrimination on college campuses in the USA

The United States is in the throes of cultural conflict. Many of President Trump’s supporters see his election as the triumph of an “America First” agenda that checks political correctness in favor of the interest the “forgotten Americans.” Opponents see xenophobic rhetoric and discriminatory policies that threaten minority communities. Universities are flashpoints in this conflict.

Right wing provocateurs use university campuses as platforms to spread their political ideas, which are often explicitly racist and xenophobic. Many students believe the presence of such speakers make them unsafe and less able to learn. These students regularly try to prevent controversial speakers from appearing on campus. Yet because the First Amendment to the American Constitution protects speech from government censorship, public universities have limited justification for excluding speakers. At the same time, universities must ensure student safety and create an environment in which all can learn. Further, the cost of providing adequate security when controversial speakers come to campus can be very high. In this way, higher education is at the center of domestic political debates about nationalism, diversity, speech, and safety, which also stoke university politics about students’ rights, education, and university budgets. The way this conflict plays out on American university campuses will be telling of the broader political debates in the country.

A further political dilemma in higher education has revolved around the state-market continuum and where best on that measure universities and colleges are located. For some, the public benefit is the key outcome of the higher education experience – such as health, civility and the social integration of graduates, as well as their skills and knowledge acquisition which serves well the innovative and other requirements of national economic growth. Consequently, for such people state funding and regulation looms larger in higher education governance than more private instruments. For others, including some major governments recently, such as Australia, the UK and parts of the US, the private individual benefits of higher education are emphasized, pointing to the increased employment and earnings payoffs for graduates. Private finance and risk-based regulation, rather than more direct state modalities tend to be the order of the day. Higher education continues to express these different political viewpoints as sites of often ideological contestation, thus continuing to ensure the enduring centrality of politics to the knowledge enterprise.

The global rebalancing of higher education

Jets zoom people around world in swift hypertravel that has changed countries and universities and people. Over the last 70 years that global center of economic gravity has slid slowly from around the Azores Islands in the north Atlantic to somewhere near Thimpu in Bhutan. The result is the resumption of Asia as a global economic pole, balancing Europe and the Americas. This has rattled nerves particularly among those who cannot see any obvious arbitrage opportunities.

Universities around the world have helped to make and understand these events. They have trained the engineers and politicians who have built new ideas and infrastructure. They have created systems of trade and diplomacy that organize and develop economic and social power. University research and education has made the planes and algorithms that cart people, money and weapons across frontiers. University presidents, faculty and students play an active role in shaping world affairs. As the world becomes more interconnected understanding and directing this sectoral and institutional leadership will be essential for prosperity.


Edited by Brendan Cantwell, Michigan State University, US, Hamish Coates, Tsinghua University, China and Roger King, University of Bath, UK


Cantwell Hbk PoliticsHandbook on the Politics of Higher Education is available now.

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline.

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