To survive illiberalism’s attacks on HE, we must resist

The optimism of my colleagues working in higher education that illiberalism will not impact tenured academics, their academic freedom and the status of higher education in the global higher education landscape – or rather their sleepwalking approach to illiberalism – seems to be unfounded.

The illiberal takeover in other countries, including European Union member country Hungary from where my university, the Central European University (CEU), had to escape to Austria, offers insights into the illiberal script that we can expect illiberalism to follow in the field of higher education.

The policy measures introduced by illiberal states in the field of higher education, such as direct control over the finances of universities, deleting previously accredited study programmes or inventing new disciplines, were first tested in the Hungarian laboratory.

For illiberals, higher education is not a space for critical reflection and the transfer of knowledge, but a place for quickly and efficiently educating an adaptable workforce and a site that should be ruled and dominated to achieve their ideological aims. The dismantling of the traditional university structure by the illiberal often uses the language of neoliberal managerialism, such as excellence, impact and social outreach and this makes it difficult to fight against it.

The four strategies of illiberalism

Illiberalism uses four strategies when it comes to higher education.

The first is breaking the academic norms. This involves undermining established norms regarding academic freedom like the closing of gender studies and other academic programmes labelled as irrelevant in terms of the labour market.

This was the argument used by the Hungarian government in 2017 when they deleted a two-year MA in gender studies from the accredited study list even though the MA programme taught in English at CEU had fantastic placement data internationally and the MA programme taught in Hungarian did not yet have any graduates at the time of the ban.

The second is bending the rules. This means using existing laws (or policies) to undermine institutional structures, for instance, using existing institutional regulations to diminish funding, closing independent units or circumventing democratic election processes for university leadership and parachuting new leaders in who are close to the government.

The domination of most of the Hungarian higher education system happened in just two weeks when loyal commissars were appointed to the boards of universities.

The third involves using extra-legal methods, such as personal and informal threats, rewriting regulations for ideological purposes, delegitimising certain forms of inquiry and applying certain parameters – like manipulating the volume of student enrolments – that may be generally relevant to higher education but whose application may allow for administrative discretion over what is taught.

The fourth is de-specification which involves the reorganisation of educational programmes: integrating or dissolving programmes through the redefinition of teaching content. This is also a form of ‘discourse capture’ whereby, during the reorganisation process, outside bodies and selected experts define and redefine teaching content in order to promote ideological aims.

In the case of gender studies, this has involved rebranding educational programmes and courses as ‘family studies’ and is a process of de-specification which has been carried out from Russia and Türkiye to Hungary.

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