Neo-Nationalism and Universities in Europe, by Marijk Van der Wende, CSHE 7.20 (June 2020)


The European Union is likely the most far-developed cross-border public space for higher education. The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the European Research Area (ERA) both span an even larger number of countries including associate and partner countries of the EU. Based on shared European values, such as academic freedom, cross-border cooperation, and mobility, these policy frameworks have been developed in Europe over the last decades and with much success. HE systems in this area are thus well-positioned to benefit from cross-border mobility and collaboration but may at the same time face a certain loss of control over HE, for instance with respect to access due to the cross-border flows of students. This seems to make them vulnerable to populist tendencies and neo-nationalist politics seeking to inhibit the free movement of students, scholars, and data.  Such tendencies have never been completely absent on the “old continent” but resurged over the uneven outcomes of globalization, the effects of the global financial and consequent Euro crisis, and the refugee crisis. Meanwhile, the impact of the coronavirus crisis is still by and large unknown. Populist tendencies seem now to be turning against the EU, with its freedom of movement for persons (i.e. open borders) as one of its cornerstones and are therefore of concern for the HE sector.  Countries such as the UK, Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands have a different position in the European landscape but are all struggling with the complexity of combining the virtues of an open system with constrained national sovereignty. Sovereignty is required in terms of steering capacity in order to balance access, cost, and quality, i.e. the well-known “higher education trilemma.” In open systems this is challenged by the “globalization trilemma”, which states that countries cannot have national sovereignty, (hyper)globalization and democracy at the same time.  How are the EU, its Member States, and the HE sector responding? Will the Union stay united (i.e. Brexit)? Are the legal competencies of the EU in HE strong enough? What about the many European university associations, leagues, and networks? And what do the millions of (former) Erasmus students have to say?  

Publication date: 
June 23, 2020
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)