Populism poses ‘major threat’ to autonomy of universities

Academics told that ‘over-educated, over-bearing’ elites are key targets

Populism poses a major threat to research and the autonomy of universities, a conference has heard.

The first ever Irish Postgraduate Research Conference heard of how jurisdictions such as Hungary have stopped universities offering courses in gender studies to help end the "domination of leftist intellectuals".

Tom Boland, education consultant and former chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, said populism was something Ireland must also engage with on a domestic level.

“Populism seems to be a breakdown in trust between those who support populist parties and institutions of the state and government, the establishment and elites. And among all the elites are everyone here present,” he told the conference, held at DCU.



Speaking to a room filled with researchers and academics, Mr Boland said: “You are well educated; some argue over-educated. Opinionated, maybe over-opinionated. And they feel that you are over-bearing. So you are a target.”

He cited the work of Ruth Wodak's Politics of Fear, where "the arrogance of ignorance" was discussed and its sense of "how facts don't matter to people".

“There’s also a risk now of arrogance of education, the arrogance of knowledge,” he said.

“Too often, people think that any other viewpoint is ignorant.”

Boland drew on recent president candidate Peter Casey as an example of how there are other viewpoints emerging in Ireland.

“Populism is when institutions lose the support of these people, who ultimately will have their voices heard.”

“What Peter Casey demonstrates is there is a constituency in Ireland for populism. To go from zero percent to a few days is an extraordinary signal to the political system.

Openness of mind

“You have to be true to your calling, with evidence-based argumentation. But you have to be open to these counter-factual arguments. You have to have an openness of mind.”

Moves by Hungary, meanwhile, to end gender studies have been seen by critics as an attack on both university independence and political opponents of its socially conservative policies.

Assistant Prof Dr Mathias Möschel of the Central European University told the conference that “ de-legitimisation” was how populism worked against academia.

“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.’

“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?” Prof Möschel said.


Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, chair of Irish Research Council and professor at Trinity College Dublin, said no one should question the validity or importance of this field of research.

“Just because research has ‘gender’ or ‘studies’ in the title, you shouldn’t make any assumptions. It’s a rigorous area of research” she said.

She also said there was “trenendous scope” for these areas to work collaboratives with the scientific community.

With growing uncertainty over the impact of Brexit on higher education, she it was increasinglly important to work across political boundaries.

“Populism is a global phenomenon. We need global connections and not for people to be in a bubble. We need to mobilise against this.” she said.