Liviu Matei

Neo-nationalism is on the rise in Europe. Does this development influence the policies and practices regarding diversity in higher education? The answer to this question points to new historical developments on the continent, but also to long-standing characteristics and differences between Europe and other parts of the world, for example, the United States. The understanding of diversity in higher education in Europe is significantly different. Traditionally, diversity has been less prominent in the policy discourse in higher education in Europe. Supranational factors play a significant role in Europe.  

Public authorities have a more direct role in higher education compared to the US, from funding and governance to accreditation and enrollment. Thus, it can be expected that new political winds, such as those of neo-nationalism, push the boats of governments in new directions and, with this, higher education policies would also change course rapidly, including those about diversity. It is intriguing to observe that this has not happened, or at least not yet at the European level. Neo-nationalism has already made an impact on important aspects of higher education at the national level, such as restricting academic freedom (Matei 2019, Slaughter 2019) but, to date, it has not changed significantly the discourse on diversity in higher education in Europe. This is an interesting situation to explain. It brings about challenges but also some opportunities. 

For many observers, the re-emergence of nationalism and the magnitude of this phenomenon in Europe is surprising. Save for dramatic developments with roots in the previous decades, such as the Yugoslav conflict, the Post-Cold War period appeared promised for a good number of years in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall to an undeterred march towards what can be called the “European dream”. This “dream” evokes inclusive liberal democracy, market exuberance combined with extended social protection (in 2000 EU member countries adopted a strategy assuring to become in 10 years the most competitive economy in the world and reach full employment), and a new supranational edifice replacing the old demons of nation- and nationalism-based conflicts with the promises of a peaceful, advanced and integrated Europe, and ‘Europeanisation” in economy, politics and social affairs. This historical drive of continental proportions encompassed higher education as well: almost all European countries, 48 at present, have committed to build a common space for higher education, the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). A supranational entity itself, the EHEA, put forward and sometimes successfully implemented daring plans for new, European (not national), models in higher education: in accreditation and quality assurance; structure of degree programs; transferable credits; or graduate education, including new models of master’s and PhD education, etc. (Matei et al 2018). The overarching motivation for this endeavor, also known as the Bologna Process, was not only to reform higher education in a mere technical order, but also to support building a European-wide ethos and possibly even a European demos (Matei et al 2018). The programmatic dimension or “action line” in this undertaking that included a direct reference to what would be “diversity” in the US is the so-called “social dimension”. Several Communiqués adopted by the ministers responsible for higher education of the Bologna/EHEA countries document the evolution of the discourse on the social dimension and its definition: 

“Higher education should play a strong role in fostering social cohesion, reducing inequalities (…). We reaffirm the importance of students being able to complete their studies without obstacles related to their social and economic background.” (London Communiqué 2007). 

– “The student body entering and graduating from higher education institutions should reflect the diversity of Europe’s populations”. (Bucharest Communiqué 2012). 

“Making our systems more inclusive is an essential aim for the EHEA as our populations become more and more diversified, also due to immigration and demographic changes”. (Yerevan Communiqué, 2015). 

The EHEA discourse on diversity, understood as a matter of access and equal opportunities, is largely circumscribed to this ”social dimension” action line. The word ”diversity” itself is not central in this debate. ‘Diversity” is more frequently used in Europe when discussing inter-institutional diversity and differentiation (type of institutions or programs), as opposed to homogenization. This is a worthy discourse. Some statements about the “social dimension” are broadly formulated, such as those cited above, suggesting a comprehensive approach to this issue. However, this policy discussion and the implementation attempts are often limited to financial aid and overcoming handicaps related to the socio-economic status of certain individuals and groups (level of income, rural vs urban dwelling). A paper by the European Student Union enumerates a more complete list, with many items which tend to be ignored or attract little attention in practice, such as social mobility, lifelong learning, locally defined minorities, and anti-discriminatory measures to address “homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, ageism, classism, hate speech and xenophobia” (ESU 2015, p 5). Moreover, the social dimension is one of the least developed action lines of the Bologna Process, with very little accomplishments, unlike quality assurance, student and staff mobility or employment. All EHEA member countries have formally committed to develop legislation and practical measures to promote the social dimension. In practice, very few have made significant steps in this area. 

Neo-national parties have evolved from, or integrated, the far-right movements. They proliferated and in some European countries acceded to power. Some of these parties have “shifted to become anti-immigrant, anti-EU parties that favour more social welfare for ‘co-ethnics’, but not for others. These are neo-nationalist parties” (Slaughter 2019, p. 38). The emergence of neo-nationalism has affected national policies and action in several countries. In Hungary, a prominent pacesetter in Europe for illiberal democracy and neo-nationalism (Slaughter 2019), the government adopted restrictive new legislation in 2018, instituting a punitive supra-tax on educational activities for refugees, a measure passed under the disguise of “fighting illegal immigration”. In another authoritarian gesture, the Hungarian government decided by a simple decree that gender studies are not an acceptable subject of study in Hungary and prohibited their accreditation. In Germany, a rising new political force on the extreme right, the Alternative for Germany, harassed by informal means and in courts individual academics and entire institutions for their efforts to improve access to higher education for refugees (Matei 2019).

The rise of neo-nationalism, however, has not affected the overall discourse on the social dimension at the European/EHEA level. There are several explanations for this. (1) The European higher education policy discourse, including the segment on the social dimension, is partially disconnected and autonomous from the national discourses. This brings about an element of opportunity: some soft enforcement mechanisms exist at the level of EHEA, and national governments might be obliged to act in favor of the social dimension by virtue of the commitments made previously by other ruling parties from the same country within the framework of EHEA. (2) There is limited action anyway under the banner of the social dimension. Neo-nationalist parties, once in power, can just continue to “do nothing”. They do not need to bother to change the policies on the social dimension. (3) University personnel and students tend to promote values, models and practices of the EHEA, even when the official national policy direction is “away from Europe”. Such is the case of the UK after Brexit, or Hungary, for example. For the last 20 years, if not more, university staff and students have been socialized in a European spirit, including through extended cross-border cooperation and mobility and by adhering to common conceptual and regulatory models. This European spirit influences the behaviors of many, even when governments, such as those dominated by neo-nationalists, turn to the “nation” and own ethnic groups instead. 

An important aspect that needs to be discussed in this context heavy of national and supra-national policy considerations is what should individual institutions do to promote the values of the social dimension, or diversity in higher education more broadly. What is their responsibility? There are inspiring examples of institutional initiatives. One of them, at my own institution, Central European University (CEU), speaks for the relevance and possible contribution of graduate education. CEU runs a special access initiative, the only available graduate preparation program for the Roma, the largest and most marginalized ethnic minority in Europe ( Roma are severely underrepresented at all levels of education, from primary (with high rates of illiteracy) to university (4% participation rate in Hungary, even lower in other European countries). Through this program, CEU offers a chance to young Roma to prepare and apply successfully for admission to graduate schools, at CEU or elsewhere. Why focus on graduate education when even access to primary school is difficult? Over about 20 years, this program has contributed decisively to the emergence of the Roma intelligentsia, professional and political elites in Europe. Almost all graduates of CEU’s preparatory program will later earn a master’s or PhD degree, which are a necessary “entry ticket” nowadays in Europe for anybody who aspires to take part in public debates, to be “at the table” and represent one’s own community in the public arena. CEU has paid an extreme price for running this program and other similar independent activities, which promote diversity and transcend the current governmental likings and its neo-nationalist priorities and regulations. In 2017, the Hungarian government, led by a neo-nationalist party, promoted a law that forced CEU out of the country. CEU has been welcomed, however, to another European country, in the neighboring Austria, and will continue its activities there. 



European Students’ Union (ESU) (2015). Policy Paper on Social Dimension. Accessed at  

Matei, L. (in press 2019). ‘Academic freedom, university autonomy and democracy’s future in Europe’. Council of Europe Press. Strasbourg 

Matei, L, Craciun D., Torotcoi, S. (2018). ‘A resounding success or downright failure? Understanding policy transfer within the Bologna Process in Central and Eastern Europe’. In Batory, A., Cartwright, A., and Stone, D. (Eds). Policy Experiments, Failures and Innovations. Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham and Northampton

Slaughter, S. (2019). ‘Current Challenges to Academic Freedom: Academic Capitalism and Neo-nationalism’. In Pritchard, R.M.O., O’Hara, M., Milsom, C., Williams, J. and Matei, L. (Eds). The Three Cs of higher education. CEU Press. Budapest and New York