Higher Education (HE) constitutes a space that calls urgently for new understandings in the contemporary political moment. One way of establishing such an understanding is to consider more fully the work of political theorists in relation to questions of power in the modern nation-state, particularly as these impinge upon the key problem of the rise of populism in the twenty-first century. This paper argues that a productive conceptual approach is to be found in the recurring idea of political paradox in the political philosophy literature, an idea which is utilized to explore the role of conflicted national politics, moralising state practices, and scientific rationalities in reconfiguring the governing rationales of HE. It engages the work of political thinkers who have sought to understand the role of modern nation building, the changing features of modern power and authority, and the rise of bureaucracy and technocratic rationalities as they impact upon political institutions – in this case, how they impact particularly upon HE. Drawing chiefly on Hannah Arendt, Bonnie Honig, Chantelle Mouffe, Etienne Balibar, Frederiche Nietzsche, Michel Foucault and Achilles Mbembe, amongst others, it articulates the paradox that concerns us – to consider how and why populist strains of national and transnational governance may find a home in HE as a consequence of unresolved and contradictory political dilemmas and conflicts.