By Susan L. Robertson & Matias Nestore

This paper explores how, in what ways, and with what outcomes, deep structural transformations have reconstituted higher education in England, and are deeply implicated in the rise of authoritarian populism. We focus particularly on the ways in which our understandings and lived experiences of class, social mobility, meritocracy, social inequality, and social justice have been transformed. We explore three transformations in higher education that have created fertile conditions for the rise of authoritarian populism: (i) the individualizing of the self and neoliberal ethics; (ii) the erasure of collective class politics and the creation of a new class identity based on consumption; (iii) the creation of a neoliberal meritocratic social order. We argue that cleavage theory which links level of education to contemporary populism is too dichotomous (educated cosmopolitan versus low-education nationalist). Such accounts overlook the extent to which three decades of neoliberalism and the creation of a market society has produced new social inequalities that are paradoxically normalised whilst fuelling a politics of resentment [Cohen, Jean L. 2019. “Populism and the Politics of Resentment.” Jus Cogens 1 (1): 5–39.].