What is the public role of universities? Is higher education fulfilling its commitment towards the public good? What political pressures, conflicts, and policy reforms are threatening universities’ ability to fulfil their civic responsibilities?

Recent research shows that public sector cuts and the breakup of supra-national governance structures are impeding higher education institutions’ ability to focus on their public missions, protect academic freedom, and uphold professional integrity. Simultaneously, resurgent nationalisms, populist movements, and forced human displacement hinder their capacity to alleviate political instability. These developments have coincided with rising political pressures from structurally disadvantaged minorities, particularly over lack of higher education access or the curtailing of the social mobility that drove the post-war aspirations of universities. This constellation of pressures has created a sense of crisis for higher education around the world. Yet little is known empirically about how threats to universities’ autonomy and public missions are manifested cross-nationally across the globe.

This project offers a systematic comparative investigation of how these pressures and their potentially unpredictable outcomes are affecting higher education institutions and their capacity to fulfil their public missions and civic responsibilities. It finds its empirical basis in four national case studies: the UK, Hungary, South Africa and Turkey. With a focus on higher education and conflict, it seeks to clarify current and future threats and risks to higher education’s mission, integrity, autonomy, and capacity for conflict reduction; civic stability and development; and the assurance of social mobility.

While the four states selected for empirical investigation are nominally ‘democratic’, each is also undergoing different ‘crises of the state’ whose articulations need to be explored, across time, particularly in relation to changes in the ‘public mission’ and institutional autonomy of higher education.

This three-year study is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC number ES/T015519/1). It seeks to: 1) Identify historical and contemporary political, cultural and transnational pressures on higher education; 2) Investigate how such pressures impact understandings of university missions; 3) Illuminate the experiences of, and responses to, these pressures on higher education actors and civic groups.

Methodologically, the comparative case studies bring together rich sets of empirical data, including historical and archival policy documents; quantitative profiles of institutional demographics; records of academic dismissals and other threats to academic freedom; a netnography tracing the presentation of universities in news sources and social media; and interviews and focus groups.

In terms of impact, the project will generate new policy insights to inform stakeholders in defending the university’s role in promoting democratic pluralism, pursuing independent knowledge production, and contributing to social mobility. Such insights can become powerful tools for actors involved with public mission activities, such as academic managers, student unions, public mission professionals, and civic actors. Beneficiaries will have access to an evidentiary base to advance policy reforms to mitigate negative pressures on HE.