Poland’s neo-nationalist turn in higher education through counter-elite populism: empirical findings on academic freedom in Poland
As part of the research project “Asserting the Nation: Comparative Studies on the Rise of Neo-Nationalism in Higher Education” this paper will explore the empirical findings of an on-going study of the impacts of neo-nationalism on Poland's higher education system. Data collection took place during the spring of 2022 at the sites of three Polish universities as well as through interviews with relevant actors in the policy-making community. Currently the Polish government is asserting state authority towards the educational system to a degree not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This paper presents preliminary analyses of how this trend affects the state of academic freedom in the country, and how the academic community is responding to it.
The Polish institutions of higher education have traditionally been characterized by strong collegiate decision-making power, possibly the strongest in Europe (Kwiek, 2010, 2015). Over the last decade politicians have sought to ‘professionalize’ and ‘modernize’ the sector which to some extent has changed this picture (Dakowska, 2015, 2017). In effect, in 2011 a twenty-year long period of ‘policy of no policy’ was succeeded by state assertiveness which manifested in neo-liberal policies. Moreover, the ruling party’s modus operandi of counter-elite populism, through with which it has targeted and overhauled both the judiciary system and public media, has since 2020 also been aimed towards the educational domain (Bill, 2020; Bill & Stanley, 2020; Dobbins, 2017). The Polish academic community is therefore currently operating within a system steered according to neo-liberal principles, which the ruling party is criticizing through neo-nationalist and catholic discourse as well as reshaping to promote ideologically aligned researchers. In a national context, where the relationship between the higher education sector and the state has been described as a ‘deadlock of mistrust’ (Antonowicz, Kulczycki, & Budzanowska, 2020), and where academics’ sense of autonomy is rather strong, this study asks: how does the conflict over academic freedom configurate the strained relationship between the academic community and the state? How does the polish academic community engage with and adapt to this political turn? What pressure is exerted on academics through allegations of being a ‘pseudo-elite’
The concept of neo-nationalism was first developed in the context of the 2004 EU enlargement and through the analysis of how parties of the so-called ‘new right’ in Western EU-member states shared an identity critical of the EU and its expansion (Gingrich, 2006; Gingrich & Banks, 2006). This paper’s contribution will consist in furthering the conceptualization of how Poland, where populism and nationalism carry particular post-communist features, fits into the wider neo-nationalist picture, considering how the concept initially grew out of historical experiences made in ‘old Europe’. Moreover, against this backdrop, the contribution will also consist in offering new empirical perspectives on how neo-nationalism is impacting the historical relations between state and universities.