Threats to the openness of higher education and research: what's next for Universities?


Universities are pillars of society that contribute to its intellectual, cultural, social, and economic vitality, shaping the future through education, research, and innovation. This is the best place to explore the impacts of new nationalisms and shifting geopolitics on the European project.

Since their creation in the Middle Ages, these pools of knowledge have played a central role in European history and its construction. They remain closely linked to political institutions and processes within the state today. At the same time, universities have also been viewed as critical agents in deepening European integration.

Since 1987, the Erasmus program has continued to be a popular success story of the European integration project. In the late 1990s, under the European Commission, the Bologna Process solidified the role of higher education in the integration project by paving the way for establishing a European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Then in 2000, the European Research Area was inaugurated to promote the alignment of research policies and programs and support the mobility of researchers across Europe. Recently, the EU has strengthened its ambition with the European Universities Initiative. In addition, the European Education Area is fostering collaboration among European Union member states to build more resilient and inclusive national education and training systems.

Vigilance needed

Despite such initiatives, new nationalisms and geopolitical shifts have amplified Eurosceptic opposition and challenged European values. Since the 2008 financial crisis and the migration crisis, votes in national and European elections for hard Eurosceptic parties have risen from less than 5 % to 14 %, according to the Commission’s research report. On the eve of the European elections next June, the rise of new nationalisms and geopolitical pressures accentuate concern among EU officials.

This challenging topic renders research collaborations more relevant to understanding this ‘malady’ of our democracies and how higher education is impacted too. These studies point to a growing willingness of national politicians or governments representing different positions across the political spectrum in Europe, to influence, intervene, or restrict freedom of research and universities’ ability to engage internationally.

Introducing COST Action OPEN

To address the challenges that European higher education and research policy faces, a collaborative research network from 38 countries is set to explore how the rise of new nationalisms and geopolitical tensions exert growing pressure on the openness of European higher education and research. Rising nationalism, shifting geopolitics, and the future of European higher education/research openness (OPEN) will also examine implications for the future of Europe

“The OPEN COST Action will offer possibilities to bring researchers and other stakeholders together across borders to deepen the scholarship on current threats to the openness of higher education and research, including threats to academic freedom. By doing this, the OPEN Action will strengthen Europe’s capacity to address these current societal challenges.”

Prof Katja Brøgger, Chair of OPEN

We are currently seeing a development that is impacting academic openness in exchanges with neighboring countries and countries outside the EU, setting limitations upon academic freedom, international engagement, and mobility at the universities. These challenges include an increased willingness among politicians across the political spectrum to influence and restrict the autonomous maneuvering space for individual researchers as well as universities. In addition to this, measures concerning security politics at both national and European/EU levels are currently setting limitations for the ambitions of full openness in science and knowledge exchange, which otherwise is a characteristic of EU research policy” explains Katja Brøgger. “In the OPEN Action, it is our ambition to explore how rising nationalisms and the current geopolitical situation are creating increased pressure upon openness in European university education and research and what consequences this has for European universities and the European integration project,” she adds.

The university is stuck in the middle of conflicting visions of Europe: one advocating for deeper political integration, openness, and freedom, while the other emphasises the resurgence of power among European nation states as the primary place of political sovereignty. This latter vision promotes protectionism, restrictive regionalism, and security politics, posing challenges to open exchange with communities outside the EU.

These developments carry significant implications for fundamental values and rights, such as academic freedom and university autonomy. Through the convergence of researchers from across European countries, the OPEN COST Action brings together researchers’ interdisciplinary perspectives to investigate the role of the university in times of crisis.

This initiative aims to deliver a comprehensive critical review of current knowledge, significantly enhance research coordination, and foster greater collaboration among researchers. It will fill knowledge gaps and strengthen dialogue with diverse societal stakeholders, research organisations, the media, NGOs, political actors, and the broader scientific community.

The next generation of Young Researchers

In addition, the network has created an OPEN Mentorship programme for Young Researchers and Innovators. The program supports the academic training of YRIs by providing the opportunity to be paired with experts in their fields of interest, to meet for joint work and guidance. By facilitating collaborations between researchers at different stages of their careers, the program provides a space for mutual support and learning between leading scholars on higher education and European integration. In doing so, the network feeds an emerging generation of thinkers working at the heart of these issues and generating novel perspectives and knowledge.

The first Early Career Scholars Colloquium (ECS) was held in Aveiro, Portugal, at the inaugural OPEN conference. It worked as a “peer-to-peer” arena where participants shared and discussed preliminary research findings with fellow ECS from across Europe.

Network members at the first OPEN COST Action annual conference, Aveiro April 2024

“It was really enjoyable to spend a long session together with a group of like-minded peers. It is rare to find a forum where there is a shared sense of strong connection to the same research interests, and for me the session achieved it. Our Chairs did a brilliant job of making these connections as clear as possible and moving the academic discussion forward.” Rasmus Harsbo, PhD student from Aarhus University in Denmark on his experience presenting at the Colloquium

Reina Shehi from Epoka University, who chaired the event together with Benoît Josset from the University of Rennes, also noted that “The Early Career Colloquium has provided young scholars with a valuable platform for in-depth research discussions regarding the changing dynamics of geopolitics and its impact on the accessibility of higher education and research. Has neo-nationalism made a resurgence, and what specific pressures does it place on the fundamental mission of higher education institutions today, has been the main critical question addressed at the colloquium, and that invites further research.”

Through knowledge exchange, the Action will converge diverse pan-European and interdisciplinary perspectives on the nationalism-higher education relationship and accompanying geopolitical pressures. OPEN will collaborate with key players in the higher education and research sectors to brainstorm ideas for tackling and mitigating the increasing threats to the university’s openness.

Through Working Groups focusing on specific angles, and thematic, the network intends to create a digital research genealogy and develop a comparative framework and empirical mapping.

As its acronym indicates, OPEN will formulate sustainable and conceptual frameworks for future research and collaborations, including the establishment of mentorship programs tailored for early career scholars.

Additional information

View the Action webpage

View the network website:

Follow OPEN on X and LinkedIn