The University and the State in the 21st Century: A Cross-National Study of Political Repression in the University Sector and its Impact on Higher Education Access and Inclusion
Julia C. Lerch

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of California, Irvine

Primary Discipline

Comparative Education
In the decades following World War II, and especially in the post-Cold War period, the university became a central institution in societies worldwide. Its cultural authority "over truth, progress, and identity" expanded, not least vis-a-vis the nation-state, and numbers of higher education institutions and enrollments soared. The contemporary period, however, is marked by instances of retrenchment. Governments in a number of countries are imposing political restrictions on universities, and some are curbing higher education access. My project examines this emerging wave of political repression in the university sector and situates it within an ongoing pushback against the post-World War II liberal, and later neoliberal, world order. I argue that the post-war university expansion was greatly enabled by international institutions, which promoted higher education as central to a liberal model of society, along with human rights, free markets, and democracy. Today, as opposition to the liberal model mounts in the form of nationalism, right-wing movements, and populist or authoritarian leaders, the university becomes vulnerable to cutbacks and attacks. The project draws on newly available cross-national data on academic freedom since 1970 to assess patterns and predictors of university repression over time and its impact on tertiary enrollments. A qualitative dimension examines human rights reports to understand national variations in how repression is framed by state authorities. The project expands our understanding of the university as a target for repression and sheds light on the continuously evolving relationship between the university and the state. A key insight that emerges is that this relationship is not solely rooted in domestic contexts, but linked to world-level transformations.
About Julia C. Lerch
Julia C. Lerch is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. She studies changing ideas about the role of schools and universities in society, as articulated in national and global discourses and institutions, and how these changes manifest in education systems around the world. Her dissertation examined the growing institutionalization of education as a core pillar of international responses to humanitarian emergencies. She explored how this shift not only broadened the boundaries of humanitarian aid ? historically focused on survival ? but also expanded the objects of education from long-term development to emergency relief. In a second line of research, she has studied shifting portrayals of society in educational curricula worldwide, using data coded from school textbooks on topics such as nationalism, diversity, and human rights, as well as internationalized study programs at universities. Julia received her Ph.D. in Education from Stanford?s Graduate School of Education and holds an M.Sc. in International Development from the University of Amsterdam and a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford.

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