George Soros, the financier and philanthropist, has pledged $1bn to support a global network of higher education to train students in civic engagement in response to resurgent nationalism around the world.
In a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr Soros lambasted rising populism internationally and picked out US president Donald Trump as well as China’s Xi Jinping, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi — and Brexit.
“I believe that as a long-term strategy our best hope lies in access to quality education, specifically an education that reinforces the autonomy of the individual by cultivating critical thinking and emphasising academic freedom,” he said.
In remarks directed at the US leader who had been at Davos this week, Mr Soros went on: “President Trump is a conman and the ultimate narcissist who wants the world to revolve around him. When his fantasy of becoming president came true, his narcissism developed a pathological dimension.”
He said that Mr Xi had abolished a carefully developed system of collective leadership in China and became a dictator as soon as he gained sufficient strength to do so. Meanwhile, Mr Modi was creating a Hindu nationalist state in India, Mr Soros said.
Not leaving western Europe untouched, he said: “The fight to prevent Brexit — harmful both to Britain and to the EU — ended in a crushing defeat.”
Mr Soros said “the tide turned against open societies after the crash of 2008 because it constituted a failure of international co-operation. This in turn led to the rise of nationalism, the great enemy of open society.”
He said some signs of a turnround last year towards greater international co-operation had been “dashed [as] the strongest powers, the US, China and Russia remained in the hands of would-be or actual dictators and the ranks of authoritarian rulers continued to grow”.
His Open Society Foundations organisation will now develop partnerships between leading universities, think tanks and cultural institutions in the west and those in more remote, poorer and less stable countries.
The fledgling network, to be called the Open Society University Network, builds upon the $32bn he has donated over the years to education and social causes.
This included the creation of the Central European University, which has now moved to Vienna after coming under strong pressure from Hungarian authorities, including visa restrictions on students and personal criticism of Mr Soros himself from the regime of prime minister Viktor Orban.
Alexander Soros, his son and deputy chairman of the Open Society Foundations, said: “The position of the Hungarian government to be the first since the end of World World Two to ban a university . . . sped things along. Seeing the different ebbs and flows of change in economics, politics and society . . . [my father] realised education is the best way to ensure that the values he believes in can be renewed with each generation.”
The initiative will work with Bard College, New York, which has pioneered a system of supporting high school education for disadvantaged children in inner cities, and educational work in prisons, while offering college credits that can be transferred and recognised by other institutions.
Institutions that have already received funding or worked with Open Society will co-operate more closely, offer dual degrees, and work with Arizona State University, which has developed online and remote learning.
Others include Sciences Po in Paris, London University’s Birkbeck and SOAS, the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, Ashesi University in Ghana, BRAC University in Bangladesh and Fulbright University of Vietnam.
The move will also involve the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York, Chatham House in London, the Institute for New Economic Thinking in New York and Oxford, the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, and the Rift Valley Institute in Kenya.