“We are going to survive this phase, because basic education and research – which is based on facts and higher learning – is here to stay. We just have to work hard at it.”

So says Martin Vetterli, President of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, one of the top universities in Switzerland.

He was speaking to Times Higher Education at the World Economic Forum in Davos – one of many high-profile university leaders from around the world who travelled to the Swiss town to discuss the role of universities in the post-Trump, pre-Brexit climate.

Politicians come and go, universities endure

The mood among the vice-chancellors who gathered in the Swiss Alps was one of resilience.

A theme emerged from speaking to these higher education leaders from Japan, Switzerland, Hong Kong, the US and beyond: politicians come and go; universities endure.

There is no doubt that the brand of anti-expert, populist rhetoric that swept first through the UK, when its people voted to leave the European Union; and then in the US, when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton to the White House – was a warning sign for universities and their role in society.

If the general public’s distrust of experts continues to grow, and if “alternative facts” start to trump evidence-based research, then how can the world’s most prestigious seats of learning defend their reputations?

Another prominent Swiss university leader, Lino Guzzella – president of Switzerland’s top-ranked university, ETH Zurich – spoke in Davos about how institutions in his country view the current political climate.

He’s well placed to comment. Not only does he lead one of the world’s top 10 institutions, Switzerland as a nation has had its own battles with the European Union. Last month, the country was fully readmitted to the EU’s research programmes – including the multibillion-pound Horizon 2020 – after parliament members backed a compromise solution that will see the nation continue to subscribe to free movement of people.

After a referendum backing restrictions on immigration, the country was demoted to a “partial association” with such programmes – a demonstration of how universities can be used as pawns in negotiations over what non-EU countries do and do not have access to.

After Switzerland was re-admitted to the EU's research programmes, Professor Guzzella described it as “a big relief”.

“We were very scared to be excluded from this important network in the EU. It is not just the money – of course the money is important … it is being part of a system that is moving forward.

“It would have rendered our life much more difficult if we had been excluded.”

These words will no doubt sit uncomfortably with those working in UK academia – a sector that almost universally voted to remain in the EU. Can UK higher education thrive if it does not have access to the research networks that were so nearly snatched away from the Swiss?

“I sympathize with my colleagues [in the UK],” Guzzella says, adding that it is “not a good situation for Europe”.

“We will lose contacts with world-class universities. We will lose opportunities to interact with high-class scholars and researchers. We will lose opportunities to exchange students. I am a fundamental believer that science and education must be an open system – all borders, all frontiers we put up, will render the system less efficient.”

Alas, Guzzella’s belief in such openness does not fit in with a Europe that is facing a wave of populist nationalism, and a US that is not only putting up metaphorical borders, but is also constructing a wall to keep people out.

Universities, and their desire for a more open and interconnected world, are out of kilter with huge segments of the populations they seek to serve.

“All these political movements that we see now – not just in the US, in Europe, in Asia, in other parts of the world – they are based on a rational fear of part of the population,” Guzella says.

“Universities in particular – top-class international universities – have to give an answer to these problems. It is not an easy problem, there won’t be any easy answers … but we can't shy away from it and say we don’t care about it.”

He is right. In many quarters, universities are still regarded as distant and disconnected. Out of touch. A safe-haven for the liberal left. If they are to reconnect with the general population, then they must ensure they understand not only the broad reasons for the rise of populism, but also their own role in its proliferation.

View the full interview with Lino Guzzella here.