In order to understand the rise of authoritarian populist politics and the reassertion of nationalisms in the contemporary era and their relationship to higher education I argue we need to historicise our accounts, and place universities in their wider contexts. To do this, I introduce four ‘powershifts’ which I argue are central to understanding these changes. Powershift 1 examines the 1970s global economic crisis, the emergence of neoliberalism as a political project, its expansion outward. Powershift 2 explores the events surrounding the now iconic moment – 11 September 2001 – giving rise to new forms of imperialism, conflict, an intensification of state surveillance and securitisation in universities, in the face of a global movement of refugee populations. Powershift 3 addresses the consequences of the rise of finance capital and weak state oversight leading to the global financial crisis in 2008, the bailing out of the banks, and subsequent effects on student indebtedness and university finances. A final Powershift 4 brings us to the present conjuncture – 2016 onwards – marked by a rise in authoritarian power, rising racism and xenophobia and a worsening situation for the lower and middle classes that can be read through parallel education biographies and qualifications.