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Some people change their ways when they see the light, others when they feel the heat” – Caroline Schoeder

Mirror, mirror…

This post was delayed by a trip to a conference on creativity in education in Shanghai, China. It was not only a good opportunity to explore new ideas and hear about various projects developed in different parts of the world, but also a valuable chance to think about education in Asia in one of the most vibrant Asian cities. I had to place my presentation there in the context of a plenary session revolving around a story about a perfect world of universities. An American team of scholars presented their university as a mythical place where students and faculty engagement is harmoniously interwoven with civic involvement, critical thinking, creativity and innovation. The “inconvenient truth” of decline in study time, of realities revealed by research such as “Academically Adrift” or the worrying decline of civic values. To give just one example, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future” – a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and released in early 2012 – is offering a challenging set of “indicators of anemic US civic health”:

  1. US ranked 139th in voter participation of 172 world democracies in 2007.
  2. Only 10 percent of US citizens contacted a public official in 2009‐10.
  3. Only 24 percent of graduating high school seniors scored at the proficient or advanced level in civics in 2010, fewer than in 2006 or 1998.
  4. Less than one‐half of 12th graders reported studying international topics as part of a civic education.
  5. Half of US states no longer require civics education for high school graduation.
  6. Among 14,000 college seniors tested in 2006 and 2007, the average score on a civic literacy exam was just over 50 percent, an “F.”
  7. Opportunities to develop civic skills in high school through community service, school government, or service clubs are available disproportionately to wealthier students.
  8. Just over one‐third of college faculty surveyed in 2007 strongly agreed that their campus actively promotes awareness of US or global social, political, and economic issues.
  9. A similar percentage (35.8 percent) of college students surveyed strongly agreed that faculty publicly advocate the need for students to become active and involved citizens.
  10. One‐third of college students surveyed strongly agreed that their college education resulted in increased civic capacities.

My paper and presentation there was more focused on new ways to approach the “inconvenient truth” than solutions to feed a “reassuring lie” and this is not too often a wise approach. Therefore, this was another good opportunity to reflect on the tension between unpleasant facts and unfortunate factors affecting universities and the pressure to be cheerfully “positive” as a good messenger of encouraging news from our “industry”. My problem is that I find this insidious form of delusional reassurance as one of the most dangerous approaches for what is at the core of my passion, interests and efforts: higher education. No space to reflect here on arguments supporting the idea that the current European debacle is caused by the same adversity to face inconvenient facts as the immediately gratifying denial seemed to work so well for decades. However, this conference in China offered new reasons to think that soon will be impossible to blame an honest look at “what we all know about our education, but don’t have the courage to speak out loud about it” – as one colleague said passionately in a panel discussion. The change is already unavoidable and the still-inflating bubble is under tremendous pressure. It is a time when Academia will have no other choice but to have a serious and honest look in a clearer mirror. At that point we have to do our best to ensure that the increasing noise of glorified ignorance and anti-intellectualism will not be taken as a serious alternative. Education is already called to provide solutions for crucial social, economic, cultural and ecological crises and a failure masked again as a profitable success can be devastating.

In this second part we briefly explore some of the most important tensions for universities in the Western world.

The foreseeable change of commercialization of higher education

The dispute on higher education as a common good or commodity is in a sense almost obsolete since GATS and WTO transformed decisively education into a tradable service. The adoption in 1995 in Marrakesh of General Agreement of Trades and Services was the moment to include “educational services” as part of commercial agreements. Just a year later in Seattle, the World Trade Organization included educational services in discussions under “Millennium Round” of multilateral trade negotiations. The new market was officially organizing higher education and new legal, commercial and ideological mechanisms gained control over universities. The impact is extensive and profound and it seems to escape the logic of too many experts that these policies and systems are less than a decade old in a field known (as a curse) to show results on a long term.

In this new context, a logic shaped by concepts and procedures alien to the very nature of education and educational institutions turned aggressively as the only possible solution for universities. Unfortunately, the well known conservatism and resistance to change mixed rapidly with a simplistic one-dimensional obsession with profit and return on investment. Students became “customers” and the value of education was measured only in simple quantitative terms, such as number of students getting a job (not clear for how long, anyway.. and the financial meltdown proved fast and clear that this was/is a misleading indicator). The aim to nurture educated minds was completely lost or ridiculed in the context of a commercial rationale where students turned into customers that must be pleased and offered tangible and immediate deliverable, such as jobs and careers. A genuine focus on sustainability was left for trees and somehow esoteric ecological studies placed at the periphery of academic life (and funding).

Frank Donoghue, a professor in the department of English at Ohio State and the author of The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (2008) recently said that poorly paid adjuncts with heavy teaching loads “don’t have a reason to be loyal to the universities they work for and not much reason to be loyal to the students.” Jeffrey Bowman, professor of history at Kenyon College, thinks the debate over whether tenure is good or bad misses the point. “No single system of tenure is going to be right for all institutions.” I agree with this point, but it seems obvious that this logic of immediate profit and thinking about education and the extremely difficult job of nurturing an informed, critical, flexible and adaptable mind in the same terms we think of making cars and organizing universities in the same way we managed car factories is immediately destructive and devastating on a long-term.

It is extremely important and equally difficult to create a system able to replace the stubbornly mediocre and arrogant with dynamic and intellectually productive scholars, able to cope with new and serious challenges of a fast changing reality. However, taking into consideration immediately quantifiable results and simplistic measures doubled with a strange understanding of profitability in managing universities’ human capital is just a source of dissolution of loyalty, effort and commitment for the institution, for students and for the shared values. Working in an environment of immediate uncertainty where people are tempted to see colleagues mainly as potential impediments to get a new contract than as comrades-in-arms united in the difficult task of teaching, learning and research cannot be productive or sustainable for students and academic community. It is for sure profoundly damaging the fabric of our humanity.

Since the obsession of profit gained ground in universities with substantial changes involved by the GATS and WTO agreements, the neoliberal position is undoubtedly the ideological winner and education is finally a saleable commodity. University is now an integrated part of a service industry based on commercial trade. Ironically, vast implications of the global financial crisis seriously question the… profitability of this model. It also questions its sustainability. Moreover, less than a decade after these important changes (including the obsessive and methodologically scandalous international rankings of universities) it became clear that – to paraphrase a discussion with a scholar I profoundly respect – universities are becoming more like businesses of the past, while businesses are changing more in line with classical university ideals: opened to courageous explorations, focused on giving stability for “out-of-the-box” teams and researchers, blurring boundaries and actively interested to create and use wide networks of collaboration and knowledge to advance science and innovation. It became clearer in recent days that this predominance of pre-crisis corporate model was driving higher education in a wrong direction.

University in search of identity and… financial troubles

As GFC painfully revealed that the promise of neoliberal capitalism is a mirage and the road to sustainable prosperity is much more difficult and complex (and the “invisible hand” of the market is just an irrational myth), commercial groups turned their attention, many for the first time, to their core values and asked themselves “what do we stand for?” This shift in focus was much more profound than the old corporate exercise to promote “organizational values” to customers. Most universities are in this sense very much behind the business world: it is not clear how sustainable is their profitability priority, not clear anymore what are the core values and the shift in focus causing a serious introspection on “what are we standing for” is still limited to some (elite) institutions.

There are strong arguments to support the idea that universities rapidly increase the price while the quality of what “customers” get is declining. Student debt reach unprecedented levels  in many countries; in US, student debts are counted in trillions (see graph below), higher education in UK is under unprecedented financial pressure and Australia is on the same trend with $22 billion in HECS debts and student loans. This is why scholars like Glenn Harlan Reynolds write that there is a higher education bubble created by similar reasons with those causing the housing bubble. In The Higher Education Bubble, Reynolds explains that tuition and fees in United States have risen more than 440% in 30 years and schools lowered standards to have more satisfied “customers”.

Is unclear (and worrying) where the current model and embraced market ideology is leading the university, but seems to be already clear that it is the time to reconsider the direction. The most powerful argument can be that the financial implications of this model have no sustainability for institutions, graduates and society.

When the commendable call “universities should learn from business” is repeated by an academic with a serious face I am amazed to see that what follows is just a dull recitation of the old mantra on profits and customers, with some depressingly simplistic variations. It is true that universities can learn a lot from business and markets: it can learn from GFC that obsessive greed was devastating, that markets don’t have any “invisible hands” to balance excesses and fix errors, that profit as the single most important priority is leading to profound crises on a long-term. It can also learn from the European financial crisis, from Wall Street and use a bit more imagination in thinking seriously about possibilities and traps of the future. It can learn from a business like Apple what is the courage to innovate or from Google why is so important to have secure, satisfied and loyal employees in a culture where genuine critical thinking and creativity is awarded. It can learn from Nokia what is the price of being rigid and afraid to change… and many other lessons. However, the only obvious reference in these mantra-like mentions of business for academia is a simplistic model of factory-profit too similar with what was the solution for the industrial revolution… over a century ago.

Valuing education

Unfortunately, these hazards add to a dangerous view shared by many citizens, politicians and media. This perception was synthesized for me by a nice Canadian woman who asked in one of those inescapable long flight discussions what I am doing and when I answered that I work in education she smiled and said that this is not a respected field of work: “teachers are now just glorified babysitters”. In this view it makes perfect sense to talk about casualisation in higher education. Teaching is across the Western world (with the notable exception of Finland) a job under tremendous pressure: a low social status, very high demands and responsibilities and low incomes. Add to this that all think that since we all went through school for a while, we all know how to do education – here you find the largest number of “experts” in the world. To take just one example on the pressure on the teaching job we can see that the 28th annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, released in March this year, teacher job satisfaction to its lowest point in more than two decades, to less than half. We tend to value education – as parents, students and citizens – just in discourse.

The consequence is that education is left to often at the hand of dilettantes, passionless amateurs with too many answers and no questions or doubts, and to equally ignorant politicians. Influential groups promote education in two binary opposite forms: either a profitable business or as a parasite institution that is wasting too many resources. Another recent and interesting example is offered by the US presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he publicly derided President Obama: “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” Then he declared, “It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.” This reflects clearly that citizens must be helped by getting rid of all these wasters, such as teachers. The fact that a politician seeking votes reflects on teachers as a waste going to be solved if he is elected in office speaks on itself about the current environment. It is a (too) long chapter here to reflect on the constant decline of importance and respect for education, but we stop just by saying that this is one of the most serious dangers facing education today.

The challenge of innovation and change

Students – instrumental customers – are prepared now for jobs that change very fast. Moreover, many of these jobs will not exist at all at the time of their graduation due to economic pressures or simply as a result of advance of technology and globalization (outsourcing). Thomas Friedman noted “Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait” and Sir Ken Robinson writes in “Out of Our Minds” that “rebuilding the communities that have been left bereft by the recession will depend on imagination, creativity and innovation.” The problem is that engaging imagination to cultivate genuine creativity and innovation is much more complex and far from the current arrangements governing universities.

If European universities have to find a solution for the ongoing problem of dying meritocracy and nepotism, of insidious forms of corruption, mediocrity and political bureaucracy, Anglo-Saxon institutions have to balance the neoliberal dogma with the civic and social responsibility of academia in the knowledge economy.  Higher education may be soon forced to move focus from immediate profit and investments, from the obsessive ‘bean-counting’ culture, to long-term benefits of equity in education and flexible collaborations with commercial entities for the common good. A serious and genuine concern for high quality and relevant in-depth knowledge have to be followed by a constant effort to create learning environments capable to nurture creativity and innovation. The specter of ecological, social, economic, political and cultural (see the recent rise of extreme right/left in many European countries) may challenge universities and politicians to rethink priorities and the paradigm for what can be the source of real solutions for the future. A first step is an honest and serious discussion about the inconvenient truths.

The trip in China offered me many arguments to think that this set of innovative solutions will not come from this increasingly important power… (but more on this topic on later posts)

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