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Australian universities received last night the official confirmation that the last 6 months bring a colossal cut of $3.8 billion dollars to their funding. In a time of tremendous changes and the certainty about a very uncertain future, universities across the world should look at this story and see if there are not some important lessons to be learned.

The Perfect Storm for Universities – an article about the type of problems that may affect universities in a near future, which I published last December – was followed by condescending or visceral reactions “at home”. Most of these were aiming to fix my ignorance and help me learn that Australian universities are stable, affluent and looking to solve only problems associated with a continuous growth. I learned among other things that Australian universities are “growing rapidly due to the changed funding arrangements” and the future is bright because “all student numbers do continue to rise“. The perspective of a time when universities compete for students and ideas was deemed as absurd. The hypothesis that higher education needs to look beyond fads, local cliques and petty interests to find imaginative and sustainable models to secure their own future seemed eccentric and marginal. It turns out that that time was closer than even I imagined few months ago.

The last weeks are marked by a very different tone and news about “the changed funding arrangements”: it is possible now to hear some voices warning that “cutbacks place the entire (Australian) university sector at risk”. There are now advertisements on national television with – what else? – brief dull lectures about the risk of massive funding cuts for higher education and (missed) benefits of investments in universities. Despite some sporadic and – unfortunately – poorly designed efforts, the public seems to be as moved by this narrative as it is by a media story about a new recipe for chicken wings. Few students protested (for instance, in Sydney around 30 students gathered to protest about internal problems that “coincided” to a day of protests announced by the national union of tertiary education), while others had a lunch break to “protest”. Most left this event unnoticed. Analyzing the new budget presented last night by the Australian Government, mass media was also blatantly ignoring cuts to higher education, focusing on other “winners” and “losers” of the new budget and on a shocking deficit.

The Gillard Government’s decision to cut billions of dollars in funding for universities is not really big news in Australia. As previously noted, for the last 6 months it was clear that serious cuts are under way for higher education. Universities and students were informed that this is coming and they will pay the price. No reaction! A first cloud came almost unnoticed in the form of a report including the story of Australian student debt, higher than expected. It became clear that we have an official estimate for 6.5 billion dollars in student loans that will not be repaid (which translates into “a significant number of graduates will have terrible jobs and incomes so low that they’ll not be able to pay back loans”). Mostly unobserved was also the release of statistics revealing a slight drop in international student enrolments in Australia. Moreover, an official announcement shocked some executives when it was revealed that 1 billion dollars in funding research will not be available anymore.

Universities Australia’s Chief Executive, Belinda Robinson recently warned:

Off the back of $3.8 billion in cuts inflicted on universities and students over the past six months, the Australian community is becoming increasingly concerned that a high quality university system is being sacrificed to fund school reforms – when both are part of the recipe for national success

There are literally no signs that this warning was heard. There is no doubt that on a medium and long term these last 6 months will greatly impact on the status and importance of Australian higher education. More importantly, it will impact on innovation and research and local capacity to focus on alternative ideas and solutions for challenges ahead.

Nevertheless, public and academics looked at this unfolding story with remarkable nonchalance. The apathy, indifference or denial partially explain the ubiquitous silence. If some within academia live a pleasant dream feed by ignorance and denial that billions of dollars vanishing from higher education translate in just few small changes in their budgets, they are certainly wrong. They may think that this massive cut is leaving mostly unchanged their familiar landscape, but this is just impossible. When reality will hit those in denial it will be too late. Unfortunately, we have to admit that foundations of many systems of higher education are weakened now by a stunning lack of vision within the walled gardens of academia.

In few words, the lack of public reaction to devastating blows to universities is a first important lesson.

The political political dimension is relevant to understand why. It is clear now that politicians from both Australian political poles understand that cutting funds from universities to give these money to schools translates into more votes. Just before elections, a rare implicit consensus on something of major importance (when it seems that local politicians try as hard as they can to reenact the The Tower of Babel) shows that universities are not close to the hearts of voters. Taking from universities to give to schools doesn’t make any sense for public policies and a sustainable future, but in political terms this move is seen in line with voters’ preferences.

The fact is that the Australian public proved now that it is mostly indifferent about what is happening with local universities. This must be a source of great concern for academics and administrators. They have the urgent call to reconnect de facto their institutions with communities. The simple rhetoric about “sustainability”, “community involvement” and civic responsibility may work within some institutions – although low morale and staff disengagement usually reflect very clear the complete failure of this type of discourses – but proves to be completely ignored by those communities which are served just in discourse and not in real life. Seduced by their imagined realities and the sound of their own voices, academics and university administrators lost contact with the world around them. That world remains now indifferent to their fate and obvious arrogance. To ignore this when there is no doubt that the future holds many turns and tests can be a fatal mistake.

In Why Australia hates thinkers Alecia Simmonds explores how it is possible to show so blatantly that higher education is not seen as an investment in the future by the government and political establishment. Answers to this puzzle are more important than it seems, even if we consider just the fact that Australia is a country where universities are the third-largest export industry. The author’s explanation revolves simply around the effects of an ingrained anti-intellectualism:

There’s no doubt that Australia is a vast, sunny, intellectual gulag. The question is why [...] Perhaps there’s a link between the myth of Australian egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. Australian history is popularly told as a story of democracy, equality and classlessness that broke from England’s stuffy, poncy, aristocratic elitism. We’re a place where hard yakka, not birth, will earn you success and by hard yakka we don’t mean intellectual labour. Although, of course, equality is a great goal, we’ve interpreted it to mean cultural conformity rather than a redistribution of wealth and power. The lowest common denominator exerts a tyrannical sway and tall poppies are lopped with blood-soaked scythes. Children learn from an early age that being clever is a source of shame. Ignorance is cool.

There’s also no room for cleverness in our models of masculinity or femininity. For women, intelligence equates with a dangerous independence that doesn’t sit well with your role as a docile adoring fan to the boys at the pub. It’s equated with sexual unattractiveness. And for men, carrying a book and using words longer than one syllable is a form of gender treason. It’s as good as wearing bumless chaps to a suburban barbecue. Real blokes have practical wisdom expressed through grunts and murmurs. Real Aussie chicks just giggle.”

The limit of this explanation is that anti-intellectualism is not an Australian invention, nor monopoly. A simple look at public (and political) life in the US reveals why it was possible to see a politician like Sarah Palin taken seriously for such a long time. Public displays of anti-intellectualism, anti-science and glorified ignorance are quite popular across North America, but we still find there some of the best universities in the world. Moreover,  we see a culture of public support for universities. Mass media is constantly reflecting problems and changes in universities and very often Nobel laureates and globally influential public figures publish first-page editorials about the fate of students and American universities. Any change in funding, social and economic context of universities is vastly reflected and discussed by media, think tanks, politicians and public figures.

It is something else about the Australian story and the key may be within the walls of universities…

To gain civic support, help from the public and see students building barricades to defend their universities (1968 style or less confrontational, but still very efficient), universities must be seen again as hubs of knowledge, civilization and progress for society. These institutions make sense if they stay as islands of free thinking where important challenges for society are approached with an open mind and expert insights. Citizens cannot be accused if the importance of an institutions is hidden behind an oblivious existence focused on bureaucratic hierarchies with glorified mediocrity, where obedience is the condition for survival. TV ads reminding the public that universities are beneficial just miss the point.

If a university is reduced to a profit-oriented assembly line built to deliver credentials (diplomas) and a set of skills to customers, then we have no reason to complain that the outside world relates to their stories in the same way they do when a local fast-food restaurant is a risk to be closed down.

Now it is time not only to encourage academics to speak truth to power, but the “power” itself must realize that this is a key for success and, ultimately, survival of their own positions. Everyone is responsible and the change can start immediately: a simple honest look can show if there are different opinions in the same faculty – and if these different opinions are publicly discussed or just whispered (the current fascination of academia with ‘whispers’ is a very interesting cultural detail…). If not, it is the time to start the change.

Lack of vision, “forbidden knowledge”, avoiding inconvenient truths, encouraging mediocrity and denial bring tremendous costs and risks for universities. Why? Because if we leave the future of this important institution to be decided by politicians running for votes, then we have no future! Most importantly, because we have to realize that we already live the first days of a global revolution of higher education. Those failing to see this will greatly regret that today they did not change.

Many universities slowly implode nowadays without even knowing it. Going ahead in denial with a lethal combination of old models and practices, decrepit ideas, illusory solutions and their self-confirming coteries, many universities are still playing around a stubborn refusal to change. This is based on the ingrained belief that higher education can go ahead as it was in the last decades and some institutions of great tradition are suffocated by internal political games and insidious forms of nepotism. Unfortunately the context is all changed and there is no doubt that higher education is under unprecedented pressure these days. The increasing gap between expectations and reality of is reflected here by the level interest gained by opinions or initiatives against the idea of University. This is interesting to note especially when they differ from the common primitive instrumentalism and aggressive anti-intellectualism promoted by conservatives around the world. Some get a lot of attention questioning the value of any university as this is just a terrible investment. Others launch interesting initiatives such as the UnCollege Movement while some eccentric billionaires get their headlines in international media by paying students to drop out university studies and do something more “productive”, such as opening a new business. The already old discussion about the “higher education bubble” is placing academic endeavors in the same register with the speculative boom that was leading to the current global financial crisis.

Costs for higher education rise with unprecedented pace and public education spending in most Western countries is ‘falling fastest since 1950s‘. In fact, anti-intellectualism and global economic crisis created an environment where public investment in higher education is largely perceived as an irresponsible and wasteful luxury, some adding here the potential of higher education to ruin personal budgets, lives or societies. Times Higher Education recently published – available here – an excellent article on the tremendous impact of anti-intellectualism on the academic life and The Chronicle of Higher Education – article available here – is also exploring the dream world with opinions and no experts or intellectuals. Neoliberals around the world compete in the same time to produce the most shocking public attacks on universities, as this perplexing example offered by one of the candidates for the office of President of the United States.

This growing trend of opposing demands and intense disregard for scholarship itself is profoundly undermining the role and place of Academia in the contemporary public life. Funding cuts, new expectations from students, employers and society and the fundamental shift produced by new technologies turn by force the entire system towards a radical change in the role, structure and function of universities. While academics have their own major responsibility for this state of facts – or seek an escape route when they are sacked as inconvenient voices of dissent – many universities ignoring the importance and responsibilities of academic freedom and active involvement in society will just implode waiting to be saved by MOOCs or by the next silver bullet. Most universities will be forced to accept their new marginal existence and change their role and function within the scene. Just a few will stay near to what we understand now by a University.

A wrong model and a monopoly falling apart

We can see that beyond ridiculous accusations higher education is scrutinized today for a shocking lack of academic rigor, resistance to change and resistance on the part of academics to view research as a complex exercise that have to involve and engage students and the outside world. This may be more important than is currently accepted and is adding to a depressing lack of imagination in thinking about new alternative models for the future of universities in 21st century. The pressure for an illusory efficiency based on a model of economic Darwinism promoted by evangelists of the utopian promises of market fundamentalism eroded to the extreme the pillars of University. Within University walls we have too often an epic display of denial and self-preservation of various groups and elites self-absorbed on the old game of mutual confirmation and their resistance to fundamentally change what worked well enough for the last decades.

Recent studies (such as this in UK) reveal that academics and academic-related staff are the most stressed workers. Increased workloads and a quantitative understanding of “delivering courses” efficiently and producing research by number of publications rather than quality and relevance for community, industry or society is turning the process into a factory-like institution where academics feel more like that worker depicted by Chaplin at the conveyor-belt in “Modern Times”. If we take the example of Australian higher education we can see that the government expenditure on universities as a share of GDP fell between 1995 to 2004 by 4 per cent while student numbers increased by 45 per cent. Add to this the often mentioned problem of increasing casualisation and it becomes clear that the significant rise in the staff-student ratio and structure of academic staff impact on the quality of teaching, academic rigor and student engagement and learning.

Financial rationales and profit efficiency

Simplistic and profoundly destructive staff policies ignoring the fact that academics are the most important capital any university can have and the weirdly damaging and unsustainable global trend of casualization in universities create an incoherent reality. The general call for a socially engaged university is naive when the uncertainty for disposable staff and fear is promoted along with conformity and convenient mediocrity, inhibiting creativity and individual development and expression of staff and students. There is no surprise to read that an academic can say this today: “we just click our heels and carry out management orders. The threats of forced redundancies are part of a pattern of saving money by getting rid of permanent academic staff and casualising the rest. Morale is rock bottom“.

Universities aim today to act as successful corporations and get only a strange and unsustainable hybrid: they are not as flexible as successful corporations, keep the administrative ‘bloat’ and bureaucratic Kafkaesque maze, accept old hierarchies and established groups while using a primitive managerial mindset unadapted for their specific field with a unique and shocking contempt for own human resources. Risk-taking by students and academics in challenging ideas, practices and current approaches is most often perceived as a foolish career-end and the surge of disenchantment for what education at this level used to stand for is globally widespread. This is not a discussion about the private sector involvement in education, but the ideological and economic model used to organize nowadays universities. It may be too late to have now a discussion about a managerial model for institutions of learning and production of knowledge that is similar in essence with that used to run an industrial farm.

The irony is that many business leaders do not share this view of an instrumental role of education and understand that the goal to design education for the modern workforce is much wider and complex than the simple engine producing “work-ready graduates” in factory-like arrangements. Charles Kolb, president of the nonpartisan, business-led United States Committee on Economic Development, notes: “In addition to the obvious labor-force needs, having more Americans with higher levels of post-secondary achievement is vital to our civic health. The heart of a vibrant democracy is educated, engaged citizens who are able to make choices for themselves, their families, their communities, and their country. In this respect, the success of American post-secondary education is critical to the success of American democracy

The overused argument of change based on a parallel of higher education evolution with the Internet revolution on printed press and music industry is here well placed. Not that higher education can be so simplified to be understood as similar with music or printed media industry – which is another reflex to understand complex realities through the only lens of the industrial models – but is valid in indicating that present models and policies will soon be changed forever.

Outsourcing academic life

The most surprising development of the last decade is an obvious push of Academic life outside our universities. Universities refuse to even have a serious look at their own culture of orthodoxies and compliance, cultivated fear and “efficiency” that is weaving a reality where the idea of a critique is withered by the specter of casualisation and critical thinking remains a dusted slogan on some old walls. This is why the public life is influenced by forums outside universities, such as TED or Aspen Ideas Festival, Big Ideas and its Australian version or the interesting but less known Festival of Dangerous Ideas – if we review fast some of the most influential and well known forums and idea-generators. These forums of ideas and debate have no equivalent initiative organized by an academic institution in the last decade. This used to be an integral part of any university mission, but the culture of debate, inquiry, exploration and public conversation crumbled under the pressure of efficiency. Universities are not capable nor even interested to have something similar and most academic conferences are now paper-presentation-marathons with little if any discussion about what goes today as serious research. Moreover, any visitor of a modern university may be surprised to see that academics cannot be seen in universities today reading a book: some are just a product of the new reality and see no use in reading an entire book, but many understand that this will label you as a slacking, relaxed and inefficient member of the factory. Academic exercise, discussions and thinking itself were pushed out of our corporate-inspired structures that provide educational services in higher education.

Universities lost in this shift what was in reality the most valuable and efficient part of their existence: knowledge authority, status and influence in intellectual debates and public life. It is too easy to blame only outsiders for this evolution and many academics are responsible for this. The “bean-counting culture” was overtaking academic life years ago and soon we will see effects and implications of this model.

The promise of MOOCs

Traditional institutions see now how for-profit universities aggressively target students that used to be the captive audience of public universities by offering them various deals to get degrees with an ease that was not possible until now. This ease is also opening an important discussion on the sustainability of this questionable model. In the same time, various entrepreneurs and corporations launch into costly and well advertised enterprises to provide cheap online higher education courses and degrees. It is obvious that policy-makers and managers in the “industry of higher education” know that the added pressure and their questionable models are not sustainable. The reaction of many public universities and systems of higher education is to turn to a for-profit model, but this cannot work for a long time and there are signs that the pressure will increase. The problem is that very few have any idea where to go from here, what new model can be applied to survive in the current context. With little imagination and paying the price for stifling imagination and creativity within their walls, universities found an experimental approach labeled as MOOC – massive open online courses – as the possible salvation.

With “The Fear of Missing Out” syndrome, universities run with an unclear vision and rationale to join this trend, just because “We can’t fall behind. We can’t be left out” and with the hope that this is the new ‘gold rush’ in higher education. It is amazing to see how little attention is paid in the general noise to some implications of this move. The first detail is that MOOCs are not that new. Apple’s iTunes U is one very popular platform for a variety of free online materials and courses since 2007 and universities and high schools from all over the world use it.

We are sharing the belief that this can be an excellent solution for some courses and some institutions. However, this experimental approach is not a panacea and should be adopted with great care as an educational solution. Saying that all “massive open online courses” are good is just absurd as it is to think that a university can solve the variety of financial, academic and cultural problems just by launching MOOCs.

The naive belief that any university offering a MOOC will automatically gain a vast audience will be soon dispelled. If we look at Facebook as an example of “free” online platform we can see that there are thousands of other versions, but none of them reach Facebook’s number of users. In fact, some online platform live a short life and die unknown. The second expectation – that a percentage of the vast audience of MOOCs will run to pay for other courses in the same university – will offer a grim surprise to many policy makers and managers around the world.

To understand these expectations is important to clarify what we see often as a source of confusion: “Open” – found in the first “O” in “MOOC” is taken as synonymous with “free” and this is the source of a potentially dangerous error of judgment. Open means more that anyone can access it, it is open to all. However, here we see a perfect fit for the old saying ‘if you don’t buy a product online, then you are the product. The associated costs for the time and work spent to create the online course, to administer and distribute it, reveal a significant cost for the “free” course. Here everything is monetized in various forms and corporations presented as humanitarian endeavors will soon discuss their substantial revenues from ‘open courses’. If we are using again the Facebook example we can see that it took ten months to achieve the number of users earned by Coursera in only seven months. Both Coursera and Facebook are open and both provide “free” services online: Facebook has no a capitalized value of US$41 billion. Coursera may reach in 5 years a double value in cash.

Without a clear plan to convert MOOCs into a sustainable model and a fast conversion of unclear expectations to strategic actions aligned by a coherent vision this solution may be the bullet hitting the heart of many universities. A recent Moody’s Report already says that MOOC’s could hurt smaller universities. The ingrained belief that universities can go ahead with minor adjustments and no modern university can disappear is debunked by reality: a recent analysis is exploring The Slow Death of California Higher education. The lesson here is that universities can die and higher education in entire regions and countries may live the experience of a slow death. The other important lesson is that – as University of California proves these days – online education is not a silver bullet (an interesting article in this story can be found here)

Looking at other important implications we need to take note of some very good arguments about uniformization and cultural imperialism promoted by MOOCs, such is the recent article published by Chronicle of Higher Education, MOOC’s and the McDonaldization of Global Higher Education:

But, let’s be clear what this means: thousands of students across the world taking the same course, with the same content, from the same instructor. And that is the problem. MOOC’s are now at the forefront of the McDonaldization of higher education.

In an era when higher education is making significant advances in becoming global and helping to build educational capacity within developing nations, MOOC’s play the center against the periphery. They strengthen the ivory towers by enabling a few elite institutions to broadcast their star courses to the masses from the comfort of their protected perches

A compelling analysis published (available here) by Inside Higher Education provides an important glimpse into some major implications of MOOCs as a model for higher education:

If the partnership with Coursera works out well, we may soon become dependent on their good will. We may, in other words, need to take very seriously their thoughts about the kinds of courses we should teach and make available online. At Virginia, and at all the schools that begin teaching online, the distribution companies may come to have a consequential say in the way that professors teach and students learn.

What influence will the corporations have? What will they want? The immediate answer isn’t hard to come by. They will want to increase financial returns as much as possible. They will want to make as much money as they can without breaking the law.

And to do so, they will begin demanding the sort of courses that will sell best, not only in America but around the world. What sort of courses will these be? I think that they will be the most standardized, solid, predictable and sound courses that the university can produce.

Faculty members will have to submit their syllabuses in advance. They will have to cover precisely the ground that they say they will: there will be no swerving from the original plan. Digressions and jokes will be at a minimum, assuming that they are allowed at all [...] courses will also have to be radically inoffensive. They will have to be palatable to as many people across the world as possible so as to increase market possibilities to the maximum point. The course designers will have to think about whether they are offending the sensibilities of, say, Chinese students and also of the Chinese government when they put a political science course up for sale.

During ‘gold rush’ many adventurers lost their lives while others had the same fate that may be soon shared by some universities looking at MOOCs as a silver bullet: they were left broke with fool’s gold in their hands.

The Next Divide

Higher Education is a great investment and OECD produced already a great number of excellent studies with data in support of this statement, such as this here. The question is not if this is a good investment but if higher education in its current forms is relevant and sustainable on a long-term. The future can bring major divides and many universities with no vision and strategy for the future may be already lost for the new competition.

Moreover, the great online shift is leaving behind the model of a University where experts that are teaching classes organize access to universal knowledge. Knowledge will be even more easily available for students and few remaining dynamic universities will focus on research and advancement of knowledge. These will actively seek to create alliances and networks of collaboration for research and production of knowledge rather than teaching and mass production. This will be a platform for dialogue and innovation, in socially and regionally engaged and globally embedded forms of collaboration and generation of knowledge. Most institutions of higher education will follow their current course and accept the mission to offer professional certificates in a new form of vocational higher education, competing with professional organizations that will give bespoke intense courses for present and future employees.

The current focus on MOOCs has nothing to do with the future of higher education: the shift already happened before this current fascination with a new tool. The future cannot be changed by a tool, but by a new vision.

A university is imaginative or it is nothing – at least nothing useful

Alfred North Whitehead

Imagining the future of university is now more than a safe-game with multiple advantages. It can be a practical exercise of building on the dynamic flexibility and capacity to use imaginations for a sustainable future for our institutions. Most of us know that we live a moment of unprecedented challenges and changes for higher education, all in the context of a dramatic economic crisis and a fierce competition. “Stories about the future” may be the best way to prepare for what was called “a tsunami” of change in higher education. Universities are forced now to find new solutions for their own future and this (harder than it looks) task may be best achieved if we play thinking about the possible future.

It happened in 2012…

2012 was marked by the activation of a strategic consortium with the online instructional delivery firm Coursera and some of the most prestigious elite research universities, including Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, and others. This was a shake of a magnitude able to seriously move the foundations of the old paradigm. Many have seen this as an important and clear sign that reshaping education  is already happening and resistance to change and engage new technologies in teaching and learning is not a realistic choice anymore. In 2013 it was already clear that universities will not have the option to leave technology just as an alternative for learning and teaching and a large number of universities followed the MIT and Stanford examples of serving the public with ‘open access’ to their courses. What started as an experiment in joining emerging initiatives in online education gained speed in the following years with the need to provide flexible content, time and space for learning. However, the change in the role and function of universities was more profound than anticipated. If new technologies opened new possibilities for higher education and learning, years of economic crisis increased the pressure on universities to design career-focused postgraduate degrees in collaboration with industry partners. In this new context, students achieved their degrees in complex online platforms able to enhance engagement and institutions shifted focus on their role as facilitator of learning, social and professional experiences.

Focus on flexible learning and the demise of traditional lectures

In 2030′s in-person, on-campus attendance of students and what was once called “traditional lectures” was a feature for marginal institutions unable to adapt to a new cultural, economic and social reality. This happened years before and most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation is dramatically changed by initiatives at the beginning of this century. Professors Cede Grading Power to Outsiders—Even Computers and universities actively explored the possibility to outsource marking and assessment as they have outsourced in the past their food services, print services, health services, learning management systems (LMS), IT services, staff recruitment, security, housing, the management of conferences, fundraising, student recruitment and others. Companies such as Edumetry were promising (and already offering services to some good universities since the first decade of this century) to “relieve the faculty of the burden of generating data on Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs)“, and were successful by inviting universities around the world to “leave the mechanics of assessment to us”. This tagline is already obsolete in 2050 as most universities have to use complex software and specialized companies to deal with marking and strategic partnerships with workplaces for bespoke assessments for students.

The university of 2020′s could not operate anymore as a separate space where students come to be taught by those authorized by the institution to impart their special knowledge, mainly by lecturing on campus or online. What was once called “the online option” is now the common feature of most successful universities. It became more obvious that learning is an ongoing and dynamic process that cannot be realistically restrained within the walls of a classroom. New technologies and media opened “virtual curriculum” to endless possibilities and institutionalized learning opened for congruence instead of fighting for an impossible supremacy and control. Learning in higher education is now shaped around the option to have guidance in making wise epistemological and axiological choices for complex challenges and problems. Designing learning by models designed in the middle of 20th century as versions of curriculum arrangements common in previous centuries was at last forcefully rejected by students, employers and civil society.

Imaginations, Networks and Connectedness at the Core of Universities

Around 2015 universities moved from the past obsession on the illusory monopoly of credibility on qualifications, control and certification of learning to a clear commitment to use advanced technologies for innovation, production of relevant knowledge and research for civic, industry and academic partnerships. Consistent collaboration is at the middle of 21st century an intrinsic requirement, as universities have only the binary option to seek genuine connectedness, work on their engagement to create institutional, national and international partnerships with industry, community and other academics for innovative solutions or the alternative to play in the bush-league. The challenge of ageing population, the growing number of students and their diversity along with the realization that inclusive and lifelong learning solutions in flexible formats is a requirement for prestigious universities shaped new institutional processes. Academic institutions where the simple idea to collaborate with people on the same corridors was seen as an extreme step have changed under the increasing pressure to engage in diverse networks and collaboration with community, industry, and networks of national and international scholars. These active networks are now able to generate new ideas and innovative solutions for a fast changing reality for students and other stakeholders. Universities employ a consistent effort to stay as imaginative and creative entities in similar ways as the emerging creativity and innovation was promoted across an entire industry by companies like Google at the beginning of 21st Century.

2050 Research Drive: Universities as Research and Innovation Hubs

There was the problem that change involved by technology and economic crisis in 2013 was affecting universities in very different ways and it became clear that any institution thinking that the simple adoption of same (online) solutions as Harvard, Stanford or MIT is the cure or provides the competitive advantage was a naive and disastrous approach. It became clear in time that institutions have to focus their efforts to create a culture of innovation, develop their human capital and replace the unsustainable practice of casualisation with more stable forms of employment in exchange of a genuine commitment for innovative research, collaboration and production of knowledge. Not only universities, but entire countries learned the painful lesson that the stubborn refusal to move from rhetoric to practice in opening for ongoing collaborations with industry, civil society and the large variety of possible stakeholders translated in declining number of students, lost funds for research and financial collapse.

As learners increasingly used the web as their first port of call for information (and this encouraged even more independent inquiries and learning in all forms) employers moved focus from stale paper credentials to seek genuine mastery of new skills, flexibility and innovative minds. Higher education realized that learning journeys have to be different from previous levels of education and placed a strong emphasis on self-learning and discovery: universities provided choices for learning in a vast variety and forms for bespoke journeys. These learning stages are certified with the use of professional entities specialized in marking and assessment designed in line with different specific institutional demands.

Universities had to change in practice the isolation of ‘silos’ created by departmentalization, the emphasis on hierarchies and promotion of comfortable mediocrity, the use of slogans and surface reporting as these proved to be dangerously unsustainable in a context of a merciless competition. It became clear in time that all institutions leaving creativity, innovation and research in rhetoric rather than having a consistent effort to make it a genuine trademark of their living culture cannot survive the competition. Universities, countries and regions stay as successful examples where the emphasis of flexibility, the permeability of institutional boundaries and the openness to work with community and industry provided sustainable solutions for all. Some lost the meaning of this change and disappeared or still struggle in the margins for survival. The most important lesson was that universities can build on their potential as main catalyst for knowledge creation, creativity and change for society in collaboration with other sectors. Successful universities present these days the advantages of proliferation of experimentation and innovation, of building connectivity and collaboration, openness and encouragement of diversity, equity of access and in-depth thinking.

The university is at the middle of this century dramatically changed: the old walls stay now as a symbol for tradition used to work in open hubs for local, national and international collaborations. These are now the main meeting points where where scholars, industry and civil society come together to share perspectives and build on the high expertise of researchers engaged in the creation of knowledge and innovative solutions for challenges ahead.

Final note

It may be already clear that only universities capable to use the strategic advantage on their own steps will be able to see the 2050 from similar positions as today. Institutions (and countries) aware by their crucial importance on knowledge generation, innovation and overall contribution to society and economy have no time to waste if they want to be part of the scene in 2050. This is why vision – and knowledge to achieve this vision – may be one of the most valuable commodities in 2012.

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)

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Thomas Jefferson

A recent study released in Australia caused a brief discussion about the “urbanization” of youth lives and public was informed that too many students lost contact with nature and sources of food. In a short presentation of results of this study it is noted that “75% of year 6 students think cotton is an animal product, 27% in year 6 think yoghurt comes form a plant and 37% of year 10 students think wildlife cannot survive on farmland.” This important and surprising example of functional illiteracy was mostly missed by moving attention on sterile debates about urban vs rural life. The question of what our students learn was avoided even when the natural reaction when you hear that so many of them  don’t know that yoghurt does not grow on trees is to ask yourself what they really know at all. If students going for years to school to learn various disciplines – including biology – think that wildlife cannot survive in a farm it is fair to ask what happened with our education. However, this part was not part of the debate.

There is a common (and disappointing) mistake to think that this is an isolated example. The quality of education in Australia is reflected by relatively good results on international tests, such as PISA and TIMSS. These good rankings show that there is no substantial difference for any other Western country. There is also a long list of examples (some presented in previous posts on this blog) to admit that we talk about a trend rather than an isolated situation. Maybe is the time to accept what the majority of our students know and believe in most Western societies: you must go to school, but learning is not cool. Teachers are poorly paid (as a fact), they don’t have “a real job” and their social status is on a constant decline for the last decades. Students’ motivation for education is mostly extrinsic and it is widely promoted through mass media – and accepted – that only nerds and some characters unable to socialize hit the books. There are two important factors to take here into consideration: the marketing engines promote (through movies and television productions) a model that is at least disconnected from – if not openly against – the educated and cultivated minds. Social success is disconnected from hard work and study: it comes as you are “born this way”, a twisted and widespread use by media of the myth of innocence. A joyful and aggressive ignorance is promoted as positive features, those under this image are portrayed as being connected to reality, human and “like us” as opposed to the asocial nerds or educated snobbery, that reveal themselves to be deceiving and corrupt characters. This fad of the last decades may seem marginal, but the impact on the quality of education – and generations – is substantial. The constant symbolic, social, economic and ideological pressure on all aspects of education may be crucial in times when education is called – and expected – to bring solutions for a world engulfed in financial, social, ecological and sustainability crisis with unprecedented importance. On top of all these is the fierce competition of the globalized world. 

The main problem with this model turned into an engine of glorified mediocrity, false reassurances about individual and collective sense of relevance and mastery of knowledge is suggested by a recent study presented by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This study is mapping the correlation between performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exam — which every two years tests math, science and reading comprehension skills of 15-year-olds in 65 countries — and the total earnings on natural resources as a percentage of G.D.P. for each participating country. They find “a significant negative relationship between the money countries extract from national resources and the knowledge and skills of their high school population.” Results show that students in Singapore, Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan stand out as having high PISA scores and few natural resources, while Qatar and Kazakhstan stand out as having the highest oil rents and the lowest PISA scores. (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and Syria stood out the same way in a similar 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, while, interestingly, students from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey — also Middle East states with few natural resources — scored better.) Also lagging in recent PISA scores, though, were students in many of the resource-rich countries of Latin America, like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Africa was not tested. Canada, Australia and Norway, also countries with high levels of natural resources, still score relatively well on PISA, in large part, argues Schleicher, because all three countries have established deliberate policies of saving and investing these resource rents, and not just consuming them (See the data map here).

There is another interesting thing about this correlation: most countries with limited resources, good results in education and booming economies are placed in Asia. A possible explanation for their outstanding results is that respect for education is still at the core of most Asian cultures. Teaching profession is a respected and desired career and being highly educated is still the common dream in these countries rating very well in international tests of skills and knowledge. Finland is aligned to this model and is the quoted exception of the Western world. Here is something we should learn from countries like Finland, Taiwan, Singapore, or South Korea. The last is a perfect example of dramatic positive changes in just few decades. In sixty years South Korea has metamorphosed from one of the poorest countries in the word to having the world’s 13th largest economy. Korean students have some of the highest rankings in the world, and a higher rate of acceptance into American Ivy Leagues than any other foreign country.

With a dramatic history, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, with few natural resources and rapidly growing population pressures. Nowadays, South Korea is one of the G-20 major economies, a high-income developed country. In 1960, the per capita Gross National Product was around 80 US dollars, and 25 million people resided on the approximately 100,000 square kilometers of land. South Korea is still one of the fastest growing developed countries, along with Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan.

1990-2010 evolution of GNP (Gross National Income, expressed in purchasing power parity dollars to adjust for price level differences across countries)

Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General is inspiringly using a Bible metaphor to explain the meaning of the correlation between education results and prosperity of a country: “Moses arduously led the Jews for 40 years through the desert — just to bring them to the only country in the Middle East that had no oil. But Moses may have gotten it right, after all. Today, Israel has one of the most innovative economies, and its population enjoys a standard of living most of the oil-rich countries in the region are not able to offer.” The lesson if that prosperity was and stay in the power of educated minds.

Of course, there is the other part of this story that seems to be at least equally important: capacity of these educational systems to nurture and use creativity and innovation. Even some universities have the decisive advantage on creativity and being centers for innovation, we have serious reasons to avoid being complacent – just an updated read of international reports on investments in research and innovation in China show the pace of change and the nature of this competition. In one of the most discussed books of last years, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia we find some facts relevant for this trend. Using Collegiate Learning Assessment  instrument (which is designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other “higher level” skills taught at college), authors evaluated students at various points before and during their college educations, and the results reveal disturbing facts. To take just some examples, we can see that:

  • 36 percent of students experienced no significant improvement in learning over four years of schooling.
  • 35 percent of the students sampled spent five hours or less a week studying alone; the average for all students was under 9 hours.

It seems that the last thing students typically do in campus is… studying. Various new and consistent  research support these findings. To take another example, we can mention the work of Philip Babcock, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California Riverside. They published a recent study where we find that the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week and that today’s average is just 14 hours. The decline, Babcock and Marks found, is common for students of all demographics, in all majors, gender, race, size or ranking of the school. The common situation is that – at home or in campus and any other context – students are studying less. Research also show (in USA, UK or Australia alike) that grades get higher and this does give some arguments to admit that it may be possible to have a decline of learning and grade inflation. However, if grades do not matter too much, it is of utmost importance to be realistic about the state of learning, knowledge and the capacity to enhance the potential of an educated generation for challenges ahead.

In the following parts we will discuss about commercialization of higher education, the impact of dilettantes and entitlement and how the sum of these anomalies lead to a disruptive reality for higher education. This crossroads point may lead to a decline and dominance of Asian universities or to what Thomas Kuhn describes in The Structure of Scientific revolutions: a paradigm shift.

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