Youth is facing the income gap, the inequality gap, the opportunity gap, the health gap, and the access to education gap. It is a difficult time! There is also the justice gap. There are now major international banks publicly admitting that they were dealing money for drug cartels, but nobody goes to prison. A young men from a poor neighbourhood that is not very far from Wall Street or the London city is often imprisoned immediately for a minor crime, like possession of one or two cigarettes of marijuana. It becomes clear that if you can afford to pay fines like that of $1.9 billion paid by HSBC you can engage freely in money-laundering for some of the most ruthless criminal gangs in the drug world. The reality is – beyond the rhetoric and demagogy – that too many times rich can get away with anything!

The recent (and endlessly appalling) scandal of FIFA reveals much more than a simple story about an international federation of sport. A recent article went as far as saying that this is an unfolding narrative that explains the arrangements in the current world. It is clear that this FIFA-saga proves that one can engage in outrageous corrupt practices for decades even if this is ruining some of the most popular sports in the world, if dirty money oil the wheels of the system. One can rule with astounding impunity, with a style that could inspire even some of the most evil and experienced dictators, and no European justice system will ever bother you. Hope for European youth just got another hit.

It is relevant to remind here that FIFA is remunerating – officially! – its staff 34% more than hedge funds and 25% more than banks award their traders. Imagine now that you have a graduate diploma in your hands, but no house, no job (not even the prospect for a decent job) and hear the news about tens of millions of dollars in bribes and implausible arrogance and luxury going on for a lifetime… This is the situation for millions of graduates. It cannot ever feel right. Outrage is just a natural reaction to this. Youth is in crisis, the system is in crisis and the world is shaking behind ‘potemkin village’ screens. It may be safe at this point to remember that the rise of evil was was completely underestimated back in 1920’s.

Youth is in crisis, the system is in crisis and the world is shaking behind ‘potemkin village’ screens. It may be safe at this point to remember that the rise of evil was completely underestimated back in 1920’s.

Youth Marginalization and the Rise of Risks

While institutions like FIFA, many international banks and corporations are engulfed in scandals about grotesque corruption, some European countries are confronted with youth unemployment that is higher than even in a failed state like Libya. The startling reality is that youth in Greece, Spain or Croatia have now smaller chances to get a job than those who are living in some countries that are devastated by war.

This is just part of a general bleak picture. In countries where the situation was not as critical, unemployment recently climbed to new records. In France, unemployment reached new highs in April this year. The International Labour Organisation is warning that ‘the world is facing a worsening youth employment crisis’ and the situation is not improving in the European Union. 

Australia, a country able to avoid the effects of the global financial crisis, currently registers a steep increase in youth unemployment. In a report released by the Treasurer J. B. Hockey, we find that “the rate of youth unemployment sits at 14.2 per cent as of January 2015”. This is a two-decade high. It is also known that Australian graduates have in the last years a very difficult time.

In the United States, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce recently published a report documenting that long-term and high rates of youth unemployment (18- to 34 year-olds) costs up to $25 billion a year in uncollected taxes and increased safety net expenditure. The lost potential and long-term effects can be imagined. 

This makes some few sober and realistic politicians wonder if this crisis is not already too dangerous. In 2013, the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was worried that youth unemployment could lead Europe to severe social unrest, talking about a possible revolution. Currently, over 5 million young Europeans – one in four of those eligible to work – are currently looking for a job. In the last months of 2014, French President François Hollande said in a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Italian Premier Matteo Renzi that “This is the major challenge for Europe. If we are not capable or offering hope to the next generation, people will turn their backs on Europe. We see the risk, we see the threat.

The threat is much more serious than this and events after that conference proved it in a dramatic and horrifying succession of events.

Old Devil, New Faces

The threat is not only to turn their backs to Europe, but to turn their face to what can channel their frustrations or bring a sense of belonging, even if this is against all human values. In Europe and other parts of the world, many already turned their faces to a sinister shadow of recent history: extreme political movements, right and left. When disillusioned youth contemplates their lack of perspective, cynicism and corruption of many current leaders, some well-versed demagogues are able to use this sense of desperation and disillusionment for their own purposes. It often looks like a reconstruction of the horrible trail of what Tismaneanu calls the Devil in History.

The new fascisms are much more potent than only open the painful wounds of the past. Especially in Europe, a continent almost completely destroyed by the twisted ideologies of the extreme left and extreme right in the last century, it is unthinkable to hear that crowds in France yelled “Death to Jews” after ShoahThe new century finds innocent people killed for going to a Jewish museum or a kosher supermarket and synagogues are attacked across Europe. Lessons of the twentieth century are long forgotten at the grassroots level, where the youth lives today. This is also happening because political leaders, academia and in general  intelligentsia indulged for decades in a parallel existence where corruption looks less like a withering practice for economy and social fabric, but more as a sign of real stamina in people able to succeed. Increasing warning signs were covered for a long time with a rhetoric of demagogical promises, echo chambers and a constant effort to silence whistleblowers.

The reality is as bad as we can imagine when we see that reputed newspapers have headlines such as Antisemitism on rise across Europe ‘in worst times since the Nazis’. It is time to admit that something went very wrong if we are at the point where the horror of what Nazis represent for Europe and humanity mean so little that we really contemplate a replay of their times.

Youth is often part of these movements and there are many fast to blame again the new generation. But the so-called “entitlement” of a generation labeled as ‘X’, ‘millennials’, ‘Me generation’ or ‘the lost generation’ is part a simplistic stereotype and a convenient jeremiad chanted at the boys’ club on same nostalgic lines about some imagined good old times. It may be the entitlement for some, and also a real clash between the high expectations cultivated for youth. This was promoted with irresponsible cynicism for comfort, votes, and other vain interests. These high expectations now collide with the very grim reality of unemployment and underemployment, NEETs and inequality, lack of a coherent present and perspectives for a better future. The gap is too big! 

Effects of this complex reality are erupting now in various ways: some genuine forms of protests and indignation or cohorts lured by extremists and fascists. These parties are interested to channel exasperation into rage and hate, to grow the membership of their movements. This explains why the danger of fascism, anti-democratic and extremist movements is not requiring now any astute analysis or inspired predictions, but a simple reading of political polls are election results. The rise of neo-fascist and extreme left political parties in Europe cannot be ignored anymore. Openly neo-Nazi parties sit now in Brussels in the European Parliament, next to the far-left parties, equally dangerous for stability and the future, as Greece will show soon. The extreme left and the extreme right have now a type collaboration that is just fueling the risk, as a group of madmen are playing with fire. When Syriza, the Greek far-left party, was aiming to win Greece’s parliamentary elections, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French extreme-right party, 

When Syriza, the Greek far-left party, was aiming to win Greece’s parliamentary elections, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French extreme-right party, publicly announced support for the extremists on the left. Not that Neo-Nazis were not popular in Greece. The Golden Dawn was expected to come third in the Greek parliamentary elections – but this was not on the agenda for their sister-movement in France. The National Front in France, the PEGIDA in Germany, Jobbik in Hungary (…and to have a glimpse at how these parties understand society we can remind that Jobbik’s deputy parliamentary leader Márton Gyöngyösi said in a public address that “…it is timely to tally up people of Jewish ancestry who live here, especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who, indeed, pose a national security risk to Hungary”), Holocaust denialists in the Romanian government, the neo-nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, Geert Wilders’ ‘Party for Freedom’, the Austrian Freedom Party or Britain’s Ukip… are just part of a long and truly scary list of extreme right movements taking centre stage in elections, local and central parliaments. 

Moving from a repugnant eccentricity, extreme-right recently announced forming a new political bloc in the European Parliament to gain more power and influence. How is this even possible? Of course, a long time of ‘guilty innocence’ of European elites, of denial and corruption is to blame. But the current context is also important. Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin is strengthening his version of a fascist state with a bellicose political strategy based on military aggression and intimidation of Europe and its allies (the Russian invasion the Republic of Georgia in 2008 was just an opening move for what is happening now in Ukraine). The Newsweek and many other political outlets and analysts (see here and here other examples) document the fact that Putin’s Russia Is in the Grip of Fascism

The flames of extreme nationalism and intolerance can get out of control (as it always happened in the past). It is also important to realize that Putin’s regime is actively engaged in a “state-sponsored subversion of European democratic systems“. This translates into a constant investment in extremist parties across Europe and their propaganda machines. Uncovering the source of generous funding for the abominable political fringe explains just in part the current disturbing puzzle of the European political landscape, or why the extremists parties were on the rise. It is time to admit that the danger is real. The fascist temptation is a very dangerous game for Russia, for Europe and for the world.

The Reality Gap

It is interesting to see how far the economic, cultural or political elites are from the realities of common citizens. We can think about the surprising remarks of US President Obama, who underlined in his address to the United Nations General Assembly that “this is the best time in human history to be born”. It cannot be comforting for millions of people displaced by all wars across the globe, reaching record numbers after WWII, or for people experiencing the horrors of ISIS and Islamofascism. It is also hardly possible to say that it is the best time to be born when inequality is constantly rising for the last 30 years in all countries, reaching in some cases ‘historical highs‘ (according to OECD studies). It is hardly possible to be cheerful when you find that “Across the world the 80 richest people have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest. In Australia, the richest 1% are as rich as the poorest 60% of Australians.

Especially in the United States may be a difficult time to be born if we consider that the pace of growing inequality is reaching levels seen only before the 1928 Depression. There were ‘45.3 million people living at or below the poverty line in 2013′ there are many new mothers that may find hard to adopt this extreme optimism. Especially when we consider that studies show that being poor is affecting the human brain starting from kindergarten.

There are many ways to explore how the current disconnect between elites and the living reality developed to the current magnitude. It is difficult to find reasons for the current cynicism displayed by most who have the power to change. But a simple event may help. For example, David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, was recently invited to talk about his latest book, ‘The Road to Character’ in a recent TV show on Australian television. The interviewer is well known for his astute observations and line of questioning. In this particular instance he was at one point inquiring about the past where some values were strong – according to him – even though it was much worse, as the world after the war  had “racism and antisemitism”. Of course, the interviewer was implying that we live better times. These problems of the past are long gone and we still find our way to balance and strong character. This is more than just amazingly naive and irresponsible. It is speaking about a certain space where the world really looks different. The real news for the ‘old boys club’ is that it is truly terrible to be poor, it is not safe at all to be part of a religious or ethnic minority in almost every country around the world and so on.

A recent New York Times article presents the terrifying reality in the heart Europe:

<< …last year, according to the French Interior Ministry, 51 percent of all racist attacks targeted Jews. The statistics in other countries, including Great Britain, are similarly dismal. In 2014, Jews in Europe were murdered, raped, beaten, stalked, chased, harassed, spat on, and insulted for being Jewish. Sale Juif—“dirty Jew”—rang in the streets, as did “Death to the Jews,” and “Jews to the gas.” >>

It is not the best time to be born a Gypsy in Europe as it is not an easy time to be born an African American in the United States. The Confederate flag still flies high in the US and survivors are still in shock in the aftermath of the racial terrorist attack in Charleston. Indigenous people in Australia still have a very hard time and First Nations in Canada or Latin America have some of the most difficult tests of their existence, as their cultural marginalisation is doubled by that their environment is poisoned or completely destroyed. Despite progress – even in the most advanced societies and economies – we still find a gender pay gap and systemic discrimination against women. There is no doubt that people in various positions of power can high-five in meetings and congratulate each other in front of various banners announcing ‘mission accomplished’, but this kind of refuge from reality is always coming with a very high price!

The Road to Radical Mediocrity in Education

Vulnerable youth and disenfranchised voters are lured too often by half-truths and demagogical propaganda of extremist movements across the world and it is not Kremlin behind all these movements. It just happens that in Europe they found a weak point in line with the political beliefs at home. We can now see that Islamofascism is growing along with islamophobia. Extremes – Right, Left, religious or religiously against religion – are always despicable and dangerous. In the United States, the growing threat is well summarized in a recent article published by the New York Times: “…headlines can mislead. The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists. Just ask the police.

It may be the right time to get less hysterical about what mass media feeds us and use our collective brains to see if the right-wing extremists are not among us, if our societies are still compassionate and inclusive. We still hold our values or play and twist them when convenient to create new repressive rules. How many universities do you know talking publicly about this topic?

Of course, the only efficient way to fight manipulation and being mislead by sleek PR, headlines and propaganda is education. Education alone can separate what is decent and useful from manipulation and all the loathsome nonsense that is used to fuel hate and violence in the name of race, religion, gender, national or sexual identities. Educated minds have a common characteristic across ages and generations: a healthy curiosity.

This feature translates into an irresistible urge to place a foundational question mark next to all that seems to matter. It is a feature of those questioning dogmas and accepted truths, exploring different perspectives, challenging favored or adored ideas just because they seem wrong or can be improved, abandoning the comfort of convenient and familiar spaces to explore the unknown and find more. This is not only what is behind the progress of humanity, but it is what preserves our humanity.

An educated mind is what is changing the path from a herd life, a regimented existence that is apparently convenient, just because it limits the horizon. It is much easier to stir the fear and hostility to all that is unknown and unfamiliar in someone living with prepackaged answers, but this existence is always vulnerable to manipulation and servitude. Again, education is the main solution to cultivate human values, freedom, and a decent life. This is why education is not only a privilege for those who teach – who should, and used to be, respected for doing this difficult task – but a tremendous responsibility. 

The problem is that education is not in a very good state. Among a long list of vital problems, there is a very serious global teacher shortage. The chronic lack of trained teachers leads to a continuous drop of standards, even if they were in many countries already abysmally low. Data recently released by UNESCO shows that ’27 million teachers will be needed to achieve universal primary education by 2030′. Teachers are valued in very few countries. In general, we find them treated well in political discourses and despised in practice, as people with not-so-serious jobs. There are already too many teachers that not truly qualified to teach in any classroom. Against the myth, current arrangements do not make this the most attractive career and this is quite a difficult job if done right.

Along with the belligerent anti-science crowd attacking it, education is pushed by various forces to radical mediocrity, to a fundamentalist average.

Traditionally, universities have the responsibility to protect society, human values and civilization. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions we find education deeply muddled into a succession of fads and shallow approaches. Some blame academics for this, but this is just a simplistic and not entirely accurate accusation. It is also no solution there! The first reason of the ‘adoration for the average’ can be found in a new model of governance embraced by higher education across the world.

The New Public Management radically changed universities across the world, being quasi-adopted in higher education governance across the world, with very few exceptions. Despite the ubiquitous promise, the New Public Management, with the glorification of market-based solutionism, failed to improve public service performance. There are various studies that document this fact and we can leave this aside here. It is important to observe that higher education makes no exception. This change is not marked by an increase of ‘efficiency’, quality, depth, motivation of staff and students etc.

In 2012, the sociologist Roger Burrows published an article about the contemporary academia, under governance models inspired by NPM:

“…something has changed in the [British] academy. Many academics are exhausted, stressed, overloaded, suffering from insomnia, feeling anxious, hurt, guilt, and ‘out-of-placeness’. One can observe it all around: a deep, affective, somatic crisis threatens to overwhelm us […] We know this; yet somehow we feel unable to reassert ourselves […] In our brave new world, it seems that a single final criterion of value is recognized: a quantitative, economic criterion. All else is no more than a means. And there is a single method for ensuring that this criterion is satisfied: quantified control”.

One of the most important changes of the last decades is that the new model of governance completely eliminates Trust and professional independence from universities. According to NPM, academic staff must be controlled and monitored regularly, quantifiable indicators must be achieved, tenure should be weakened or eliminated and staff downsized. This self-defeating combination was naturally associated with a profound cultural change. The main features of this new culture are determined by fear and distrust.

Of course, there are some universities doing better than others, but the systemic problem erodes the foundation of the entire system. Statistics on stress, depression and motivation in academia reveal that something is seriously wrong in some of the most well-ranked systems of higher education (adopting the preferred judgement criteria now).

We can admit that we do not have now – when we really need it – the most conducive environment to stimulate the courage required to think beyond the norms, to challenge ideas and expose fraud, pseudo-knowledge, to critique and explore, to imagine new solutions and advance knowledge. This is a time when all this is needed, because we face the awakening of some of the most horrifying ghosts of the past.

The Mediocre Campus

Recently media acknowledged in different countries what is a known unknown for at least a decade in education at all levels: many educators avoid difficult topics of debate rather than responsibly helping students to explore them. Obtuse policies are ‘shutting down debate‘ on extremism, from Shakespeare to Oedipus or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, students require ‘trigger warnings’, so that they can withdraw in time from studying them to avoid the trauma of intense and unwanted emotions. In the US, the American Association of University Professors released the report ‘On Trigger Warnings“. Commencement speakers are banned from campuses as an insidious culture of fear, vulnerability, and ultimately intolerance, infiltrates academic life at all levels.

The groupthink strain to embrace mediocrity makes intelligent debates dangerous for one’s future and alternative views are unwanted. To deal with basic difference became so evidently difficult in campuses that comedians such as Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld refuse to set foot in campuses. This should terrify academics! A place where laughing is censored is not only boring… is scary as a fundamentalist stronghold!

This is why we find that a self-proclaimed intelligent crowd finds the ‘middle ground’ when journalists are slaughtered because they dare to ridicule. The argument seems to make sense, but it does not: ‘I am all for freedom of speech and all – they say – but this is too much: ridiculing that?!?” The evident fallacy is that freedom is not  working in halfs and pauses. This is also the problem with mediocrity: it blinds the minds so much that makes impossible to see how absurd is to say that anyone can be killed for drawing a cartoon. How inhuman is that. How low the person admitting that falls. This is when the ghosts of the past start to win ground fast, just before our own eyes.

The Rhinoceros by Eugène Ionesco is a play about the rise of fascism in Europe. Berenger – an indifferent and seemingly alienated character – is changed entirely by his last line, that ends the play: “I’m not capitulating!”

We have the responsibility to remind our students and fellow citizens not only how important is our freedom, how important our values are, but how fragile is democracy. We have to defend it and fight for it because… we have the knowledge and the brain to explain why we must defent it! Academics and students cannot and will not capitulate!


The prediction was that MOOCs will completely change the game in higher education. Enthusiasm was general – and groupthink so tempting – that many universities across the world adopted them as a panacea for “21st century learning” (and all other problems) without hesitation or critical reflection. Those reluctant to adopt MOOCs discovered that a “philosophical difference of opinion” with the governing boards on MOOCs involves a serious personal and professional cost.

MOOCs were described in the last years in strong metaphors, suitable to express the amplitude of the change that they bring to higher education. Since 2012 we find Massive Open Online Courses often associated with natural disasters: from “tsunami” to “an avalanche” or an earthquake,  MOOCs promised to completely reshape the landscape. MOOCs are – commentators said – a tsunami of change that “is coming, you like it or not“.

The year of 2012 was marked by the firm prediction of a “historic transformation through the MOOC”, promoted with evangelical passion as the solution for all problems faced by higher education. Poor of the world will enrol in Harvard and MIT courses, students of all nations will freely access higher education and gates of knowledge will finally stay unguarded for the first time in history. The New York Times published at the end of 2012 an article creatively titled The Year of the MOOC, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman wrote enthusiastic op-eds about the MOOC “revolution”, the “tsunami” that will undoubtedly transform higher education. The Economist – along with other financial publications that discovered overnight their in-depth expertise in pedagogy and higher education – followed the same line with an article titled Free education. Learning new lessons, which offers a perfect sample of the type of thinking fuelling that general excitement:

“MOOCs are more than good university lectures available online. The real innovation comes from integrating academics talking with interactive coursework, such as automated tests, quizzes and even games. Real-life lectures have no pause, rewind (or fast-forward) buttons […] MOOCs enrich education for rich-world students, especially the cash-strapped, and those dissatisfied with what their own colleges are offering. But for others, especially in poor countries, online education opens the door to yearned-for opportunities.”

The solution to deliver good quality higher learning to all enlightened the imagination of many. The narrative was fantastic: the door to what Time called “High-End Learning on the Cheap” was discovered and new startups and venture capitalists were there to fight to open it for the benefit of the poor around the world. Thomas Friedman argued in 2012 that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty” than Silicon Valley solutions and MOOCs will “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems“.

There is no doubt that rising inequality is a huge problem for the world. This is why is important to remember here that Silicon Valley makes San Francisco one of the most unequal cities in the US. The fact is that the Silicon Valley solution is not working at home, and American politicians make public calls to find answers. A set of important questions should be raised about any set of solutions coming from the same place where education for all or homelessness stay unaddressed and are on the rise (The Guardian reports that in Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley “92% of homeless people lack shelter of any kind“).

Another luring promise of that time was that “The Internet Revolution” comes with a silver bullet for budgets in higher education. Universities were happy to see a new solution for their financial pressures. In Changing the Economics of Education The Wall Street Journal presented MOOCs as a possible solution for universities to make “numbers add up”. Another financial journal states with the unabated confidence that “Free online courses will change universities” and this is why “top universities worldwide rush to put free courses online, setting up so-called massive open online courses or MOOCs”. From Silicon Valley the perspective was – not surprisingly – very similar: “Massive Open Online Courses Revolutionizing Higher Education. MOOCs Provide Something for Everyone“.

The call for evidence was rare at that time, which is quite unusual in an industry obsessed with evidence-based everything. The good news is that recent research starts to fill the gap. The first problem is that evidence debunk most those great promises. With a bit of a hangover after all the hype and inebriating enthusiasm, universities have to draw the line and look at the evidence, accept reality, evaluate benefits and risks and redesign their solutions.

MOOCs undoubtedly bring important benefits. The power to use technology to link academic life with the public debate or the possibility to offer the chance to access great courses is undoubtedly of great benefit to many. The important part that was left unexplored is relevant for the future of universities: what is the cost of this and what are the main risks. The empty enthusiasm and blind adoption may cost more than many imagined and it is important to consider two possible risks that seem to be overlooked by many administrators of colleges and universities.

Naive assumptions about the target audience and the importance of MOOCs for marketing

There is already excellent research on MOOCs. A recent example is coming from The University of Pennsylvania, where a survey on over 400,000 active students in courses offered by the university through Coursera — the most significant MOOC provider — recorded 35,000 responses. Results are not far from other research in this field and reveal that a stunning 83 percent of MOOC students already have a two- or four-year diploma or degree. The chance to have them enrolled in new degrees is called into question even more, as results show that 69 percent of them are already employed. This set of data support those who say that spending important resources (pay for course design, research time, teaching time, course administration and IT infrastructure) for free courses with the hope of having new students is just a naive and costly mistake. 

As a tool for marketing, the investment into a MOOC may be a disproportionate effort when we look at real numbers of students enrolling into a course (or university) just because of a MOOC. Moreover, smaller universities already know that only most prestigious and renowned players attract big crowds to MOOCs. This is how many institutions see that their investments failed so far to show any quantifiable benefit.

This set of new research and data is causing now a shift in attitudes within higher education regarding MOOCs. Another recent study, which polled chief academic officers at 2,831 colleges and universities about online education, reported that 39 percent say they do not believe that MOOCs are sustainable models for their schools — from 26 percent in 2012.

This draws attention to another widespread confusion between MOOCs and online education. While online education represent an important pedagogical solution embraced by most universities for decades for their enrolled students, MOOCs are a specific platform designed to offer “open” courses for prospective students. There are many other differences, but the most important aspect here is that many administrators in higher education start to realise that “charity starts at home”: quality of online education for your own students is a hard enough task to deal with. Spending money and time for those who are already educated, employed and rarely interested to pay fees for new courses is just an unaffordable luxury.

From clicks to bricks

Another widespread prediction was that in the “avalanche that is coming”  those Doric columns on the campuses are good to be sold to real estate investors. Technology – was said – is making the university campus obsolete. “The end of university campus life” is just another article where this was predicted with certainty. The author is saying: “MOOCs merely confirm what we’ve known for years—that the most basic currency of universities, information, is now more or less valueless, so universities might as well give it away [….] Universities are no longer the only, or even the best, aggregators of information anymore. That role was usurped by the internet years ago”.  

“Information” is not learning and data is not knowledge, but this is a different discussion. The problem is that thinking that the campus is useless was undoubtedly a massive mistake that will surely bring unpleasant surprises for those embracing the fad. In fact, those who were used as an example to support the advice to forget the campus are now building their own brick and mortar campuses. The irony was soon evident this time…

In “Online students can’t help being sociable”, an article recently published by the BBC News, we read:

Instead of demolishing the dusty old classrooms, the online university revolution is responsible for opening some new ones. Coursera, a major California-based provider of online courses, is creating an international network of “learning hubs”, where students can follow these virtual courses in real-life, bricks and mortar settings.”

It is undoubtedly sad and surprising to see that many experts and managers in higher education missed that “it seems there is an irresistible social side to learning“. This detail – relevant for the specific type of endeavours involved in higher education – was now discovered by investors in Silicon Valley. This may change the attitude of those advocating the end of the campus  – or not!

In any case, it becomes clear that new technologies enhance the value of the physical campus. Universities have to find new ways to use their spaces to enhance learning and nurture creativity and innovation.

It is also important to explore if MOOCs do not involve a shift of focus and resources from online education and learning management systems managed by universities for their “traditional” courses. In other words, MOOCs may be interesting and exciting for all those interested to use them, but from the point of view of universities – placed under significant financial pressures and funding cuts – it is vital to see if these efforts do not affect funding and investments required to make their online education engaging and aligned to other technological solutions widely used by their students.

Some universities will soon realise that their outdated learning management systems work most probably as a much more efficient marketing tool against them than all possible benefits associated with some of the most popular MOOCs. Training for academic staff in the use of new technologies to facilitate and enhance learning is another important area for investment. Some universities may not have  the capacity to pay for all, but it becomes clear that quality assurance in online education for students at home is the most important investment. This is why the MOOC-hype should be considered with great care. They can bring more damage than good, especially for smaller institutions of higher education.

The poor stay poor and rich… get another freebie

Research conducted at The University of Pennsylvania also dispels the myth that MOOCs open the door for the poor and disadvantaged. It reveals not only that the vast majority is already highly educated, but two-thirds of MOOC students live in OECD countries, the club of leading industrialized nations. It is good to consider here that OECD countries account for just 18 percent of the world population.

In other words, data shows that the belief that MOOCs “lift people out of poverty” is as superficial as it seemed to be. It is interesting however to explore why there is such a superficial understanding of the context and possibilities of people living in poor countries…

The silver bullet

A genuine focus on the quality of teaching and learning, personalised education, and student engagement is what can make a university a sustainable and successful institution. The future of universities cannot be changed by a set of gadgets or technological tools, but by a new vision able to create a new context where new technologies can be used to enhance pedagogical solutions suitable to address needs and challenges of the 21st century.


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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,029 other followers