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Innovation

©popenici2014

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.

©Popenici

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.

Innovation

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu

It is widely accepted that creativity and innovation are more than ever before the key resource for individuals and societies. Innovation is now the main avenue towards job creation and economic growth and the only route to a sustainable future. International studies (e.g. OECD) document the fact that the most successful economies are those capable to nurture creativity and support innovative research and quality education. However, the attraction of innovation for investment returns represents just the most visible part of a variety of benefits.

In the uncertainty marking the present and the future of higher education it became clear that the successful modern universities will be only those capable to create knowledge and innovative solutions for the multitude of economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges. Universities must find ways to adapt, change and build on the power of their imaginations.

The effect of global economic crisis and the vulnerability of economic growth, the unprecedented youth marginalization, unemployment and underemployment, the impact of ecological and social crises require the power to imagine new approaches and design new possibilities. Creativity and innovation represent the fuel and the engine capable to provide new solutions for a sustainable future. The only certainty for universities is that days ahead will be filled with uncertainty, with serious risks and some opportunities. Only those able to change and use their creativity to generate new ideas and solutions for these fast changing contexts will be able to grow.

This is why we shouldn’t be surprised that “innovative research” is included now in the “aims and goals” of all universities and their departments, faculties and various centres. This is one of the few points where we find in higher education a widespread consensus over a goal: we need to have innovation! However, very few get any at all. This is because innovation requires most of all the courage to nurture free thinking, relax hierarchies and power structures, emphasize collaboration and refuse tokenism. These are some very uncomfortable decisions. The fact is that university leaders and administrators have the power to change direction for a sustainable future for their institutions, but this requires vision, intelligence and courage. 

Innovation requires courage and vision.

A widely known example is provided by Steve Jobs. Although he wasn’t a great innovator (all great innovations promoted by Steve Jobs are invented by other people and companies), he had the tremendous courage and vision to build on (and promote) innovations rejected or ignored by others. When he returned to Apple he had the courage to reduce the number of products offered by his company from 350 to 10! Against all he said that immediate profit was not all that matters and it proved to be right! The result was that those 10 products saved the company. Later, when Nokia refused to use the touch screen (because customers will never want that, right?) he had the courage to change entirely the face of a phone and Apple created the first iPhone. He had the vision and courage to launch an iPad when all experts said that this is a silly mistake. He changed the world with courage and vision!

There is no need to be a great inventor to build a culture of innovation.

This is something that many can contemplate in higher education. Universities have a modest record for innovation, especially in the last years (and many universities register a total failure in innovative research). What goes today as “innovation” in higher education can be reduced to an obsessive repetition of few slogans, some commercial leitmotifs and a small list of mantra-like sentences that failed to advance anything for a long time. The uncertain future and fast changing contexts call to see what goes wrong and seriously rethink our solutions.

Vision and a genuine commitment to nurture imagination and creativity, build engagement and stir the passion of all involved is what a leader must have. A genuine distaste for tokenism and mediocrity, a commitment for meritocracy and flexibility are crucial for innovation in higher education. 

There is no need to be an inventor to build a culture of innovation and excellence in a team or across a university. 

Innovation is a matter of strategic choices and decisions – it is better to contemplate them before! Hanging slogans on the walls comes with a price.

It is much better to think about the call for innovation before the rhetoric is visibly and enthusiastically announcing a strong commitment to go in search of it. Innovative research involves much more than a buzzword looking good in organizational documents. If the call for innovation is doubled with micromanagement, control and a rule for all to “salute the flag”, the effect is more insidious and damaging than it looks.

We can imagine that adopters of the paradigm of bureaucratic control and the strong emphasis on hierarchies enjoy to believe their own rhetoric, count useless research projects published in sham scientific journals while listening in pseudo-academic events the sweet tones of self-congratulatory chorus. However, the price of denial is devastating: promoting an inwards oriented incremental existence and hindering flexibility, these rituals severely undermine engagement, morale, trust and stifle innovation. This model leaves the university incapable to adapt to the fast changing realities that determine its existence and future. Masked as “commitment for innovation” this is a way to secure a future of slow and painful dissolution for a university.

“I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed.” George Carlin

How can we stir the imagination of so many experts involved in teaching and research in a wide variety of specialized fields of science and humanities to produce innovative research? What can be fixed to turn innovation from an empty buzzword into a vibrant reality across the campus? What can we learn from those universities capable to “get it right” in nurturing and securing innovation? How can we take creative ideas and apply them in universities stuck on the wrong alleys?

The bad news is that there is no magic solution to have innovation next Tuesday. The good news is that answers to these problems can be found in history, practice and a vast literature available to those who are interested to build a culture of creativity, maintain excellence in research and add innovation as an integral part of their universities*.

We explored in a book the mentality captured so well by George Carlin. In the ubiquitous call for innovation in higher education it became soon evident again that all rhetoric, effort and investments turn into a void exercise when “innovation” is accepted only when it stays in line with bureaucratic arrangements and reinforce hierarchies. Change – various bureaucrats and administrators say – but maintain status quo! Critique… but only if what you challenge is not involving us! Explore… but keep in mind that any exploration challenging status quo can cost your job! Innovate… but only in line with what we already know that we want!

This approach will never work. Innovation arises from a complex mix of factors in a certain type of culture, involving the skills and passion of those involved. It is not simply solved by pouring more money into it and assign a convenient ‘director’ to control and punish.

We can build a culture where creativity is nurtured, but innovation cannot be timetabled! 

The idea that “dropping a dollar in the machine” leads to innovation is constantly challenged by specialists (e.g. see here). Experts argue that innovation is much more determined by policies rather than pouring investments in research (eg. Allott, S.). Prioritising cash and control over the engagement of faculty and informed policies for innovation is in the current context a potentially disastrous decision for the future of any university.

Conspicuously rejecting any views and approaches that clash with their own world views, many administrators (include here Presidents, Deans, directors etc.) manage not only to turn the call for innovation into ridiculous examples of tokenism and failure, but further disengage and demotivate the faculty. The dollar dropped in the machine is wasted: indeed, nothing changes! Moreover, this poorly spent dollar is severely damaging morale and engagement.

Innovative research and academic freedom

In 1948, just few years before he was elected The President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower became the President of Columbia University. Eisenhower, a former army general used to military hierarchy and the chain of command, was addressing the faculty of this prestigious university starting by calling them “employees of the university”. A professor interrupted Eisenhower, saying “Mr. President, we are not employees of the university. We are the university.

This may seem idealistic, but the message is worth contemplating. In very few words, we can admit that a university is just the sum of professional qualities and engagement of its faculty and students. The walls are nothing without this genuine commitment for quality learning and teaching, research and their contribution to the world.

Bureaucratic hierarchy and ‘directed research’ stifle engagement and hinder change and innovation.

A modern university is facing very different demands from the audience that was familiar to the former American general. This institution is not a sum of disciplined “soldiers” working on the assembly line designed to deliver skills for a set of jobs (that may be gone when students graduate). A university is responsible to develop the whole thinking person, to expand horizons and instill the love for learning in individuals and build democratic citizenship with engaged and informed citizens who have the power to make democracy work. A university is also asked to cultivate imagination and creativity, defend civilization and create new knowledge, act as a forum where free and responsible minds can “question the unquestionable” for the benefit of our societies. Universities have the power to provide innovative solutions, but when tools of a successful army are used in this institution results are equal to those imagined if we promote debate groups for soldiers when they are in the line of fire. 

Dogmatism, control and fear are hostile to innovation.

Unfortunately, the risk to believe that administrative power is automatically synonymous to knowledge, vision and informed decisions is endemic. It is also a devastating belief for an institution. This – along with a strange managerial approach based on fear, which is viewed as a strong motivator and source of results – push ahead a misconception on the academic life and the nature of work in pursue of innovation. This approach involves serious risks for sustainability within and outside the walls of academia.

The lesson of this anecdote is that an obvious fact at the core of academic work is often missed by policy makers, administrators of universities and institutions of research: a university is fundamentally different from military! It is fair to say that both institutions deserve respect, but they have different roles, histories and demands from society. Military have to secure ironclad discipline as a key to secure the chain of command and execution, which stays at the basis of its power and efficiency. Control, fear and intimidation are important tools to train soldiers and maintain discipline, but for a university they spell disaster.

Imagine a small European city in 15th century, the size of a modern small neighbourhood (roughly 45,000 people), ruled by a wealthy family. Now imagine that in this city was possible to meet (often in the same days) some of the brightest minds of humanity, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Sandro Botticelli (unfortunately a nut like Savonarola was also there, but this is another interesting and significant part of the story). How was this possible? What was in the water? One detail is that the ruler of this city comes from a family famous for love of arts and culture, education and progress. His family protected important philosophers such as Tommaso Campanella or Galileo Galilei, the father of the Scientific Revolution. His grandfather spent a fortune to support arts, architecture, scholarly learning, establishing the Platonic Academy for the study of ancient works. This ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, known as “Il Magnifico” (The Magnificent), shares the values of his family. The enlightened leader is doing something unthinkable for those times: he protects different minds and encourages new ideas. He knew that Caravaggio is a drunk and a troublemaker, but a unique artist. He knew that Michelangelo is secretly conducting dissections on human bodies to learn anatomy, which was at that time securing a death sentence, but he was an innovator who deserved protection and encouragement.

A Cypriot crisis or a Renaissance Florence?

Lorenzo de Medici ignored the sacrilege (with some risks for himself) just because he knew that Michelangelo is a unique artist that will change humanity through his creations. He was a protector of culture and the lower class enjoyed a greater level of comfort, freedom and protection than it had before. In effect, that small town named Florence became one of the most important city-states in Europe and (arguably) the most beautiful city in the world at that time. What today is called “academic freedom” was secured for the first time in centuries and the culture and suppressed creativity exploded, opening for a period of great innovations and change. The administrator of Florence understood that “lower classes” need freedom to stay engaged and that creative individuals are not always comfortable to power. In our times we can look at this through what Michael Fullan notes as an important key to secure secure innovation:

Policy makers will have to design policy levers which give them less control than they would like [...] in exchange for the potential of higher yield innovation and commitment on the ground

A relaxed approach on hierarchy, power and control is crucial if we aim to develop a reality of creativity and innovation. Great results do not come in this field if we constantly tell people what to do and what they should expect if they do not do it as indicated.

The contemporary story of the European economic crisis should be a valuable source of lessons for universities on the price of self-comforting denial, suppression of meritocracy and silencing voices speaking “truth to power”. This is a tragic story where self-absorbed local groups and a stunning lack of vision and care for the future clashed in the end with reality. The Greek and Cypriot crisis show that countries can pay a terrible price and we can agree that a university can fall faster than a country from the same reasons!

Encourage in-depth thinking and create the means to detect and address pseudo-innovations and tokenism

Looking once over a “faculty innovation report” it became visible the the only note about innovation was related to the use of iPads in classrooms. It should be obvious that using a tablet or a laptop is not innovative. Using an iPad in classroom is not making a lecturer “innovative”, but a good customer of Apple. If you like to believe that the shiny new tablet turns you into an innovator this is just great, but it will not create knowledge or solutions.

Academic freedom** is not a luxury or an ideological stand, but a necessary precondition to creativity and innovation. This is a matter of strategic choices that can enable a university to make the most of new opportunities and find the best responses to challenges as well as threats.

“Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something” Thomas A. Edison

Suppression of academic freedom turns de facto a university and the academic life into a farce. A travesty like this works for a while, but inevitably comes with devastating consequences on the long term.

Salt

We analysed in a previous article why universities should be much more concerned – and socially engaged – about the fast changing social, cultural and economic context. It is highly relevant for their future that unemployment and underemployment is increasingly affecting college and university graduates. In USA more than 40 percent of unemployed have been out of work for more than six months, almost double the previous post-World War Two record. Moreover, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that five million college and university graduates are in jobs that require less than a high-school education. The BLS statistics reveal that 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that require less than a four-year university education. 

The proportion of overeducated workers exponentially increased in various jobs in the last decades. It is worth to observe that in 1970’s less than 1% of taxi drivers and 2% percent of firefighters had college degrees in US, while in 2012 over 15% percent do in both jobs.

This is a common situation across the world. In China, graduate unemployment is an official concern for The Ministry of Education, with millions unemployed after graduation. College educated find more difficult to land a job than those who have little formal education: “those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education” (source here)

Unemployment and underemployment register a constant rise across European Union. According to Eurostat, in 2012 there were 9.2 million part-time workers in the EU27 who wished to work more hours and are officially considered to be underemployed. The situation is close to get out of control (and we have reasons to expect a tumultuous 2013). In Italy, unemployed workers (700,000) despair over the future as it was announced that the redundancy budget runs dry.

A report published by Credit Suisse in February 2013 indicates: “The rising trend of youth unemployment around the world threatens not just current economic growth but also political stability and the potential demographic dividend“.

In the unstable global economy innovation stays as the key factor of difference for the future of local economies, communities and countries. Our future depends on our knowledge and capacity to innovate. Too many administrators in higher education go ahead as self-proclaimed masters of innovation and astute management, wasting the time and resources of their universities on expensive tokenism able just to exhibit grave misconceptions, narcissism and mediocrity. It is vital to stop this and engage in efforts aiming to lead to a genuine change, and adapt to this new context affecting students and graduates.

Some institutions are still floating in a parallel reality where clicks and tricks are seen capable to solve systemic problems without a touch of the status quo. Too many university administrators are still sedated by the vision of eternal positions of power and control where they indicate what research is wanted and when innovation should happen. This state of facts in a general climate of economic and social instability is the recipe for disaster. In UK, today universities seek to explain a severe drop on student enrolments despite cutbacks (see here). Universities find that the new context requires new ideas, new approaches to attract students and contribute to their societies and economies. Imagining efficient and innovative solutions for student engagement becomes vital for the future of the university. Moreover, the fact that unprecedented levels of unemployment involve an increasing risk of social unrest is not only a problem of social responsibility for universities. It is also a problem for their future.

Innovation and creativity will be key for a sustainable future.

There is a known biblical story about Lot’s wife, who was punished to turn into a pillar of salt because she looked back at a burning city. This old story is a metaphor with multiple meanings and interpretations, but some details are based on facts of those times. Why turned into pillar of salt as punishment? Why not stone or sand? An explanation is that salt was used as a preservative for thousands of years. This was the most visible symbol for conservation – and it was used as a warning. Those failing to change are punished by turning into lifeless forms of salt.  

Higher education is at crossroads. It is the time for a serious reflection about the strategic decisions and choices for the road ahead for universities. Some prefer to maintain strong hierarchies, mimic change and glue the label of “innovation” on trivial and useless things just to maintain status quo. The “pillars of salt” of higher education are more fragile than it seems. It will become clearer soon that many will end up where they are heading.

*

** Resources on academic freedom:

1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure

Declaration of Academic Freedom (Scientific Human Rights)

The Magna Charta Observatory of Fundamental University Values and Rights

Network for Education and Academic Rights

Academics for Academic Freedom (UK)

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