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Even if universities may look well on the surface there is an increasing (and justified) concern that all will change soon. New data and analysis increase the anxiety that the current monopoly of higher education will be lost and just few universities will survive. No one knows which, how many or even if any university will have the chance to celebrate the middle of this century. Deafened by the noise of various bureaucrats and mediocre academics interested to say only what their masters like to hear, some universities and academic groups struggle to see beyond fads and slogans what is shaping the future that will change their existence. This hidden uneasiness is justified. An increasing number of disruptive factors – adding to the obvious and massive impact of Internet and online education – already are changing the landscape for higher education: the significant increase of youth isolation and marginalization, graduate unemployment and persistent underemployment, a concerning economic forecast of a constant slowdown of global growth (with implications for numbers of international students) and issues evolving from the global ageing population (and implications on lifelong learning strategies and numbers of local students). There is even more on the horizon and – while teaching and learning are still organized within university walls by models designed in early 1960s – the pace of change is accelerating.

We will succinctly look here at some of these factors and see how they build a perfect storm that will change the landscape for universities and our future. Higher education is at the crossroads and tremendous changes are now starting to unravel.

Euro crisis and higher education

There is an important warning for universities in the recent street protests of millions of Europeans. This is not only because Europe’s Budget Crisis Hits Universities, but they are bearing the cost of stubbornly staying in denial and avoiding inconvenient truths. There was a time when an honest and direct dealing with those inconvenient facts about dysfunctional policies, corruption or structural issues was the key to avoid the current turmoil. Soon it will be clear if similar problems will drive universities, which are displaying a confidence and arrogance very similar with what was common in Brussels in the last decade, to the same path. In Europe it has become tragically clear that this was a recipe for disaster. These problems cannot be solved as long as EU elites are proving to be incapable of dealing realistically with their own problems, making the disastrous choice of supporting and protecting its financial centres while leaving youth with no hope for a decent future. Youth unemployment and marginalization in Europe has reached in a very short time proportions that were just unimaginable less than ten years ago. This will have immense implications for the long-term. Only 34% of Europeans aged between 15 and 29 were employed in 2011, this being the lowest figure ever recorded by the Eurostat. Since 2009 all projected economic outlooks for Europe have proved to be too optimistic for a dysfunctional union living in a state of delusion.

Scenes seen in the last months of 2012 with riot police at the front door of the European Commission is a rich metaphor, but troops cannot be sufficient for the increasing frustration and indignation of citizens ruined by a model of governance based on the constant refusal of an elite to deal with reality. Arrogance, a love for simplistic answers and the habit to promote self-deceptive fantasies against complex solutions for real challenges are responsible for the current crisis. The intense sense of frustration among “the lost generation” – now a common phrase used by the media to describe European youth – and the panic of those who see that after a life of work there is no security for tomorrow is adding pressure to hold the decision-makers responsible for their failures.

To understand why Europe is a possible source of inspiration for those still uncertain that in higher education it is the time to replace rhetoric with structural and fundamental changes we can also look at the extraordinary remarks of Georges Haddad, Director of the Education Research and Foresight branch of UNESCO. Talking about UNESCO’s work on higher education, he bravely approached some facts that look equally valid for most universities:

The most important thing to UNESCO is just the appearance. We say ‘Education for All’ and ‘lifelong learning’ and the ministers are happy because they listen to what they want to hear […] UNESCO used to be a laboratory of ideas, and look what it produced in the 1960s and 1970s. Now it’s conservative. They are completely scared of political sanctions.

Universities are scared of these and many other things – the truth is that they have to fight hard to become again laboratories of ideas. The pressure of these factors may irritate again those use to listening only “to what they want to hear”, but ignoring them will not make anything disappear.

Marco Mancini, the president of the Conference of Italian University Rectors, said this year that Italian universities are facing “the risk of the collapse of the system”. In the same month, students protesting across UK summarized in just three words what is now affecting now university graduates: dis-empowerment, marginalization and unemployment. Their frustration may come from the fact that education is blocked by obsolete models of teaching, structured under a business model of a for-profit industry clashing with the ideals of quality education.  Graduates cannot cope with contemplating the prospect of unemployment or underemployment.

A crisis of higher education (that we cannot longer ignore)

It is widely accepted that we already have a serious crisis in higher education. For example, we can see this reflected by results on a US national poll sponsored by TIME and Carnegie Corporation and conducted by GfK Custom Research North America in October 2012. This national research used a sample of 1,000 U.S. adults and 540 senior administrators at public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities. Results revealed that 89% of U.S. adults and 96% of senior administrators at colleges and universities said higher education is in crisis, and almost half of both groups considered the crisis to be “severe”. We can just hope that this time, data and evidence will not be ignored just because they are not aligned with the commonly accepted mantras.

This situation should require at least some answers from those who said for the last decade that “academia should learn from business” and that efficiency and (financial) surplus is all that matters. Most probably in time the same voices will lecture the same audiences how obviously silly it was to accept as viable the abdication and abandonment of principles of academic freedom and intellectual autonomy. They will note that eroding the core of academic life for the enthusiastic adoption of the principles of market mechanisms was the central cause of the cataclysmic landscape of higher education that they face.

Michael Sandel, professor of Government at Harvard University and one of the best known intellectuals around the world recently noted:

The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”

Universities are set to learn that this is not only true, but see the serious consequences of ignoring implications of this on their sustainability.

Unfortunately, the hegemony of a unique paradigm based on a neo-liberal policy and management framework still restricts the collective imagination to look for and apply alternative solutions. The marketization and McDonaldization of higher education came with a great price for universities, economies and the future of our economic growth. The most important part may be that this unique model – aggressively promoted by conservatives as the only sane solution for higher education – suppressed a genuine debate on a variety of issues of crucial importance for universities in the 21st century.

An obsolete model of teaching and a parallel way of learning

In “Leisure College, USA: The Decline in Student Study Time”, a study published in 2010, Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks summarized the research on the changes in the last four decades of study time allocated by students enrolled in US universities:

In 1961, the average full-time student at a four-year college in the United States studied about twenty-four hours per week, while his modern counterpart puts in only fourteen hours per week. Students now study less than half as much as universities claim to require. This dramatic decline in study time occurred for students from all demographic subgroups, for students who worked and those who did not, within every major, and at four-year colleges of every type, degree structure, and level of selectivity. Most of the decline predates the innovations in technology that are most relevant to education and thus was not driven by such changes. The most plausible explanation for these findings, we conclude, is that standards have fallen at post-secondary institutions in the United States.”

Research also indicates that time allocated toward leisure increased on average with nine hours per week between 1961 and the 2000s. It will be naive to consider this just a North American situation as similar studies around the world are in line with Babcock’s findings. The change is substantial, constant and globalized. In “The first year experience in Australian universities. Findings from 1994 to 2009” we find data reflecting a very similar evolution in Australia: “…it is apparent that first year students time spend less time in private study compared with five years ago: 10.6 hours on average per week in 2009 compared with 11 hours in 2004”

Along with a constant decrease of time spent in campus, in class and in private study it is also documented an increasing number of students reporting the intention of deferring university enrollment “because they dislike study”.

The most interesting part is that this constant decrease allocated to study is doubled by a constant increase in grades. The increasing average of students’ grades is proportionally aligned with the constant decrease of time, work and interest on studying at university. Moreover, the enthusiasm of the first year of study in the university – documented as being crucial for the academic evolution of students – is affected by other factors as documented by the Australian study.

It is more evident these days that the simple increase of student numbers is not related to a better quality or academic rigor of university standards.

We cannot simplistically consider that most students today are not interested in study or refuse to make the effort to build an educated mind: another recent report suggests that students spend more time preparing for class than their instructors think they do and – even if “research has shown that today’s students spend fewer hours hitting the books than their parents did [...] faculty also appear to expect less from students than they have in the past“. Here we can see that expectations and standards are not set by students.

The constant decline of time devoted to study can also be analyzed taking into consideration the simple fact that students these days learn differently. Consistent research has already proven that learning has been profoundly changed by the Internet and new technologies. A current fad is simply to move courses to online mediums using learning taxonomies, which are intellectually simplistic and philosophically naive ways to organize content. There is no reason to think that these forms can answer the current learning needs of the contemporary student. 

Designing learning in line with models developed for the middle of the last century when iPads were not even imagined by science-fiction writers is simply absurd and should be a major concern for modern universities.

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”

This well-known quote from “The Wizard of Oz” sums up the feelings of dismay and confusion of decision-makers of universities globally.

In 2005 a survey from the University of California which polled American undergraduates over 30 years found that 71 percent of students said that making more money was a very important reason for them to go to college. In 1976, the same survey found that only 49 percent of students found making money an important reason to go to college. This shift in motivation was summarized by PBS by quoting Devon Brown, a 16-year-old from Washington, D.C.: “I’m not just going to college for myself to learn something new [...] I could do that on my own without paying for a degree. I’m going to college because it’s not easy to get by financially today and you need a college degree to get a well-paying job. It’s definitely the investment, not an intellectual experience that I’m going for.”

The problem is that this investment is not as simple as it used to be and many prospective students confront the prospect of serious debts and unemployment. In the US, media reports 1 in 2 new graduates are jobless or underemployed. In the UK it is officially reported that over 40% of graduates cannot find graduate-level jobs and that their job prospects continue to decline. There is no doubt that it is still very important to be educated, but the uncertainty of this investment is documented and reported across Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.

This uncertainty is a major factor of change for higher education. Students now question the wisdom of taking out a significant loan no longer seeing that a university degree will set them up for life. Universities are seeing their model crushing before their eyes. Regrettably, many universities have treated their students for a long time as faceless cash-cows held hostage to their market of information, skills, certification and qualifications. To undo this may be harder than it seems. However, economic forecasts and the impact of mostly disastrous governmental policies on higher education (reduced to the stunningly simplistic ideas of “cuts”, “efficiency” and “austerity”) we can expect to see an acceleration in the current drop in enrollments. What problems can we now expect when in Europe fourteen million young people are at home disconnected from education, training and work?

In May 2012, Time published an interesting analysis of possible causes of college enrolment decline, it started by noting:

“Harvard, Yale and a few other selective universities may be announcing record numbers of applications for the semester beginning in the fall, but higher-education officials are fretting about ominous signs that overall college enrolment is starting to drop.”

Higher education monopoly on accreditation can also change relatively fast with the emergence of new forms of vocational accreditation and study. The validity of this monopoly is further eroded by the increasing numbers of underemployed and unemployed graduates.

Universities need to be aware that by avoiding unpleasant realities and choosing to listen to the reaffirming voices, they are not preparing for the perfect storm. As educators, it is imperative that we respond in such a way to intrinsically motivate and engage students’ imaginations, nurture their critical thinking, creativity and capacity for knowledge creation.

New challenges

Statistical data reveals that there is another tornado approaching higher education and economic growth. This is represented by youth marginalization. An entire generation is now discovering that the long held belief that education is the way to find a decent job is just a lie or, at the best, overrated. Around the world, an increasing number of graduates are realising that very few jobs are available to young people and that most of those available do not require a university degree. The impact on the medium and long-term economic sustainability and social costs are already worrying governments, placing education at the center of an intense debate.

Since 2008 youth unemployment has risen in Europe by 1.5 million, to 21% in 2011. Data collected by Eurostat reveals the terrifying reality of 7.5 million young people aged 15–24 and the additional 6.5 million young people aged 25–29 excluded from the labour market and education in Europe. The so-called “NEETs” – youth Not in Employment, Education or Training – come with almost incalculable costs and risks for the future of Europe. The United Nations’ International Labour Office report released this year exposed the fact that youth unemployment is mostly unchanged since the peak registered in 2009. With a worrying 12.6 per cent in 2011 and a projected increase for 2012, global youth unemployment is already affecting over 75 million people. The report states: “In comparison to other groups on the labour market, youth face a particularly difficult situation, as is captured by the ratio of youth-to-adult unemployment rates. Globally, this ratio was 2.8 in 2011 and is projected at 2.7 in 2012. This means that, in comparison with adults, youth continue to be almost three times as likely to be unemployed, and elevated unemployment rates continue to hit them disproportionally.” No one should be surprised that youth take the streets to express their fury and frustration.

Untitled.001Recent reports reveal that in The United States “about 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years [...] Broken down by occupation, young college graduates were heavily represented in jobs that require a high school diploma or less. In the last year, they were more likely to be employed as waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined“.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, tuition costs have increased an average of 15% in just two years and student debt is now over $1 trillion dollars. With only one in two young people finding a job it is also important to note that 54% of all new jobs across all sectors of the US economy have been temporary positions since June 2009. Of course, the vast majority of these temporary positions are occupied by young people. Emergent economies, like China, register the same problem with masses of graduates (articles available here and here)

OECD_2The European Union registered an unprecedented youth unemployment rate of 22.8% in September 2012. In Greece and Spain the rate was over 50%. Furthermore, the UK is now registering 40% of graduates cannot find graduate-level work after two years from gaining their degrees. In a recent article on this topic Andrew Sum, Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in the US, summed the situation: “simply put, we’re failing kids coming out of college“.

These “kids coming out of college” without jobs carry with them a huge debt that is “nondischargeable”, which means that is that type of debt that cannot be eliminated through bankruptcy proceedings. In November this year The Federal Reserve Bank presented in its latest ‘Quarterly Report on Household Debt in US’ a glimpse on this reality:

“in the third quarter, non-real estate household debt jumped 2.3 percent to $2.7 trillion. The increase was due to a boost in student loans ($42 billion), auto loans ($18 billion) and credit card balances ($2 billion)”

The most significant source of this increase is represented by student loans and these are affecting now more than one in five households in the U.S. The report continues:

Outstanding student loan debt now stands at $956 billion, an increase of $42 billion since last quarter [...] the percent of student loan balances 90+ days delinquent increased to 11 percent this quarter.”

In simple words, there is a stunning amount of debt and a significant increase of graduates incapable to pay it back.

The OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría recently noted at the launch of the OECD study “Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising”:

The social contract is starting to unravel in many countries. This study dispels the assumptions that the benefits of economic growth will automatically trickle down to the disadvantaged and that greater inequality fosters greater social mobility. Without a comprehensive strategy for inclusive growth, inequality will continue to rise.

The effects from breaking the social contract are still mostly unnoticed by universities. External pressures will change this. One source will be the increasing difficulty to find students willing to go into debt with no guarantee that a diploma will secure a better future or even the possibility to pay back tens of thousands of dollars spent on tuition fees and associated costs. Another is that the student population will reduce in time as a result of a global change in demographics, such as ageing population and reduced birth rates in the West. Moreover, the long-term effects of youth underemployment and unemployment will impact directly on companies and economies: in the “knowledge society” retired workers will hardly have replacements.

Universities were comfortable to stay aligned with popular dogmas and no voices were heard from the ivory towers to warn the citizens that the pillars were rotten, the bubbles would burst and the global financial crisis was inevitable. It is more than ever vital to revitalize academic life with parts that can genuinely engage students and have the potential to bring answers to current and future crises. A perfect example in this direction is provided by what was indicated in 1975 by the Yale University Committee on Freedom of Expression as the way to achieve the main functions of a university:

“The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that a university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.

In the middle of this storm, universities that continue to glorify mediocrity and impose compliant thinking are condemned to perish. These victims of the storm may still consider that is safer to shut their eyes and stay comfortable within the limits of the status quo. After all, this is what has worked well for the last century. However, on the day after the storm, higher education will be anything but comfortable. The era of compliance and contentment is over!

……

*This article is based on my public presentation at the Rotary Club of Sydney CBD, Australia, on the 3rd of December, 2012.

Euro-jima

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking

Everybody knows that the captain lied

Everybody got this broken feeling

Like their father or their dog just died”

Leonard Cohen – Everybody Knows

 

 

Rather than admit the fundamental errors and pitfalls of the system, European Union officials spend their time in the same parallel existence that lead to the current crisis spending a lot of effort in trying to create an alternative history. This is not working and sometimes it seems to be clear that their surprise is genuine. It is important to note that these symptoms are far from being a European problem, more of a common disease of our times. All will be just fine if this nuisance called “reality check” will be not only delayed, but entirely avoidable. The problem of Euro is not the simple utopian project consisting in a common currency for different governments that are going most often in perfect opposite directions, but total disconnection of policies, actions and solutions from realities. The most important: a stubborn refusal to have an honest look in the mirror and a visceral reaction against any heretics. It is still a time when your life is better if you clap your hands in total admiration for the emperor’s clothes. The fast changing situation is unavoidable for all – some will get out richer, some will have to pay the price of their delusions and most will pay a lot for citizenships’ complacency. Many investors in the common currency realize now that Sarkozy and Merkel can agree on all their plans, but after a successful meeting and general enthusiasm the problem is still there. Why?

To give some clues about the possible answer on this it is important to look at the context. I deeply love that part of Europe where you see the passion for culture and style, the amazing history and constant effort to keep alive the focus on the importance of the quality of life above other things, such as profit. I lived most of my life in Europe and – by working with some of the most important European institutions – I also had the chance to take a glimpse into their functioning, but I have to admit that this part I love in the old continent cannot be found there. In these institutions and their populations you find the reality of the other side of Europe, that of coteries, arrogance and prejudice, the underground legacy of endless wars of the past and stupid stereotypes about the “other”. But I have found that the most frightening side of this system was the depth and spread of incompetence and corruption.

Again, it is naive to think that the current crisis is caused only by the European corruption. However, some were a just a bit more honest about their problems and brave to approach them openly. Here is the crucial difference between US and Europe: Europe annihilated (with the notable exception of some singular voices in written media) all forms of structured intellectual resistance against the official narrative. Jurgen Habermas recently wrote about the sense of exasperation so common for decent hard working Europeans from all EU countries: “The European project can no longer continue in elite modus.” It is an elite of corruption and arrogance: few know that in the middle of a tremendous tragedy the greedy and cynical Greek oligarchs invested heavily in – among others – London property market! This elite caused the crisis and they are part of a European cleptocracy uninterested in any other ideal than bringing more money into their bank accounts. The European philosopher is speaking openly about this reality: “I condemn the political parties. Our politicians have long been incapable of aspiring to anything whatsoever other than being re-elected. They have no political substance whatsoever, no convictions.” Nevertheless, European universities do not join the discussion and have little if any influence in the public sphere. Their silence over what is causing now the European tremendous shakes was generalized. The reason of this cultivated mediocrity can be approached only in a different chapter…

Andrew Haldane, executive director at the Bank of England, offers a good perspective on what happened in this crisis. He caused recently some emotion when he labeled most parts of current global finance as being just a global scam:

“…In fact, high pre-crisis returns to banking had a much more mundane explanation. They reflected simply increased risk-taking across the sector. This was not an outward shift in the portfolio possibility set of finance. Instead, it was a traverse up the high-wire of risk and return. This hire-wire act involved, on the asset side, rapid credit expansion, often through the development of poorly understood financial instruments. On the liability side, this ballooning balance sheet was financed using risky leverage, often at short maturities.

In what sense is increased risk-taking by banks a value-added service for the economy at large? In short, it is not.”

Paul Krugman comments on the paragraph presented above that “Haldane argues that finance fooled investors into believing that it had found a way to earn higher returns, whereas all it was really doing was piling on hidden risk. And he suggests that much if not all of the rise in the share of finance in GDP reflected this deception; in effect, Wall Street and the City were con artists extracting huge rents from an unwary public (and eventually dumping much of the cost, when things went bad, on taxpayers).”

It is important to understand that the current crisis – affecting real lives, destroying real families and blurring the hope for a decent future for millions around the world – was caused by greed and corruption, but most importantly by selling illusions to a majority more than happy to believe them. Whistleblowers were ridiculed as lamentable figures obsessed by jeremiads, depicted as egomaniacs interested to draw attention with some apocalyptic scenarios or simply ignored. The simple history of this phenomenon of the last decade can be a fascinating PhD. The public was not unwary, but enchanted and happy to stay delusional. Unfortunately, history shows that this is always a terrible mistake.

Here is where the Europe is now, still unable to understand that the time to be realistic about its institutions is already gone. The armies of bored and well-related EU bureaucrats match their incompetence with cynicism and private interests are just too dense to allow the necessary changes. It is the (missed) time to talk openly about nepotism and mistresses hired as experts, about elites too corrupt to accept a decent dialogue about rights and responsibilities, privileges and abuse. The illusion is still at the core of what is presented to be the solution: to take just one example, where is the strong European debate about the fact that Germany, the new disciplinarian of this dysfunctional family, is breaking EU financial rules more dangerously than Spain? The European Commission estimates for Germany a debt ratio of 81.7% of GDP, significantly higher than Spain’s debt ratio of 69.6 percent. The problem may be more nuanced than this (even if the myth of a state saving in a sea of spenders is too blatantly against reality to be dismissed so easy), but the missing dialogue is the worrying sign. The missing sign here is on itself the sign of incapacity to start seeking a realistic solution. The fact is that Euro is sinking while the orchestra is singing an idyllic song. There is a striking similarity here with the evolution of higher education since WTO included education into tradable services just a decade ago.

I recently heard again in a conference devoted to higher education various scholars unsure about their intellectual identity that “universities must learn from business”. I have to agree – from different positions and very different reasons – that this is the most important call to be followed now by Academia. Universities must look at what happened in the global financial markets in the last years. The lesson for universities is too important to be ignored as this can have a crucial importance for the future of higher education. It is a complex story with huge scams ignored and accepted for increasing profits, with ideological motivations promoted as moral/political choices to mask new sources of easy money, with the blurring of real meanings for important concepts such as “sustainability”, “regulations”, “responsibility” and “accountability”. This ideal world presented to universities as the model for existence by various actors from different schools of business and economics (it is curious why they even exist in universities and not in vocational education altogether – but I digress) is now shaken by irrational feelings, rumors and emotions. Elaborate software and the science of business is clearly replaced in the Euro-drama by logic closer to psychoanalysis than the pure rational structures of mathematical predictions and actuarial studies. For example, when the newspaper La Stampa published just a week ago an article about a possible massive loan from IMF for Italy, the European currency gained significantly and stock markets moved positively until the world heard IMF saying clearly that this was just a rumor. Nothing real caused this increase: no new policies, no increase in industrial productivity or crops, no innovation or scientific breakthrough, no general decision for a more coherent management and less corruption across EU, but a simple rumor changed the value of immense investments. This seems to be not only the most unpredictable, but the most parallel from reality mechanism of our times. This is also the most influential pillar of the current establishment.

This chaotic puzzle of greed and illusions, irrational triggers and imaginary foundations is also the system presented and adopted with great enthusiasm by institutions of education managed now as speculative businesses. We reached the point when tertiary education is happy with this because we cannot imagine a different rationale than what was sold as the panacea for better functioning. Therefore, universities seek more profits as they need more money to invest – very little investments (if any!) are oriented to the quality of teaching, learning and relevant research as this became marginal in the engine of making money and doing “good business”. The pitfall of this model is that what proved to be very dangerous in the almighty financial world is even more dangerous for universities due to the vast implications for the future of society.

Most universities seem to be still oblivious of the fact that the not only the reality around them is changing very fast (this is why you still hear academics delivering ridiculous tirades urging all to “learn from business”), but the perception about their future is changing at tremendous pace. If you look inside academia and read most recent literature produced about the future of universities is easy to find common themes and solutions with a common ideological source: neoliberalism and the “sound business model”. Simplifying, we can read that that universities should resemble ATMs, producing fast, mobile, accessible and easily standardized knowledge units, that these institutions must be modular and learn how to work from shopping malls. Those who teach must be “dynamic” and function as employees in a relation that may make Walmart proud for being the source of such elaborate debates. This model of McDonalds-university is entirely wrong and it is hard to say that it will be a surprising to see this proven faster than expected.

In a recent editorial published by New York Times we read about this change in perception about the future of higher education – the burst of the bubble is not expected, we already talk about its dimension and effects:

“One of the greatest changes is that a college degree is no longer the guarantor of a middle-class existence. Until the early 1970s, less than 11 percent of the adult population graduated from college, and most of them could get a decent job. Today nearly a third have college degrees, and a higher percentage of them graduated from non-elite schools. A bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability.”

In other words, we talk about pure inflation and the same mechanisms of selling illusions. There are many factors causing this: political parties running for votes, ideological positions making the problem of access to higher education painfully simplistic, lack of vision and many others. However, there is no doubt that the most important source is the same perspective of huge profits. This lured universities to believe that if you have the tenacity to chant the same lies they will become facts. The problem is that – similar with the European facade – there are already big cracks. Students leave university with stunning debts and see that their investment is not giving what was advertised. There is the simple explanation that in the current context there is a shortage of jobs and this is why we have graduates in underpaid positions.  This explanation is simply not true! In US, where the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently announced in a quarterly report that it had significantly undercounted student loans and now estimates the current total of outstanding loans at $845 billion, not $550 billion, ManpowerGroup’s annual 2011 Talent Shortage Survey shows that about 52 percent of U.S. employers reported difficulty filling jobs (and 54% in Australia). I take most of these global rankings at the best as compass points rather than clear pictures – but it is important to remember that this is happening in the context of high unemployment. According to this global survey, employers see a lack of skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and agility that are critical to generate productivity and innovation. Just to put things in context we have to remember here the recent case of that university professor who was fired from Utah Valley University for “asking students even when they didn’t raised their hands”. Students’ complaints reveal that this professor asked students to work in teams; according to court documents, he was following the Socratic teaching style, asking questions to stimulate discussions. Same court documents record that students did not liked this: students did not want to work in teams and did not want the professor to ask questions: “They wanted him to lecture”. There are many other similar cases reaching courts and we can guess how many others are not reported. It may be a problem when entertaining in class is replaced with genuine critical thinking and is getting some out of the “comfort zone”. Consistent research also shows a constant decrease of time devoted to study and a constant increase in grades – here is another “mystery” of tertiary education. Please do not blame students – the lie about what education is all about is not their creation.

The rhetoric about “critical thinking” is still there and we still count “students’ satisfaction”, which is seen as an inalienable right to be entertained and comfortable. The pressure to pass students even if they are functional illiterates is already well documented and seems to be natural when we think that asking students to… learn may result in less profit. Universities report record numbers of graduates and most governments think that cutting funding for universities is a profitable decision as long as the pressure is to take more students able to bring money into the system. These students take loans and in time banks see these loans as unprofitable as more and more victims of this system discover that being entertained is not giving you knowledge, skills and – ultimately – a job! It is important to understand that many brilliant students do not take a job because they do not know the “right people” and some simply have no idea about what happened during university studies (other than “fun”). However, the effect is the same: the loan cannot be payed. This story of “toxic loans” promoted to sell illusions is very familiar for anyone interested to understand the roots of current financial crisis.

The artificial increase of supply (of graduates and diplomas) brings a fast drop in value and this is just the first effect. It may be the least important as well. Here we go back to our lesson from Europe: floating above reality works well for a while, but once those cracks ruin the polished facade it is impossible to hide from what plebeians simply call “a reality check”.  

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