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In the current debate about the future of education a radical position is increasingly popular: teachers and teaching are obsolete, a part of a decrepit model of education. According to this, the teacher organising learning – and any representative of what George Steiner called “the aristocracy of intellect” – is an old model that must be replaced with a revolutionary no-teacher model. It is implied – or directly expressed – that only students have the inherent power to organise learning and teaching better. “Youth” must be left to lead the revolution where learning and teaching are ‘flipped’ to fall in their hands. Technological innovation is always used – along with other valid arguments leading to same wrong conclusions – as a clear body of proof that teachers are not needed anymore and students, from primary school to higher education, need just to be left alone to organise their own learning.

The narrative of this ideological position states that teachers need to have just a decorative  minor role by helping youth with content, resources and facilitate entertainment, following their needs and lead. The first problem is that this is not revolutionary, nor new. The second problem is that there is too often a problematic common point linking the teacher-centered and teacher-less approach to education: an underlying contempt for students. From this perspective there is very little difference between a position designing education where students are obedient and impersonal subjects and that where students are customers, impersonal entities seeking comfort, entertainment and customer satisfaction. These positions invariably fail to accept the student role in education as individuals in search of exploratory journeys where learning experiences are capable to push their limits out of the comfort zones for knowledge, new ideas and discovery.

It is inherently wrong to adopt the position that students need just to be left alone, find comfort and feel empowered in easy and entertaining tasks. One reason is that this approach is causing a decline of standards and expectations through a constant effort to secure ‘positive’ feelings from student-customers (as a superficial form of ‘feedback”). Another equally important reason is that this seems is one of the most hurtful and deceiving forms of contempt for students’ potential and intellectual capacities, for their life and future.

The End of the Teacher

The “end of the teacher” trend – especially popular across Western education – is fuelled by a variety of factors. Commercialisation of education brings to the table the twisted view of students as customers.  A good part of the right oriented political establishment translates into policies (and budget cuts) a general distaste for science and their aggressive anti-intellectual beliefs. Pseudo-experts in education bring a significant contribution to this fad with their very superficial understanding of learning, teaching and pedagogy (manifested otherwise in a proudly exposed distaste for reading, which is seasoned with shock-jock/arrogant remarks about all possible issues in education). Regardless of source and ideological support, these sources build together a dangerous trend for the future of our students. A decline in rigour and quality of education is rarely documented – as this is one of the no-go zones for educational research – and when it is, the unusual passion and energy spent to dismiss it and deny this possibility is a significant indicator.  

The general acceptance of some myths surrounding teaching and learning explain why it is not surprising anymore to find influential and generally respected academics sharing and promoting, with no critical review, articles revolving around this narrative. An example is a recent  piece of writing published by the Huffington Post, ‘It’s Time to Get Rid of Teaching and Learning‘ We can find there a first ideological source of a model stating that education is best when students are guiding alone their own learning. According to this perspective, youth is better at organising learning and teaching is good when is left in students’ hands. Teachers here have a marginal role, as employees in charge with students’ safety, comfort and entertainment. Unsurprisingly, the argumentative structure is childishly simplistic and uninformed. To take just one of the many errors we can look at this argument used as a proof against teaching:

“It could look a lot like something we’re all familiar with – learning to walk. When an infant learns to walk, the fact that its parents (authority figures) are already world-class walkers does not help them.”

In fact, it helps! The author is obviously ignoring entire libraries of research about the importance of social interaction for learning. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, research and theoretical literature on cognition, motivation, and human development offer the evidence that this is a simply a wrong opinion based on a personal guess.

We have to observe that one of the main problems of this ideological position resides in the evident overlook of the history of education. Here can be found that the “Democratic schooling” movement is over a century old and stay as an ongoing radical experiment in education. There are numerous examples of failings of this current, but some institutions still exist and can teach important lessons about the test of time on this solution. For example, one of the oldest democratic schools is Summerhill, a co-educational boarding school in Suffolk, England, founded in 1921 by the British educator A.S. Neill. This movement had plenty of time to test its ideas and limits. Therefore,  it may be very good to have a look at what we already have before we start testing ideas that are just presented as new and revolutionary.

No Teachers Needed, Students Do This Better

New pedagogies, imaginative teaching and a variety of options for educational pathways are crucial for student engagement and success.

In France, an “innovative school” is proposing now “A Different Way To Learn“, which is detailed in the title of a recent article: “A School With No Teachers, Where Students Teach Themselves“. The title speaks on itself about the solution proposed to solve a crisis of creativity, employment and in general the future of France.  

In Schools of 2030: no grades, no exams, no teachers? the future is also imagined in line with the same utopian narrative where students are breaking the shackles of teachers’ presence, organising learning in engaging and meaningful forms. This article starts with a great idea: “Imagine a school without examinations, age based grades, and a single teacher… “. Unfortunately, it fails to explain the role of that single teacher for an entire school.

Imagining seems to be a constant weak point of our times, and the call for action is truly commendable. The problem here is that imagination is good only when there is good quality fuel to make it work. The fuel of imagination is the information we have. The engine of our imagination is our educated mind, the well built intellect, which is also capable to discern between illusions or dangerous scenarios and positive and plausible solutions. 

There is no doubt that diversity and a variety of options for educational pathways is crucial for student engagement and success. However, this is very different from presenting an old idea as new and revolutionary. In the current end-of-teaching movement there are many who push much further than A.S. Neil and pedagogues aligned with old democratic schools ideas. The role of the teacher – finding solutions in new pedagogies, connectedness and a collaborative mindset – will remain crucial for the quality of educational outcomes. 

The role of the teacher – finding solutions in new pedagogies, connectedness and a collaborative mindset – will remain crucial for the quality of educational outcomes.

When we talk about the demise of the teacher and the need to abolish the influence of any Teacher/Mentor model in education it may be useful to consider also where these positions find an equivalent in the past. Results of past experiments are important when plans for the future are presented so enthusiastically, with little evidence that they actually work.

One massive social experiment was applied in China from 1966 to late ’70s. In a different utopia, Mao Zedong decided that the best way to renew fossilised institutions is to remove all old ideas, old customs, old culture and old teachers for a new prosperous, enlightened and classless society. The Cultural Revolution found that youth is better at organising learning, knowledge and the new society. The reasons and solutions differ, but the idea was surprisingly similar: representations and representatives of teachings of the past had to leave the scene. In Mao’s thinking youth was not yet corrupted and all scholars, teachers, writers, poets and intellectuals were announced as propagandists for the corrupt past. After 10 miserable and long years with millions of victims, The Cultural Revolution reached a predictable end.

The disastrous consequences of this utopia were vast and reached every aspect of Chinese society. Among these terrible effects was that China had to rebuild with a generation that was left for a decade with no education, as all teachers were killed or sent in “re-education camps”, the cynical title used for killing fields or forced labour. Youth was not better without teachers and society paid an enormous price for what seemed to be at that time a reachable solution. One possible lesson is that Utopia is a very dangerous space for education and solutions must be carefully considered, no matter how seductive they are at a certain point in our evolution. 

On the history of the future of learning and teaching

A Cultural revolution 2.0. is possible if we take utopian narratives and luring ideas as realistic and informed solutions for our future. There is no doubt that a symbolic elimination of the teacher is superior to Mao’s solution (or other similar examples throughout the history), but effects can be still devastating. Millions of new victims can leave schools poorly educated in a time when machines eliminate workers with basic skills at an accelerated pace. We can just imagine what can happen when millions of graduates with very little knowledge and skills, but high expectations built in years of comfortable play mislabeled as education, will find that there are no jobs for them. We have the responsibility to shape the future of our students and this cannot be taken lightly, as a field of careless experimentation of various fantasies or fanciful solutions. 

We can just imagine what can happen if millions of graduates with very little knowledge and skills, but high expectations built in years of comfortable play mislabeled as education, will find that there are no jobs for them.

This is why the past and the long history of education needs to be seriously considered when we think about disrupting the pedagogical model that came with the industrial revolution and stifled our imagination. The past is not offering only a source of lessons about the impact of some ideas that look new, but are already tried. It is a fertile ground for new ideas for our future. Myths and studies in cultural archetypes were an invaluable source for George Lucas when he created the story of Star Wars. There are numerous similar examples and new pedagogies can learn from these industries and seek some new solutions on these old narratives. Myths and cultural archetypes are able to describe what is embedded in the human nature when we engage in learning in formal and informal contexts.  

To take just one example from one of the few immortal stories for humanity we can see Homer’s Odyssey. In this epic poem we find the highly symbolic character of Mentor, a friend of Ulysses (Odysseus). When Ulysses is leaving for the Trojan War, in a journey that took him 20 years, his son Telemachus is placed under Mentor’s guidance and protection. The story of Mentor is not about what we currently understand as education, but about enlightened guidance towards knowledge and shaping character. Mentor was not simply a self-appointed controller of knowledge and learning, but a wise figure who was there to help Telemachus to think courageously and independently, encouraging him to ask questions and challenge assumptions. It is a complex story about education based on trust, for wisdom and responsibility. This narrative – based on the complex educational ideal of paideia – was not the source of a Cultural revolution, but a flourishing and seminal culture that was able to give the world the ideal of democracy. 

The future may see a rise of the Teacher, in a new paradigm – and education today and tomorrow cannot be based on schooling models imagined in line with the industrial revolution, in 1920’s and 1950’s

This may be a source for imagining education of the future, where technological advance not only replace many jobs, but make critical for individual’s success to leave schools a strong set of new skills. There is nothing new in the call to nurture in our students the capacity to imagine, critically explore new ideas and solutions, operate in line with ethical values in a responsible manner. However, the teacher is forced to teach to the test, to be an accountant of results rather than a helper in a journey to discovery and experience. The change in the future may be a rise of the Teacher rather than a demise. If it will become clear that we all need good education, with rigour and respect, for the teacher and student.

There are many uncomfortable realities of education that are generally avoided today; among them is that good education takes time and effort, personalised guidance, trust and work. An educated mind is built with imagination and work, and comfort is rarely associated with significant results. In this complex endeavour, technology will help the student to explore knowledge and ideas in collaboration with peers and guidance from a wise teacher.

For those who love literature is clear that the Great Gatsby was wrong: you cannot repeat the past. We also know that in this beautiful novel Gatsby’s story shows that the future depends on how you imagine it. We are at the right time to think with courage and clarity about some lessons from the past and imagine a sustainable and positive future.

©Popenici2013

The American writer H. L. Mencken once said that there is always a well-known solution to every human problem: neat, plausible, and wrong. MOOCs look neat, are plausible and… too many get it wrong! MOOCs captured the imagination of venture capitalists, academics and university administrators and this is a rare thing for higher education. Enthusiasm and a bit of passion in this field is always a welcome change. The problem is that – despite exuberant enthusiasm surrounding them – MOOCs remain marked by many unanswered questions and still fail to clarify how they will deal with many crucial pedagogical and managerial aspects. Again, we do not talk about online education here, but MOOCs!

Most probably major changes lie ahead for MOOCs, as these course platforms will change even more than universities that were supposed to be replaced by these online solutions. In very simple words, we can say that it becomes clear that MOOCs are simply not enough to change higher education and stay just as one small bit of the complex set of social, economic, cultural and even technological issues impacting higher education.

The Economist and The New York Times, academics and various experts in education proclaimed “the year of the MOOC” and that the end of the campus as we know it is certain. The excitement around MOOCs became so extreme that anyone asking for the old kind of evidence-based arguments was pinpointed as an outdated conservative fighting against the Enlightenment. Groupthink is was shaping for a good time policies for higher education, making the new virtual silver-bullet a solution for most important problems confronting the future of colleges and universities across the world: MOOCs promised to solve inequity and barriers to access, increasing costs and explosive student debt, quality assurance, sustainability, critical thinking, creativity and innovation. The magic of clicks and “innovation” was evident to all who identified with the ‘progressive’ pack.

When Anant Agarwal, the President of edX (the MOOC consortium launched by Harvard and MIT) went to The Colbert Report to discuss about his initiative, Stephen Colbert used again his subversive humour to ask some questions that went unobserved by many university presidents and managers:

“I don’t understand – Colbert said – You’re in the knowledge business in a university… Let’s say I had a shoe store, ok, and then I hired you to work at my shoe store. And you said, <Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s give the shoes away for free>… I would fire you and then probably throw shoes at your head.”

Obviously, the business model proposed by MOOC need to make sense for all those venture capital investors. Some already say that this is why most probably MOOCs will serve the universities and change after their needs and models. This means that the MOOC idea is disrupted much more than the “old university” will be ever disrupted by the MOOC movement.

Fortunately, this story had the typical fate of all fads: it went from irrational enthusiasm to a more balanced view, where many evaluate the positive role of MOOCs, advantages and limits, proper uses and possibilities to enhance their role for teaching and learning in line with students and universities’ interests. Some went from disbelief to depression and stubborn refusal to accept a change in the general tone of the conversation, but very few went to the extremes. Questions remain unanswered, but the overall discussion provides in the current context a more nuanced analysis and possible solutions.

What are the indisputable advantages of MOOCs? How it is possible to explain that so many respectable academics actually believed so many promises often against the most evident examples working against them (e.g. an unclear business model, overwhelmingly low completion rates etc)? What MOOCs will change in higher education?

From MOOCs to MOOC$ – and next steps

In some recent discussion it became evident that MOOCs were considered by some as synonymous to online education. This is why it is important to have a succinct look at the meaning of this acronym: a recent paper published by the European University Association gives us a useful summary of what is a MOOC:

MOOCs stands for Massive Open Online Courses. So far, MOOCs can be characterised as follows:

  • they are online courses
  • with no formal entry requirement
  • no participation limit
  • are free of charge
  • and do not earn credits.”

Developing since 2008, MOOCs offered the seductive promise of limitless possibilities to offer access to university courses “free of charge” for all. The key stands in “so far”… the free nature of MOOCs is raising a series of serious problems. “Free” has played a major role in the rise of massively open online courses, engaging the imagination of all thinking about a time when higher education will be opened to all (probably including workers in shifts of 12 hours per day, making computers for those who have the luxury to access Internet and find time for online courses).

In my recent book I mentioned the overused comparison between higher education and music industry. Not only that higher education is very different from any other industry, but even this comparison is twisted to the extent that an important lesson is hidden by constant misinterpretation:

“We can imagine what would have happened if the music industry’s reaction to the MP3 and Napster would not have been iTunes, iPods or Amazon music, but a move to offer free music to all. In this scenario Massive Online Open Music (MOOM) would have been funded by the music industry confident in the promise presented by players on the stock market that somehow “money would follow”. There is no doubt that a MOOM is a noble solution, as many find music an indispensable part of their lives and getting it for free or for a symbolic price would make the world a better place. It could even be argued that this would be humanitarian, as many use music for therapeutic purposes. At this point we can easily imagine that this solution just would spell the end of the music industry.”

This partially explains why MOOCs have a serious identity crisis: current models try to leave the crucial “open=free” aside and ask “minimal” fees to give credits. MOOCs promise of “making education available to all” sounds great for educators, but is nuanced differently by various start-ups and venture capitalists who invested in the new big thing in Silicon Valley. The “open and free higher education for all” is discreetly replaced by “low costs”. An example is offered by Georgia Institute of Technology that will “soon begin offering an online master’s degree in computer science at an unusually low cost“. This “MOOC-like course” will cost around 7000$.

We immediately observe that ‘low cost’ is very far from free and open to all. The 7000$ that can “open the door to higher education” for people around the world, including millions in the US, are simply just unaffordable for a very large number of people.

Some may argue that cost is associated only with the credit and the course is still open to all. This was already the source of major surprises for some providers: a (pricey) effort to build credit MOOCs got zero takers when the university charged as little as $89 for credit courses that cost in campus over $1,000. When you pay the time for staff to write the course, the infrastructure capable to accommodate hundreds of thousands of students, resources etc… the ‘zero takers’ surprise can be truly devastating. 

It became clear that MOOCs can be perceived by many students (and employers) as a form of entrainment with an academic flavour,  a kind of TED talks for nerds. This legitimate challenge makes harder to justify spending “massive” resources to pay for “massive” course design, IT infrastructure, administration, video production etc. The value of a MOOC requires now a bit more work and in-depth thinking, to align this effort with a wider strategy for every institution. 

There seems to be a promise to open already opened doors

Moreover, a detail ignored for a while became clearer: we already have the solution of freely available courses with videos and pdf files, web-links and books on Amazon through websites and platforms such as iTunes U (or various Learning Management Systems used by universities) for a long time. Open Universities across the world have an already long tradition of offering free (access) courses or non-credit courses with a small fee. The simple addition of forums and discussion groups cannot be seriously taken as the most important innovation that can dramatically change higher education. If we claim this, then we have to accept that we all reached a point of very little imagination and depth for our solutions.

So, if a MOOC is ‘open’, but not free, what is it?

The enthusiasm for the silver bullet went too often too far. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, recently underlined something that should be clear to any university administrator:

I’m not a person who thinks that people will be able to just go online and get a complete education without the guidance of the teacher. That sort of simplistic model shouldn’t be our framework.”

The simplistic way of thinking about organising learning and teaching in higher education is simply not sustainable on a long term. Adherence to a fad may work for a personal agenda, but comes with serious risks and costs for institutions and systems. Some will learn again a very painful lesson. The reality is that online solutions are still underused by higher education, but we are left to wait for genuine innovation that is capable to provide alternatives in line with academic rigour, quality assurance and student needs in higher education. Students cannot be engaged by simple conversions of boring lectures into online videos that are even more boring, affected by clunky and poorly designed technological solutions and rigid platforms for discussions and “forums”.

Universities need to use online technology where it really works - Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia

Presumed Authority and Crumbling Credibility

To understand why so many academics and administrators adopted with no hesitation the snake oil merchant promises we need to think about what Tom Whitby notes:

“I am tired of educators who espouse technology for everyone else, but fail to employ it for themselves and their profession […] We should look at everyone’s digital footprint including administrators. What is their educational philosophy as it is stated in the digital world? What does their Professional Learning Network include? What is it they have collaborated on in the Social media world? How effective are they in the very collaboration skills that they claim to have? How reflective are they based on their public blog? Do they hold to their principles in their public reflections?”
Find the online profile of the expert on the online solutions and innovations: see their LinkedIn profile and network, read their blog and find the ideas they put online to represent their thinking on an open platform

A healthy exercise for all is to look online as soon as you hear any advocate of online solutions and check the consistency of discourse with reality. Too often we hear academics speak about “social media” in higher education when it is painfully clear that the same person never used Twitter, barely grasps the function of “like” on Facebook and still (secretly) thinks that LinkedIn is just a silly hobby. An academic journal is very rarely an open platform, so don’t let yourself intimidated by a long list of academic publications: the walled gardens of academic publishing do not follow the logic of MOOCs and Internet openness.

Public disclosure: I just applied this exercise to a list of speakers in a conference on “innovation and teaching” (what else?). The result was truly remarkable (or simply depressive). The good part is that it became clear that this can save a lot of money and time wasted in sterile acts of self-admiration and opinion-production packaged in the form of pseudo-academic work.

The value of MOOC

In the run to increase profits and “market shares” many universities lost their way, leaving aside their values, adopting a mix of compulsory mediocrity and quasi-managerial jargon. The effect is not only that many institutions of higher education are stuck into a management model close to what was common in 1930’s than what is now adopted by smart and flexible corporations. The effect is that students start to question (and most probably refuse to enrol in the future) in lectures with 500+ students crowded in various halls and large amphitheatres. MOOC-like provision is an easy replacement for this bizarre form of academic model of making profits.

In the same time, MOOCs start already to evolve much less against the “brick and mortar” university and much more in line with the needs of students and institutions of higher education. The main reason is that the only way these platforms can make profit in the future is to work in consonance with credit providers that are accepted and (still) trusted by employers.

Universities based on strong academic values and academic freedom most probably will build MOOCs that show their strength and focus on quality learning and teaching, and genuine innovation. But most probably, MOOCs are also already responsible for the acceleration of a crisis for universities that forgot their core values. If profit is all what they stand for in reality, then this will impact directly their evolution and future for the long term. Many will slowly dissolve, others will move to the periphery where many will struggle in a though competition to find customers for cheap and low value credentials.

The MOOC hype also revealed a worrying appetite of a surprising number of academics and politicians to get enthused by simplistic solutions for higher education, by silver bullets and vague promises. This reflects many things, but most of all it shows how widespread is the belief – within and outside academia – that learning and teaching is a matter of common expertise. Everyone seems to share the opinion that – since most of us go through various forms of education – pedagogy and extensive knowledge in learning and teaching is a simple, familiar and common field of expertise to all. There is no other field where you can step in and say: I am an expert and I can tell you how to do things properly as education became. The butcher, the baker, the sailor and the candle stick maker all take the position of qualified experts in education. This trend is responsible for the collapse of many school systems and no one can argue that universities are immune to the same causes. The impact on the future quality of what many like to call “human capital” can be more significant than what we can imagine at this point. 

It is evident that mastering critical thinking, collaboration, presentation skills and genuine empathy require human connection, interaction and practice, and are best acquired in person, not only online. This is why we like to drink our coffee with friends – whenever possible – on a coffee shop, not on Skype, with a cheaper cup brewed at home. It is also evident that online medium offers the possibility of connectivity, exploration and the use of well built imaginative capabilities. The balanced use of online and on campus solutions stay as a key for the future of higher education.

There is significant value in all forms of learning, online and on campus. Education must answer fast the challenge to nurture students’ imagination, creativity and build their skills for innovation for a future marked by uncertainty and serious challenges 

Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, recently said that “In the global economy, creativity is essential. Today’s workers need more than just skills and knowledge to be productive and innovative participants in the workforce. […] To succeed today and in the future, America’s children will need to be inventive, resourceful, and imaginative.”

Software, MOOCs, apps, learning management systems and other online solutions are just tools that can be used to answer these challenges. They are important tools, but not solutions on itself to achieve the difficult task of building inventive, educated, resourceful, and imaginative new generations.

IMG_1250

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.

Thomas Friedman is writing in ‘New Rules’, a widely quoted article recently published by The New York Times “It’s fascinating to read about all this while visiting Shanghai, whose public school system in 2010 beat the rest of the world in math, science and reading in the global PISA exam of 15-year-olds.” Shanghai is used here as en example for America to invest more in “vocational-training classes” to follow an instrumental model where education is preparing workers to take the “new jobs”. It happens that I also visited recently Shanghai, the source of fascination and admiration for so many Westerners, and the most impressive part of my experience there was the ubiquitous sense of mutual distrust and absence of civic values and behaviors in the public life.

I am a curious traveler and I take the risk to explore non-touristic areas of cities and places I visit. I seek all possible opportunities to experience what locals experience every day. I am not interested to see what a tourist in invited to see. Using public transport is an important part of Shanghai’s realities and here you see how many locals have troubles to read maps and even letters. Not Western letters, of course, but Chinese. It is also surprising to see the dynamic of daily travelers who seem to be very motivated in this secret competition to take a seat in the train or bus and push each other violently to be the first. I often noticed that a pregnant woman was among the last in the train and I wasn’t able to see anyone offering a seat. Civic culture is just disastrous.

Spitting – basically everywhere – making grotesque noises, pushing to make way to unknown important destinations, the complete absence of smiles or friendly conduct and the obsessive impulse to install metal bars over windows, and too many fences and padlocks in a country where crime rate is very low left me feeling that that this immense city got the worst from both systems, communism and capitalism. I also had discussions with some tourists and I remember the dull expression on the face of a European visitor saying how wonderful is this city. I guess is easy to be confused if you are the tourist interested just to take a break. It may be even easier to be confused if you are at the center of interest of those who invited you in Shanghai, knowing that you will write a nice op-ed in one of the most important newspapers in the world.

Having the benefit of a very different status and using the curse to be curious and uneasy with simple and (too) obvious answers I have a different reading of Shanghai. This may be an excellent city to study mathematics, but what I have seen is very far from the image of a new center for learning and enlightenment. I admire Chinese culture, but I wasn’t able to see much left in Shanghai this year. Here is my problem: Shanghai, “whose public school system in 2010 beat the rest of the world in math, science and reading” in the new global “learning games” is not benefiting much from this admirable position in the everyday life of the city. Something is missing there, and it may be.. a genuine civic culture.

Friedman article came as I received a petition that may be very important for Australia, the place where I currently live: “On September 11 the New South Wales government announced that it would stop funding art education in TAFE (vocational education), leaving 4000 students without access to finishing their courses in 2013. TAFE Art courses are the main provider of art education in NSW, with many prominent artists getting their first ‘hands on’ training in TAFE. The withdrawal of funding will mean that only the wealthy will be able to afford private art education and NSW will suddenly find it no longer has emerging artists with skills coming through.”

This is speaking about the current fashionable fixation to favor mathematics, engineering and sciences against liberal arts. I think this is both wrong and dangerous.

Looking at mathematics and engineering as a top priority for education is nothing new. As it is not new at all to see in an era of aggressive anti-intellectualism a hierarchy of funding where humanities have the lower places. Public investment in humanities is declining fast as the criteria of productivity, efficiency, consumer satisfaction do not serve at all the perceived waste of money in these fields. It seems that STEM are now the only key for a happy and prosperous future. STEM is the most commonly used acronym for the fields of study in the categories of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. As it seems that we live a time of simplistic solutions, the bipolar oppositions are used here to make sense of this dilemma. Therefore, this complex problem is solved in very simple terms by decision makers around the world: if STEM fields are important in education, humanities are less important and funds will be allocated to what is important. There is a very dangerous logic here and – with no intention to question the importance of STEM fields – we argue that this is presenting serious dangers for the future.

US President Obama has identified STEM education as (see President Obama’s National Educational Technology Plan 2010, Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology): “the key to America’s economic growth and prosperity and to our ability to compete in the global economy… the path to good jobs and higher earning power for Americans, necessary for our democracy to work. It fosters the cross-border, cross-cultural collaboration required to solve the most challenging problems of our time.” The problem is that we may need to admit very soon that the most challenging problems of our times are a bit more complex: science,  technology, engineering and mathematics have to be completed by civic values, ethical behavior, social and ecological responsibility. Democracy is protected by intellectual energy and critical thinking, the capacity to make informed decisions about public life and the use of these technologies. The most obvious example is that of Germany in 1940’s and no one can argue that their problem at that time was a lack of excellent engineering or poor schools of mathematics and sciences. But civic and human values were a disaster. President Obama should know that arts and humanities programs are getting the axe in many universities in US and this is a real and serious threat for democracy, as it is in many other parts of the world.

The risk of all sorts of fundamentalism is real and too obvious to be ignored. STEM alone cannot solve these challenges. If we take just few recent examples we can see why humanities can bring a vital contribution with their potential to cultivate and strengthen critical thinking, to bring a greater understanding of the world, of the “other”, of various cultures and people, as a real panacea against hate and intolerance. The simple criteria of efficiency can be dangerously twisted. For example, The Telegraph is presenting the surprising case of Hitler’s popularity in India:

“…sales of Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s autobiography and apologia for his anti-semitism, are soaring in India where business students regard the dictator as a management guru[…] Sales of the book over the last six months topped 10,000 in New Delhi alone, according to leading stores, who said it appeared to be becoming more popular with every year. Several said the surge in sales was due to demand from students who see it as a self-improvement and management strategy guide for aspiring business leaders, and who were happy to cite it as an inspiration […] Jaico Publishing House, one of the publishers in India, said it reprints a new edition of the book at least twice a year to meet growing demand.”

The stunning rise on Neo-Nazi groups in Greece in also presented in a recent and disturbing article: “Actual fascists in actual black shirts are waving swastikas and murdering ethnic minorities in Athens”. It is an unsettling story about dissolution of civic values and humanity in the heart of Europe. Socrates left as part of his invaluable legacy the need to think critically about tradition and authority, about our humanity and about what we want to stand for. This seems to be lost now in his homeland.

Why should an American politician care about those disciplines able to nurture the (almost extinct) spirit of respectful and courageous critical inquiry? One strong set of reasons is the state of civic knowledge in United States: in the the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment, more than two-thirds of all students in US scored below proficient and less than a fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.

In an excellent review of a book about the rise of far right groups in UK, The Guardian is ending an interesting article published this September by saying:

“Societies that promise equality, freedom and democracy, yet preside over massive inequalities of wealth, are breeding grounds for racism and other vicious resentments. And wherever these resentments exist, the far right will try to exploit them. The fascism of the 20s and 30s succeeded because it played on wider fears, winning the support of those who would never have thought of themselves as extremists. The Nazis used antisemitism because it already existed in German society.”

Funding only marketable skills against the complex effort to educate responsible citizens, nurture critical and independent minds capable to understand what policies mean is just dangerous in a time when we see all sorts of fundamentalisms emerging violently from Norway to Middle East, from US to Australia. We already have the seeds of hate and it is the time to use STEM in a comprehensive paradigm where humanities will place their power in the context of responsible citizenship. Humanities enhance and improve our culture. This is the crucial challenge ahead.

If we have to insist on the simplistic logic currently used and economically justify liberal arts we can ignore for a moment the fact that heretics and counter-cultural poets, philosophers, dreamers and citizens pushed the entire society to progress. We can try to follow this instrumental logic of immediate efficiency. However, even this is leading to the the importance of humanities for mathematics, science and engineering. In How the Arts Unlock the Door to Learning we find the fascinating recent example Maryland’s Bates Middle School. Here arts integration has helped raise student achievement:

“Since arts integration was first implemented at Bates, the percentage of students achieving or surpassing standards for reading has grown from 73 percent in 2009 to 81 percent in 2012, and from 62 percent to 77 percent for math during the same period, while disciplinary problems decreased 23 percent from 2009 to 2011″

Several evidence-based research studies reveal that arts significantly increase student engagement and achievement among youth from both low and high socioeconomic backgrounds. Data consistently shows that we improve results in STEM if we offer the intellectual background of humanities. This can be simply explained by the fact that we learn as humans, not like machines.

We all have ahead unprecedented challenges for our democracies and we are asked to imagine a sustainable future for our economies, societies and our planet. Education is changing fast and it is the time to work on new models for universities, able to properly answer these new demands. Obsolete blue-prints, artificial rankings and false oppositions inspired by the industrial revolution have to be redesigned. We just cannot afford a new historical nightmare.

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

Mirror, mirror…

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

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

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

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

The foreseeable change of commercialization of higher education

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

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

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

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

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

University in search of identity and… financial troubles

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

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

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

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

Valuing education

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

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

The challenge of innovation and change

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

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

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

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