Creativity and innovation in higher education (Part 1)


The world is shaken now by profound changes and is truly turned upside down. The only reality powerful enough for our current logic – financial markets – is in complete turmoil. Europe is boiling at extreme pressures accumulated by years of prosperity used mainly to fuel a happy denial of reality and series of astonishingly irresponsible cover-ups of some unpleasant truths. They stayed as ghosts secluded in some closets across the old continent and went out with vengeance now to punish all those who accepted their arrests. To take just the most obvious example we can remember how the story of Greece “cooking the books” to join the eurozone was “un secret de Polichinelle” in Brussels for European Union’s officials and bureaucrats. However, no one is held responsible now for the unexplainable blindness, incompetence or possible obscure financial interests connected to that decision. It is not really surprising now for Europeans to see that solutions designed by the same policy makers who are using the very same system that caused the current mess prove so far to be disastrous. In fact, the Western world is looking in disbelief how our pillars of democracy and economic foundations were severely eroded by corruption, lies and professional swindlers. The other problem is that decision makers are still blinded by ideology and in a perfect cognitive dissonance hope to find a quick fix to pull the system up as they did before – but this time is all different. It is different not only because China is changing the balance with unprecedented power, but the Western world reached a limit of its old models and is incapable to accept yet reality. Europe is again the best example in this context. The arrogance and delusion was just impenetrable for the last decade around Brussels and Strasbourg and any call for a realistic analysis was ignored or dismissed with a condescending note about a higher thinking inaccessible to plebeians. Economy and education, culture and citizenship, finance and political structures looked very good with optimistic data, columns and pie-charts supporting the general enthusiasm. Just few years the European Central Bank’s President presented Ireland as the model for the EU to follow and the fact that this was completely wrong was not comprehended until the current devastating crisis proved it. Germany is presented now as the solid rock for the troubled eurozone, but just last week German media launched a worrying appeal to face reality. “The Truth” about German economy is the main concern for Handelsblatt business newspaper, in an article depicting a German state in a very different light:

Officially, German debt in 2011 stands at 2,000 billion euros. But that’s only half the truth, because the major portion of expenditure for pensioners, the sick and dependent persons is not included in the calculation. According to new figures, the real debt is 5,000 billion euros. If these figures stand, Germany is in debt to the tune of 185 percent of its gross domestic product and not 83 percent, as officially declared. By comparison, Greek debt should be 186 percent of GDP in 2012, and Italy’s debt is currently at 120 percent. The critical threshold beyond which debt crushes growth is 90 percent.”

 The fairy tale is over for Europe (as it is for US and the rest of the Western world) and Greece and Italy, UK and Ireland, Portugal and Spain pay now a terrible price for years of listening the siren’s songs – their enchanting music translated into indicators, data and ratings just shipwrecked the most beautiful part of the fleet. The economic crisis looks now more real than ever before and the simple rhetoric and absurd hope that the same system is hiding somewhere a cure just hit the concrete reality. Nevertheless, where is academia placed in this context and what solutions arise from these centers of intellectual debate and creativity?

Higher education is also at crossroads. The route to be taken by our universities will determine the future of our values, our wellbeing and our societies. The trouble is that the only route visible now in higher education is the corporate rationale and financial logic of immediate profit. Higher education reveals the domination of a naive and crude logic that completely ignores that efficiency should not be our main reason and mission. The failure of imagination and creativity in academia is evident when we see financial instruments proving their limits and disastrous flaws in their original use presented as the ultimate solutions for efficiency and progress of academic life. Key Performance Indicators, former silver bullets used by banks and other financial entities to base their efficiency on quantifiable evidence revealed at the burst of the economic crisis only an amazing capacity to mask reality with a screen of irrelevant data. Oblivious of this evident failure and marked by a paralyzing incapacity to develop its own instruments, higher education enthusiastically adopted this system as the most important reference to reality. Rating agencies – depicted these days as “key enables of the financial meltdown” and attacked for their greed, fraudulent manipulation of data and irresponsibility – have the perfect replica in our academic life in the form of global rankings of academic institutions. The system used to rank our universities is just perplexing – Newsweek published at the end of 2010 an article where the mechanism of international comparisons and classifications is appropriately described:

Imagine a magazine that claimed to rank all of the year’s music releases in descending order of “quality.” No. 1 might be the latest album by a popular hip-hop artist; No. 2, a Beethoven symphony; No. 3, a movie soundtrack; No. 4, an R&B collection. What an obviously silly idea! But it gets worse. Suppose the basis for these rankings turned out to be an arbitrary mathematical formula dreamed up by the magazine editors, and the data used to compute the rankings all came from the record companies themselves. You would throw the magazine in the wastebasket. Yet that, in essence, is a description of the most popular college rankings. They gloss over crucially important variations in the curricular, pedagogical, philosophical, and social characteristics of different schools. They rely on a magazine editor’s guesswork about the factors to consider and the relative weights to assign to those factors. And they depend on information—much of it unverifiable—that is supplied by the very institutions whose ranking will supposedly determine their reputations in the marketplace.”

Just to confirm that this system – now the main engine of academic life and a powerful determinant of all dynamic inside universities – is even more flawed than those used by rating agencies with their disastrous consequences we can look at the first comprehensive report on global university rankings commissioned by The European University Association:

Since the emergence of global rankings, universities have been unable to avoid national and international comparisons, and this has caused changes in the way universities function […] Rankings, it is claimed, make universities more ‘transparent’. However, the methodologies of the existing rankings, and especially those of the most popular league tables, still lack transparency themselves […] The lack of suitable indicators is most apparent when measuring university teaching performance, for which there are no suitable proxies”. However, the most striking conclusion is that “at present, it would be difficult to argue that the benefits offered by the information that rankings provide, as well as the increased ‘transparency,’ are greater than the negative effects of the so-called ‘unwanted consequences’ of rankings”

The trouble is again that these curious global and national rankings, KPIs and manipulated data cannot hold answers for all crises ahead of us and no ecological, financial, energy or ideological disasters will be diverted by our elaborate systems of self-deception.

In this context, it makes perfect sense to talk endlessly about accountability (a word taken from… accountants. Its etymology is rending directly to its current use: “reckoning of money received and paid.”) than even think about the profound implications of responsibility of and within the system. The pressure on institutions of higher education to make profit and on academics and administrators to present positive KPIs is so strong that all solutions are acceptable, regardless of their moral implications. Public scandals affecting universities range now from those with serious legal implications (e.g. see for-profit institutions in US) to surreal examples as that of London School of Economics. Sir Howard Davies – the head of this prestigious institution – was asked to clarify links with a deal worth €2.5m to train hundreds of Libyans to become part of Gaddafi elite, a mishandling of a multimillion dollars contract with Libya aiming to sanitize Gaddafi’s regime reputation in the world and explain the acceptance of some strange donations from the same source. The story involves other prestigious academics (e.g. Francis Fukuyama) and public figures (as Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair, who helped Moamer’s Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam with his doctorate at the London School of Economics!). The title of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s doctorate is equally surreal: “The role of civil society in the democratisation of global governance institutions: from ‘soft power’ to collective decision-making?”. This case is well known now, but is important to see that unveils a reality shaped by the consequences of our current paradigms and it opens another important discussion about the extent of these problems revealed just accidentally by an historical unexpected development (i.e. the Arab Spring in Libya). However, the hope that this will be the alarm signal for the system faded away as it became clear that the effort seems to be oriented now to paint the façade than to find solutions – and here we have another similarity with financial markets before the storm. This case should also open the debate about debasement of important ideas by those who are defending them in rhetoric and fight against them in practice. If Gaddafi’s family can lecture at London School of Economics about the importance of open civil society in modern democracies than we have serious reasons to carefully operate a reality check before we jump with joy. The only chance for higher education to reach the promised land is to tie ourselves tightly to the mast when we hear the beautiful song of Persephone as we have too many replicas of mythological sirens in our own journey.

However, before we start to look at creativity in higher education we have to look at the first problem raised by the unique paradigm for university, based on financial efficiency, quantitative indicators and implications of the dominant rationale guided by the logic of immediate financial profit. Creativity cannot emerge in this paradigm of crude materialism and immediate (financial) gratifications and the modest record of universities is the first important evidence to support this statement. On the other hand, genuine innovation involves courage and decisive choices – when the system is asking for innovation, but imposes contradictory rules and favors tokenism the result cannot match expectations. This explains why the most discussed books on innovation in higher education are charming, engaging and informative, but not even close to indicate something new. The first example is offered by Clayton Christensen, the father of the theory of disruptive innovation, and his colleague, Henry J. Eyring. They present in The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out a solution that is more than a decade old and so far failed to bring the promised revolution: new technologies will revolutionize University is a slogan we heard too often since early 90ies. In “Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation”, Ben Wildavsky, et al. suggest that reinventing universities is linked with efficiency of a different model of management that will offer increased flexibility of staff selection and recruitment (among other arguments close to this perspective). The sad part is that this is already happening and… the world is getting worse.

The trouble is that university’s current path is surprisingly close to the Greek current drama and some of its old metaphors. Focused to match indicators of performance with quantifiable products we turned most important parts of our academic life into a nonsensical show of shadow puppetry. In Plato’s famous parable, a slave had the courage to leave the cave, explore and grasp the reality in the outside world and return to the darkness to explain to his colleagues that the shadows were not the truth – that, on the outside, there were things that were the ultimate cause and source of those shadows. The slaves would at first mock him and then, when he insisted on freeing them from the darkness, start to think about killing him.

The promise of innovation cannot be serious in education until we have the courage to create the space where the jester can say what we all know, when sources of shadows are looked at and comfortable challenges are replaced by genuine debates about possible solutions. This will happen when the curious wonderer will be able to talk about sources of shadows without the fear of being killed.


The next parts will aim to look at some shadows and will look at creativity and innovation complex processes requiring much more than a political statement and the fear of KPIs.


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