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Higher Education

There are many decision makers wringing their hands about the fate of Australian universities. Politicians openly whinge about the impact of costs for education on their electorate – or discreetly cut as much funds as possible. Investment in high quality education is documented as the wisest possible investment! In quality education – and quality is harder to achieve than we like to admit.

The reality is that universities in Australia face in general ‘a tide of community and political hostility’, as noted by Vicki Thomson, the chief executive of the Group of Eight, the group of most reputable Australian universities. In an analysis published in the Australian (I highly recommend to read the article*), the vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne is cited as saying that local universities are facing ‘a rising tide of criticism’. But why?

Ms. Thomson is saying that “People don’t trust universities. It’s an era of mistrust. And we are in the spotlight more for the wrong reasons” than the right. It is still unclear what are the ‘right reasons’ to distrust universities!

Academics are very shy to deal with any form of malaise in their organisations, some just because they are terrified for their future, some for being part of the problem. Local cliques of ‘good ol’ boys’ who are religiously committed to intellectual mediocrity and machinations serving their own interests have a corrosive effect for the last decades. Academia is not an ivory tower, but a kafkaesque creation where people feel that is not safe to speak freely. In time, most don’t even think freely, as dangerous thoughts can also lead to professional disasters. The group of scared academics is the majority that have to survive in their unstable jobs; so most click their heels in front of any idiotic idea launched by morally compromised coteries.

A large and worrying set of research reveals the continuous increase of mental health issues for academics (stress, depression, anxiety, suicides). This should be much more visible for those who are genuinely worried about the future of our universities*. Invariably, bullying – and the absolute power taken by the well established cliques that use it with cynicism – come with a dramatic price for the people, and for the future of our institutions of higher education. Meritocracy is now a laughable idea. How can we seriously expect respect from the public when these things are less hidden than we like to believe? The simple fact that there are just vague attempts to find out the reasons of why universities are increasingly disliked represent on itself an answer to the mystery.

I may lose here some friends I have in academia, but I’ll try to find what can be the set of causes that make those in power to lament this traumatic turn of favours for universities (in Australia and abroad):

  • Institutionalised hypocrisy: the most powerful universities are vastly populated by academics who had free education and a relatively generous start in life after graduation (for sure, it was incomparably better than the one that current students face after graduation). Despite this, with few notable exceptions, power-holding groups insist that there wasn’t a ‘good old time’ ever (no one is saying that anyway) and students should pay for their studies. Their cynicism is not unnoticed. One thing is certain: for these groups there was never a better time than now, and this is a source of extreme frustration for students and some fellow academics. Politicians are much more guilty on this area, but this fact makes even more startling to see academics embracing the hypocritical position.
  • Intellectual crisis and aggressive mediocrity: attending an academic conference should be a topic of anthropological research. It is a rare occasion to see how any glimmer of hope that one interesting idea can be truly debated is withering with the same things that run for the last 20-30 years. Same old faces run the same old ideas and make intellectualised comments in line with the latests fads.

I had one the unfortunate position to listen one well known monument of mediocrity in a reputable university advocating for MOOCs as the solution that will open the gates of higher education to all and will make universities struggle only to deal with too much money and hundreds of thousands of students in one course. MOOCs were the silver bullet and the big problems of education ended there. I was listening less than a year later the same amoral individual mocking the MOOC-hysteria, in front of the same audience, with no sense of shame or ridicule. This is the general dynamic of typical conferences, where the audience and presenters are the same, in a sad metaphor of a perfect echo-chamber, which is ineluctably missed.

We have to agree with the President of Ireland, who noted that universities “should foster dissent and allow for rejection of dominant ideologies”*.  But this is simply not happening! How often do we read or hear about conferences about the intellectual and moral crisis of our universities? Where were universities when the extreme right was growing in our societies? My guess is that they were happy about MOOCs and unicorns.

Working in institutions of higher education for the last 20 years I can hardly remember any symposium, seminar or conference even vaguely related to that. Most academics – and managers of their institutions – believe that an office in a sandstone building  equals intellectual brilliancy, virtue and automatically granted public respect. But the public is much more aware now that their sons and daughters pay a lot (and go in crushing debt) for something that is not education, but a convoluted game of credentialisation. They enter institutions with few passionate lost voices in a sea of cynicism. Their hope and efforts are to educate their children, with skills and values, solid intellectual foundations, critical, creative and inquisitive minds. What they get is something far from this; in fact, how can we expect to create critical minds and engaged graduates when critiques and genuine debates are stifled in academia?

  • Social (in)difference. All slogans must sound good: ‘social responsibility’, “corporate responsibility’, ‘responsibility and social justice’ etc.  Some regional Australian universities really try their best to serve traditionally disadvantaged groups, and succeed. However, most universities are more famous for their stiffness and arrogance than for their genuine interest on social progress.

The fad about ’employability’ is not related that much with the fate of students, but with the university’s brand and position on the market. It would be laughable to find that our institutions build on the belief that students are that naive to miss this important nuance; is not their fate that matters for university, but their own bank accounts. It is a cynical and unfortunate message for current students, and many are disenchanted about their choice. A recent survey reveals that over half of students in British institutions of higher education consider that their studies will secure them a job at their level of study.  A significant percentage also indicates that they are not confident at all that their university studies open good opportunities for employment. I analysed in an article published in The Conversation* why this focus on ’employability’ masks a current intellectual superficiality of academia and why it leads to more problems than results. One thing is for sure: one does not get many friends when questioning a fad that is enthusiastically adopted by those in power.

The potemkinisation of academia is the secret known by all; the facade is now the reality and the known knowns are better left ignored. The focus is on all data that can maintain the facade, even if gaps, manipulations or irrelevance for a higher education becomes painfully visible. To get just two examples, we can wonder why Political Sciences departments across the world were so silent about the rise of Brexit and Trump forces and so surprised when they succeeded. This is almost as bad as the record of Economics’ departments before and immediately after the World Financial Crisis: that had no clue, looking at their own fads and listening the echoes of their own voices.

  • A loss of identity. Universities lost their mission and identity. Silicon Valley et comp. is shaping teaching solutions, even changing the meaning of some fundamental concepts for higher education (such as personalisation of education, which is now synonymous with computer assisted learning) or by making profit and financial balances more important than any other aspect of university life and identity. Most importantly, higher education is chasing goals that are common for vocational education, while trying to maintain the ascendence of higher learning (a concept that is increasingly unclear for most managers of universities). The identity is further convoluted by various pressures from groups with conflicting interests. This last element is imposed on universities, but the effort to answer to all is leading to a general disappointment of results.

Of course, I may be completely wrong in the analysis above and universities are doing just well, as institutions of higher education, progress and intellectual courage. However, now is the time to take a mirror and see what is wrong within our own institutions – if there is anything wrong – and deal with courage and decency to address the most serious problems.

Why now?

There are two main reasons to have real change in the Australian higher education, to refocus on higher learning and on the real possibility to make Australian universities uniquely good. First, we have a favourable moment for progress and making Australian universities extremely attractive. Higher education in the UK, a stronger competitor, is badly hit now by the abysmally stupid idea of Brexit. The election of Trump and security concerns (mass shootings and gun violence don’t play well for local universities) already make American universities see a serious reduction in numbers of international students.

Now is the time to change the paradigm, break old cliques and focus on genuinely creative ideas for the future, in an agenda shaped by and for universities. Politicians can understand that an ‘industry’ that brings $21.8 billion annually in Australia and impacts massively on tax returns, real estate, and costs related with living expenses must have political and financial support. Also, the public can only love institutions that truly care and serve community and the society, and not only themselves.

The perils of status quo

The favourable set of factors for Australian higher education, that managed to survive relatively well under the successive attacks of underfunding from the political class and the chaotic approach of current government coalition, is already under a fast – and unfortunate – transformation. One major risk comes from the most important markets, which are important now to keep the system afloat. China is building fast more local universities and aggressively attract Western scholars to teach there (and stimulate local economy, among other reasons). Furthermore, Chinese graduate students return home from international universities to find a tough job market that is now rarely looking at an international diploma as a factor for employment. The value of overseas education is openly questioned in China and the most important Chinese newspapers go as far as saying that returnees may be ‘incompatible to domestic society’*. Chinese students will think at least twice in the current context before leaving to study in Australia or any other country abroad. The promise of easily accessible international markets for Australian universities is starting to vanish.

There are some managers in higher education who are currently working frantically to fix what years of hubris, bad ideas, fraudulent characters in positions of power and misguided politicians inflicted on local institutions of higher education. Same ‘experts’ who are responsible for many current disasters sell the same old managerial fads with the note that the pill should be bigger and much more concentrated. The patient can die, but profits will be good… In the meantime, universities presenting themselves as leaders of the pack (not only the famous 8) float in the same old echo-chambers with the same local cliques flaunting arrogant cliches when the reality becomes too hard to ignore. The price will be high for all, as inertia never worked as a perpetuum mobile.

Ultimately, the most important asset for universities remains the prestige associated with the value of their thinking and contribution to the society. At this point, academia is moved away from both. If there is no original agenda for higher education (not one taken from startups, various industries that work completely different than education or those imposed by groups with vested interests), and a rethink of what is higher learning and the responsibility of educated people, we should at least stop wringing our hands and take some decent responsibility for what will follow.

 

Cited sources:

*The Australian: Unis face ‘tide of hostility’ and loss of trust

*Times Higher Education: Academics ‘face higher mental health risk’ than other professions

*The Irish Times: President Higgins: Universities facing ‘intellectual crisis’

*The Conversation: Universities can’t, and shouldn’t, educate to suit employers

*The Sydney Morning Herald: Chinese students question Australian education sending chills through industry

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There is a heated debate in Australia – with some ugly turns – on marriage equality. The kind of reasons offered by those against marriage equality are truly baffling, especially if one cares about injustice, suffering or a better future for all.

There is the religious group saying that this goes against the Bible or other holy texts. There is no wonder that this position is not very specific (talking here only about Christianity) about what part of the Bible is clearly against love, or homosexuality; as this excellent theological analysis shows here, the real reason behind it is that there is no argument to support the hateful rhetoric based on religious texts. It is heartbreaking and frustrating to see Christians missing that crucial part of compassion, understanding, empathy from the Bible and watch how they find themselves marching against those who have a terrible history of discrimination, that is still present and hurtful in explicit or more subtle forms. The reality is that this is not about religion, but a position of intolerance and control. This has nothing to do with the Bible or any other religious book, but quite the opposite!

It is important to note that marriage is not a religious thing anymore (as it is obvious that we we’re not in the 19th century…), but a set of civil rights! For example, I am happily married with a wonderful woman and we did not go to a Church – and we’re very happy about it! We spent many years as a de facto couple and the reason to get officially married – to get the marriage certificate – was only driven by the need to get the set of rights that all get as partners. One can be shocked to learn that in reality de facto heterosexual couples have quite limited rights. I can only imagine how hard and discriminatory is for gay couples to live their life together, get old and deal with all arrangements of a couple engaged in a long term relationship; and cope also with discrimination and the feeling of a second-rate human beings. We were travelling a lot, changing jobs from Europe to North America and South East Asia, so when we arrived in New Zealand we were tired of all the extra-hurdles we experienced as a de-facto couple. Border control and immigration authorities made this a very unpleasant experience for us:  show us that you are a ‘real’ couple, prove it!, we need more evidence and so on. So we changed from a de facto partnership to a marriage recognised by immigration and courts in Auckland. As soon as this certificate was granted all problems went away. So if you never walked in those shoes it would be wonderful to imagine how is to experience this form of ‘soft’ discrimination.. and after that multiply it exponentially.

Another argument against marriage equality is based on one of the worst myths: that there is a so called ‘flown-on’ effect on children raised by gay couples. This is particularly painful, when we think how callous is to exploit children in this debate. However, since this is discussed, it is important to point out that the science is set, as these two articles with numerous links for studies and meta-studies prove: Children raised by samesex parents are at no disadvantage and Same-sex couples and their children: what does the evidence tell us?. We know what is definitely going to have a negative effect on children, and this is lack of love! Violence, abuse, neglect and poverty impact on children for the rest of their lives and it would be great to start caring about real problems, not people’s sexuality. The Church and any religious group can address this with courage and ethical responsibility; there are so many people in education and scientific research that can provide them all the evidence they need to make a strong case for decisive action on this!   

There is time for the NO campaign to look in their hearts and find inspiration in the Christian spirit of kindness and understanding for those who really need it. Australia is a generous country, where those who’re vulnerable can find help, where the ‘little guy’ still finds some help to stand a chance against bullies. This is what made us love this country and stay here and this is why I passionately believe that those against equality should have a second thought and find who is the bully and who needs a fair shake.

Our belief in education for all, equity and the need to fight injustice when you see it made me and my wife voted YES – and we share it proudly!

 

*photo for “supporting marriage equality is taken from the City of Melbourne – with thanks!

ignorance

Any form of Anti-Americanism is a simplistic explanation of complex realities, and a dangerous manifestation of intolerance. Far from this, we have to admit that we are at a point where we need to see what Americanization involves for other countries and cultural entities and for the future of citizens across the world. The main reason is not only that the American popular culture was influential and adopted widely since 1950s, even in countries where anti-Americanism is prevalent (in West or other countries), but most recent developments in the US politics, culture and civic life require a very serious and objective examination.

In this context it should concern us all that the US popular culture, in a unique fabric that is weaving together on Internet and TV, music and movie industries, various corporations and their lobbying strategies and campaigns, lead now to a place where the Brave New World is looking longingly towards a dystopian 1984. Glorified ignorance is widely accepted along with authoritarian solutions; an obsessive focus on superficial and fast results and the invasion of entertainment in all aspects of life. Reality TV is shaping personal behaviours and Jerry Springer Show can only fail to impress in the current landscape of junk ‘journalism’, obsessed to impress and secure audiences at all costs. In effect, last US elections and the triumph of Trump and his neo-Fascist characters that surround him represent just one terrible symptom of diseases that went ignored for a long time. It is also an effect of the ubiquitous effort to see the ‘positive side’ in all, even when this involved overlooking dangerous risks. The paradox is that the American ‘optimism’, fondness for happy endings (even if it screams “artificial”) and tremendous effort to see ‘silver linings’ in every disaster, is a strange feature for a nation so dependent on anti-depressants. Nevertheless, too many are taking American narratives as legitimate and coherent stories.

Resistance against Trump and what he represents stands beyond politics; it is the point of separation between immiscible values. Is the difference between mutual respect and glorified hate, between values of progress and civilisation and glorified ignorance. When Trump stated in a victory speech “I love the poorly educated” he did not shocked the audience. His massive group of followers was not offended to be looked at as a witless herd following someone’s else’s mind. What a failure for education! What a shame for universities and schools to have so many people let to ignore how much they don’t know and think that ignorance is a sign of strength. Nevertheless, American solutions for education are adopted by many countries and key decision-makers.

The American solutions influenced for a long time the rest of the world. The Reagan-Thatcher influence on schools and universities is undeniable, and it all started with what Reagan found good to impose on American universities. The reduction of education to economic arguments is a terrible legacy of this influence, and we can see now that profits may not solve all problems in the world. A good reminder here is that the highly entrepreneurial Nazi regime was doing very well with the economy… for a while! What a terrible lesson to ignore or forget.

The current US Secretary of Education is a religious zealot, with a stunning lack of knowledge on education policies, research or what can lead to an educated mind. Amazingly, in America of 2017 this is a great virtue: media shows that ignorance is fresh and good, knowledge is putrid, elitist and dangerous. The new Secretary of Education believes that guns should be part of school life so we can protect children from “potential grizzlies.” It is also a fanatical believer in the value of profits and neoliberal solutions. We are all warned.

Major trends in education are set for the last 6-7 decades by what was designed in the United States, ideas and values promoted by American scholars and schools (for example  Tyler and Bloom, Taylorism in education and so many others). Today this influence comes in strident forms, such as the obsessive focus on testing or – more subtle – on the constant decline of social status for the teaching profession. OECD studies show that US is the most important country leading in the devaluation of the teaching profession, in the way it is paying teachers and in their working conditions.

At the same time, universities across the world dream (openly or secretly) to be next to Harvard, and this is a strange tendency. Especially now, when is not very clear when looking at current tensions and evolutions what good was for the American society to have the impressive Ivy League universities. It also stands unclear to see what institutions like Harvard make of real social responsibility, civic values and contributions to give graduates a balanced and harmonious life. Maybe that model is flawed. Maybe these widely praised values lead to other bizarre reality TV characters that should remain insignificant in a functional democracy and educated society.

Glorification of ignorance and cult-like solutions are always devastating for the Polis and for every single one of us who are still thinking that we have to defend and promote humanistic values, democratic citizenship, intellectual and technological progress. European universities hold a troubled history on how institutions of higher education and academics supported the rise of fascism and the Nazi ideology. It may seem now extreme to think about that, but we have to stay alert and see if our models are good and healthy; just a year ago it was unthinkable for many to imagine a world where a reality TV character is the US President and his top advisers are people like Steve Bannon, with a worldview that leave sane people speechless. How was it possible to imagine in 2015 or 2016 a world where Breitbart – a relatively obscure far-right website – will be creating news in February 2017. As painful as it is, we have to admit that it is all happening now.

It is still time to consider a radical rethink of current models and possible solutions for our challenges. Maybe the light on the Statue of Liberty is shining somewhere else now. We can be grateful that the guidance came from those shores for a while, but now we live very different days. Ignorance  – as attractive as it may look for many – is always leading to immense suffering and disasters. The americanization of our universities, media, education and future require a solid challenge! Because a society where Trump is President and the Education Secretary is the personification of glorified ignorance and religious obscurantism cannot provide models that can lead to a better future for others. This should make us all think, especially those who are working in universities. It is time to look at other ways, beyond what ‘makes America great again’ – if not for our students and new generations, at least for universities and our own future.

 

*Photo credits: Flickr (Japanexperterna.se); Creative Commons
**DeVos family was ‘generous’ to give $200 million to the US Republican Party, including funding campaigns of 10 of the 12 Republican senators on the committee that vetted her for the position of Education Secretary. We can simply call this crude corruption! 

It is difficult to imagine in 2016 a more offensive candidate than Donald Trump… and now the world expects anxiously to see what the US President Donald Trump will do. No one really knows what this reality TV character plans for the most powerful office, but some things we know for sure: he was preferred by a shockingly high number of American citizens, in a country considered a pillar of democracy. We also know that his racists, discriminatory views were well known, so people were well aware that they elect someone associated with the extreme right ideology, a crude misogynist that is spectacular in his primitive nationalism, racism and bad taste. Famous now for his vulgar notes on mating rituals caveman style, Trump’s 3rd wife is a former ‘model’, famous only for some naked gaudy pictorials; voting proved that this couple is a perfect preference for evangelicals and their “family values”. The ignorance associated with this choice is abysmal. The difference between a reality show and real life will be soon obvious for some, but the majority will just pay attention to the new propaganda, blaming the ‘other’ for all their suffering.

There are too many notes and articles on what happened, and we can only expect the big whitewash in the following months. Trump is now slowly legitimised, considered just another leader with real policies in a world that simply goes ahead. This happened before, and Europe couldn’t stop in 1923 to listen alarmed voices and was deriding those able to see what was really coming. We can only hope that the history cannot repeat such massive mistakes.

One step to prevent this is to look at universities and their role (and place) in the current wave of populism and rise of the extreme right. Because universities are not only the place of nurturing the growth of knowledge, information and ideas, but the space where the brightest minds have the responsibility to take a critical stance when things go wrong. Their academic scepticism is the healthy condition able to unbound curiosity and go beyond appearances, deconstruct deceptive certainties that prop up populism, intolerance and fear, and build better alternatives for individuals and society. This is the place where solutions can be built on universal values and what unites us, against the temptation of simple answers provided by hate and bigotry.

A panglossian blindness

“Pangloss” is the only word able to capture succinctly the blind optimism that obscured the reality of past and future challenges for universities and colleges, students’ lives and their social contexts. The undeniable reality revealed by the election of President Trump should make us look back now and see what happened when the poisonous tension was boiling and universities across the world spent time in awe (and gullible enthusiasm) for the new wave of change represented by… MOOOCs. We have to ask where were the voices warning that a wave of crude nationalism and xenophobia was brewing Brexit? Where is the work of all political sciences schools and experts in sociology and education to show that trumpism was a reality waiting to happen?

Articles, reports and papers on higher education written in 2013 or 2014 reveal the quasi-acceptance of technological solutionism, well promoted by commercial firms with obvious financial interests in the sector. That time was also remarkable for the swift reaction against those saying that tech solutions are good and needed, but are not the ‘wave of change’, nor the solution to the most important problems facing education, students or society. Media and academics fell in love with the new narrative, waiting for the miracle solution of MOOCs. The massive open online courses were presented as the end of the campus, the start of free delivery of higher education to all corners of the world and the massive wave that will change the world. No serious questions were asked about the evidence supporting these claims, no scepticism was allowed in thinking about the real possibility of poor kids taking higher education courses in slums or disadvantaged areas. The hubris was spectacular and the focus was mostly limited to this. The future was great; the optimism was possibly shadowed only by those unable to see the wonderful promise ahead.

‘Big data’ came along to complete the narrative: it is all is under control, we finally cracked the complexity of learning and it is all measurable, predictable, and programmable. The hype about what data analytics can do still stays unmatched in higher education.

But the ‘tsunami of change’ was just a small ripple and the revolution comes in a nightmarish form, from a very different direction. Too many looked in a wrong direction.

A (needed) silver lining

We can hope now that the hype and over-reliance on data and technology in higher education will get now more scrutiny. “Big Data” was wrong in the case of Brexit, and obviously mistaken in Trump’s case. Firms specialised in opinion polls and data analytics simply got it all off target and – as an immediate effect – an astonishing amount of money was lost. We can only guess what will be the cost of this complete trust on data analytics on a long-term. However, universities have to accept the fact that the best in the game are forced now to accept the limits of data analytics and bid data crunches. It is time to take a step back and look at reality as it is, good or bad, beyond well-funded fads. Technology opens now doors that were unseen and closed before for academia, but there are limits and misuses. Academic scepticism is the safety mechanism against costly and dangerous mistakes. It is imperative to get it back.

Also, the fragility of democracy and civilisation is now clearer than it was before these ugly elections. We learned as well that is too dangerous to believe our made-up narratives about a safe and stable world, or to take democracy and civilization for granted. The important lesson for academia is that there are too little antibodies in our universities, reactive mechanisms against groupthink and comfortable fads. We still see too little courage to deal with the unpleasant – but very important to acknowledge – realities. The safe bet of embracing mediocrity and avoid by all means to rock the (sinking) boat should not be the path of action for universities and academics. It is (still) time to get back their narrative of places of learning and solutions for a sustainable and prosperous future for all.