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Higher Education

IMG_4067Higher education moved from the ‘ivory tower’ to the marketplace since… let’s say the year 2000. To understand this landmark we just have to look at some important moments that changed profoundly universities across the world. For example, we need to remember that 1995 marks an important event for higher education: the adoption in Marrakesh of the General Agreement of Trades and Services (GATS). Here, for the first time, according to GATS, one of the sectors that are covered by trade agreements refers to educational services. As any other service, it was stated that various modes of trade of educational services are now regulated by GATS: the cross-border supply, consumption abroad, commercial presence and the presence of natural persons. These stand translated into various forms of transactions: campus branches, international students and so on.

The conclusions of the ‘Millennium Round’ of multilateral trade negotiations – organised by the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, at the end of 1999 – moved higher education decisively into the market, as a tradeable service, as any other commodity. Of course, as a commodity, it was important to put in place some measures that customers can use to evaluate what they buy. So the era of global rankings started with the publication of the first results of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings called ‘Academic Ranking of World Universities’ (hereafter referred to as ARWU) in 2003. Customers were able to find which universities sell the best product and where is best to invest to get a ‘good education’. The market forces pushed to create an avalanche of international rankings of all sorts for higher education (from measuring the output of research to ‘graduate employability’, however that is measured).

With the ‘Millennium Round’, the high priests of the market decisively won higher education!

The promise of GATS and WTO was generous – the organisation acknowledged the importance of education to foster ‘economic growth, personal and social development, as well as reducing inequality’. It defined the ‘market structure’ of the sector and – in the background note by the WTO Secretariat from 23 September 1998 – we  find clear suggestions of measures that can lead to success, such as the idea ‘to increase competition and encourage investor and corporate participation in the education sector‘ (S/C/W/49 Page 6). Corporatisation of education held the promise of an efficient sector, where efficiency and efficacy rule the game and academics provide a quality service for happy customers. Education was aligned to the logic of neoliberalism in philosophy, structure and organisation.

The set of promises was great, and many decision-makers genuinely believed in a dogma stating that the free market in higher education and treating education as a commodity is the key to an enlightened future for all.

Strangely, this recent history is rarely mentioned, if ever! University rankings are presented with the assumption that they were around since the University of Bologna was established. If we look back we have to admit that all indicators reflect that at the time when these promises were made youth unemployment was lower than it is today. Moreover, inequality was significantly lower, graduate unemployment and underemployment, NEETs, social problems and risks were at very low rates in comparison with those reported in 2015.

Higher education experience now results of managerialism. We have to remember that in selling the case for turning education into a commodity, WTO was praising the United Kingdom for moving ‘away from public financing and toward greater market responsiveness, coupled with an increasing openness to alternative financing mechanisms, has led universities in new directions, balancing academic quality with business management‘ (WTO, Background Note by the Secretariat, p. 5).

The WTO note makes important to observe what The Guardian reports in 2016, that – in the UK – academics find the ethos of universities under managerialism so unbearable that we currently record a significant rise of mental health problems: “Mental health problems are on the rise among UK academics amid the pressures of greater job insecurity, constant demand for results and an increasingly marketised higher education system“. Academic staff is also too scared to report these problems, as another report reveals. The culture of fear, distrust and the pressure to ‘make the plan’ is a long way from a place where new ideas emerge, where culture and civilisation would find its strongest defenders!

Students are now valued customers and commodity, so this group must be much better now, right? Wrong! After decades of trickle-down economics, market-oriented theories,  and liberalisation of trade in education we see students even more stressed than their professors in our truly disrupted universities. BBC reports that a rising number of stressed students seek help now.

As already mentioned, graduate unemployment and underemployment are continuously rising and student debt in most OECD countries is going over limits of sustainability (for individuals, institutions and economies). Bloomberg Business just published a recent analysis (available here), revealing that ‘The world’s middle classes are getting poorer‘ and ‘Things are even worse for young people‘! Things vastly different than GATS anticipated even though Thatcherism and neoliberalism are now forcefully applied by zealots (who often have no idea what is neoliberalism or what is the logical structure of their actions!).

Universities are placed under so much pressure to present a better picture to lure new ‘customers’ are report better profits that many institutions stand now accused of manipulating data on graduate employment. Responsibility was trampled over by those marching for the glory of the markets.

The core of academic life is also lost, somewhere in some excel sheets. Academic freedom stands now muddled so that in reality there has not much left of it. An editorial in Nature is right to observe that ‘Governments have neglected democracy and academic freedom in their push to make universities more businesslike‘. Not that we don’t live in a time that screams the need for democratic values, civility and humanity. The price of this perspective is much more obvious now. Extremists, fanatics and loss of humanity place any discussion about profits as  marginal, trivial and silly in the context of what can be lost. It should also become more evident for universities that placing profit above all other aims ultimately stifles all passion and creativity. But ‘astute administrators’ make clear that only if there is some time left for some wine and cheese we can talk a bit about that thing called ‘academic freedom’ and whatever else those hippies would like to waste their time on.

Politicians, administrators and citizens should pay more attention and we should all be much more careful with what universities are doing, and what they become. Especially when it is visible that barbarians are beyond the gates, and freedom, civility and culture are so less safe than they look!

In fairness, we have to admit that something is working well in universities. For example, in the often cited system of higher education in the UK (as WTO people couldn’t hide their love for Thatcher’s legacy) we find in recent media reports that the average income for vice-chancellors in the last five years is constantly rising, well over 10%! Take into account the fact that their average income never declined and you have the perfect image of what is good news for universities today! Too bad that this is not yet trickling down on academics and students…

It is the time to admit the failure of the market as a guiding principle of organisation for higher education: students don’t find jobs as the promise goes, academics are more stressed and less engaged than ever before and a large set of indicators reveal that the sector is in a dysfunctional state.

The simple fact is that education works fundamentally different from selling cars, music or newspapers. Fifteen years after the GATS and WTO agreements, administrators may finally need to stop plagiarising so badly the corporate world, accept the evidence and start anew. The list of promises from 1999 compared to most results in 2016 makes a sad and worrying reading!

GATS managed to profoundly disrupt – in the unglorified sense of the word, by drastically altering or destroying the structure of – universities across the word. It is important to re-think now what is a university and what makes it different from any other profit-making endeavour. Rebuilding the sector can start from here. We can involve students and academics in decisions in reality, rather than mimicking it. We can stop counting meaningless stuff and sanction mediocrity, rather than celebrating it.

Most importantly, we have to take a take a good look at what stands at the core of universitas and academia and change with courage and wisdom. Or we can duplicate Trump-like universities for the future and make them all ‘efficient’ for a nice profit. If this is the choice… happy hunger games to all!

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Version 2Warning: this text is dealing with trigger warnings!

There is a constant increase of attention on the so-called ‘trigger warnings’ in higher education. Hamlet cannot be discussed in classrooms without a public warning stating that the following text is dealing with mental health and death… Forget about a free dive into some ideas of Greek philosophers or current challenges and crises facing humanity or our societies: there is much too much sensitive material. As a student may have the experience of a real and violent revolution it is safe and important to have a public warning before discussing Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolutions – the last word may cause trauma.

Some say that this is ridiculous, but the persistence of this new fad may signal something important for the future of universities and society.

There are wild parties, obscenely violent movies topping the charts, but ‘due to the sensitive nature of the material’, curriculum is reshaped and dried of any substance in higher education. The irony is that the main audience for all violent lyrics, movies, and narratives and all dangerous sports and entertainment is predominantly in the same age group that gets ‘protected’ within the walls of universities. Boredom is preceding confusion and frustration and paves the way for the kind of anger that leads now to the curious rise of political monsters across the world. New public figures have no warnings before launching into vile racist or discriminatory notes and… they are even more popular because of this! Youth is now much more attracted by atypical leaders, who have very little concern for cushioning political attacks or shaping strong arguments. Again, this is what makes them appealing!

“Trigger warnings” in higher education are just a euphemism for the shift of focus from responsibility and education to accountability and profits. Universities were turned in the last decade from institutions focused mainly on education and research into profitable enterprises with a profit-oriented practice. In this picture, ‘customers’ must be kept comfortable, unchallenged and satisfied – even if this is a massive cheat with a devastating effect on their prospects for the future.

Policies in higher education are shaped de facto by this unique rationale and logic: the international rating agency Moody’s released at the end of February 2016 a report on higher education (Global Higher Education Faces Period of Significant Transition) where we can read that “merged entities can benefit from increased enrolment, size and programmatic diversity, but they simultaneously face risks as they address the structural challenges that contributed to the merger”. Yes, Moody’s report is talking here about universities, not corporations or banks! The language of education is re-structured on Wall Street as academic capitalism is presented and maintained as the only viable option. Alternatives are simply dismissed as fantasies (good only for ridicule) by those who benefited directly by access to free higher education and a much more… educational experience.

The fact is that ‘trigger warnings’ exist now in higher education; we find them in various forms, some explicit and some just subtle and masked by bureaucratic structures and regulations. Some supposedly protect students, some protect hierarchical structures and/or The Organisation. Dissent or lateral thinking is exposed as an act that hurts all, and the heretic must pay the price. Invariably, the result is the suppression of genuine debates and a strong reinforcement of mediocrity. This is why the entire discussion on how much or how often teachers have to use ‘trigger warnings’ in universities and colleges is missing the point!

We are placed in a time when serious challenges require courageous decisions and agile minds; we stifle all in the name of ‘micro-aggressions’ or whatever different labels we find. Also, we can suspect that those who say that the current students ask to be cuddled and demand a pampered life are just using anything to justify their jeremiads and dislike of students in general. The truth is a lot more troublesome: too many universities don’t care about teaching, learning and the advancement of knowledge. These are difficult endeavors, involving serious challenges and for far too many all that matters anyway is the balance sheet.

The climate is warming fast (literally and metaphorically!) and political monsters are again popular, as cultivated ignorance placed all lessons of the WWII in some dusty shelves that are accessed only when some producers want to make another entertaining movie. Barbarians erase history and attack cities and symbols of human civilization and the massive walls of traditional universities fail to protect ideas and nurture minds and souls able to come with antidotes. Academics count now various things (publications, students, engaged students, failed students, grants and… whatever else can be counted). This is what seems to matter…

The real trigger warning is that higher education is very close to become irrelevant if something will not be changed soon; and that we have to fasten our seatbelts for a wild ride!

borders

Imagine that you are just a year ago, in 2014, and a young man is saying that Europe is so engulfed in corruption that even the most important German carmaker is cheating its customers, poisons the environment and is deeply engaged in criminal practices that will most probably cause soon a monumental scandal. Impossible to believe it, isn’t it? German engineering is a certificate of quality on itself and a company like Volkswagen cannot be suspected of fraud and investors can only laugh at the idea that this company will ever recall up to 11 million faulty cars. Even more absurd is the idea that German and European regulators know about this criminal activity and have no problem to secretly tolerate it. How can we believe that Europe became a space where corruption and plunder go mostly unchallenged. This is just laughable! The problem is that it is 2015 and it is all true!

It is also true that José Manuel Barroso, the former president of European Commission for an entire decade, had a curious choice for his private holidays and friends. The most famous was that holiday spent in 2005 on a yacht owned by Spiros Latsis, a Greek shipping tycoon that was involved in a competition case with the European Commission. Of course, this may be a simple coincidence. The truth is that Barosso’s legacy is marked by regular accusations of corruption and dishonest dealings. Holidaying with Greek tycoons may be a personal choice, but history works against you when you look at what happened with Greece and the EU years later. This choice definitely doesn’t look well for over half of youth who stays unemployed in Greece today.

Now, the new European Commissioner is Jean-Claude Juncker. He was Luxembourg’s prime minister for almost two decades before his current post. In this position it seems that Mr. Junker was not far from creating the mechanisms that turned Luxembourg into space for big business tax evasion in Europe. Allegations against him are so serious that EU MPs are currently considering whether to extend its mandate beyond November.

It is fair to assume that the great tradition of European public intellectuals that gathered in universities to start revolutions now plays again an important role to rebalance the system. The truth is that most European universities are numb and mostly mediocre, sliding with serenity over reality with a stubborn refusal to accept any serious critique and change for their own good. Old slogans serve as Potemkin screens, in a complex web of power, fear, guilt and promises that are trapping thinking and imagination. No new Dadaism is creatively squished together in a university cafe, and no new original and subversive idea is worrying any Volkswagenisers of the system.

Sedated rationale, numbed emotions

A recent editorial by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times probably explains how it was possible to reach this point in Europe. In The Most Important Thing, and It’s Almost a Secret, we find the preferred rhetoric of many politicians and international organisations. The mentioned ‘secret’ is too often presented in public speeches, reports, papers and articles. Most recently, President Obama mentioned this ‘secret’ in a public speech at the UN, underlining that “this is the best time in human history to be born”. This is the enlightening secret unveiled by Nicholas Kristof, and he notes that we have in the world today “a stunning decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease […] More kids than ever are becoming educated, especially girls. In the 1980s, only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school; now, 80 percent do”. The message is “Be positive, it is all going well… we live wonderful times!

The first problem is that this type of discourse is intentionally confusing with an audacious manipulation of the obvious. We can play the same game and shock the author of those enthusiastic lines with other facts that can ‘prove’ that we live ‘the best time in human history”: the number of guillotines in Paris is reduced now to zero, the number of people dying of cholera, plague and typhus across the world record a stunning decline, the expansion of electricity is unprecedented and so on. The point is that we live in 2015! This is a natural result of progress, that should not be presented as an extraordinary achievement. On the other hand, the so-called “decline in poverty” is extremely relative. Inequality is much more important to evaluate in this sense than ‘poverty’ (e.g. in some parts of the world one can live with $100/month while this income is impossible for survival in a developed country).

This brings the second point: the manipulation of data. There is solid research to prove that the increasing number of ‘educated children’ in the developing world is severely affected by corruption and poor quality of education. There is no doubt that in the 21st century there are more educated children than we had in the 19th century, but we may have some seriously inflated figures as a basis for our optimism. Many countries record that across entire regions students cannot read and write even at level 5 or 6 of secondary school. In many countries schools are simply invented just to pocket the money. For example, in Pakistan, a country that filled the author of the editorial with enthusiasm, thousands of schools are recorded and funded, but do not exist! Transparency International reports that in one project “...more than 8,000 of them are ghost schools, including several located in the federal capital. In July 2012, the funding of the project had been stopped for the fiscal year after the Planning Commission said it wanted to check for irregularities and corruption”. Imagine now how many children are becoming educated in 8,000 schools, especially if they are just on paper.

There are also too many reasons to consider that we do not live the greatest times in history, not even in some developed economies. Mr. Kristof should read The New York Times, because just weeks ago we find there Education Gap Between Rich and Poor Is Growing Wider. In this article we find that “…the achievement gaps between more affluent and less privileged children is wider than ever, notes Sean Reardon of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford. Racial disparities are still a stain on American society, but they are no longer the main divider. Today the biggest threat to the American dream is class.”

Probably looking at the world through a NY Times lens or a 5-star hotel window makes very hard to understand why this is not really a great time to be born if not in a rich family. It is definitely a time when common sense is squashed if it goes against profit.

Current challenges and ignored histories

The constant manipulation from media, cynicism and misinformation probably led to this sad state of facts, where Europe cannot find resources for a revolution of thinking. Instead, there is a terrifying resurgence of various fascisms. Despite this, universities take little notice and continue a serene conversation about the same old slogans of the 90s, like nothing changed across the old continent. Probably for the academic leading there the world looks great and it is a wonderful time to be born. Nevertheless, graduates find a very different reality: underemployment and unemployment hit hard European youth, including those who hold a degree.

Not that there are other major challenges for Europe’s intellectuals. Youth marginalisation, worrying rates of unemployment and underemployment, a constant rise of extremist political parties, an increasing intolerance for difference, a refugee crisis that reveals how abysmal is the amnesia across Europe about what happened there in the last 80 years… Trains with desperate people, prison camps surrounded by guards, barbed wire fences where children, women and men are sprayed by soldiers with irritating gas or the image of a scared man carrying a child intentionally tripped by a local women (a journalist) left European citizens passive, even when the prime minister of Hungary publicly said that his government is defending the European Christianity against the Muslim threat. The disturbing rhetoric and imagery is doubled by real evolutions: Austrian election resulted in a swing to the extreme right and across the EU is currently recorded a spike in anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic incidents and violence (even if there is evidence of massive under-reporting). There are just too many worrying developments, but nothing is shaking the halls, or the old structures preserved by respected academic pillars of salt (always well cited).

Looking for solutions

Slowly, some European universities react. Some say that it is commendable to see scholarships offered by some institutions of higher education to some refugees. In ‘We want to be part of the solution’: universities reach out to refugees we find that a number of British universities “have announced scholarships for refugee students”, and London School of Economics will offer “three scholarships per year for undergraduate asylum seekers from 2016, along with 10 postgraduate awards”. It is important to note that The Independent observes that only Germany will take 1.5 million refugees only this year.

This is not only ignoring the heart of the matter, and is an example of astonishing hypocrisy that can serve as a case study. This impressive coalition of universities plays the ‘scholarship donation’  game while the prime minister of the UK (and so many others) continue to use a xenophobic discourse. Just months ago, British PM David Cameron was publicly describing refugees as a ‘swarm’ invading Great Britain. No word from academia, no coalition of universities (or academics) to react against a dangerous slide of public discourse towards extremism and intolerance. These universities may now be accused that their initiative is just a 13 scholarships PR stunt when hundreds of thousands are in need. Or that a small number of scholarships are used simply to tick that box of “social responsibility”, just to increase departmental chances to access EU funds for research. Ultimately, in the same vein, Washington Post reports that Some refugees in Germany get Zumba classes, but others sleep on the streets.

The courage to address xenophobia and racism, intolerance to the idea of diversity and the ‘other’ is much more important than ten scholarships for a lottery in a twisted form of real-life ‘hunger games’. Speaking truth to power (especially when you have the leverage of some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as The London School of Economics or The University of York), presenting the risk and possible effects of political demagoguery, taking courageous stands, bringing new ideas in a genuine empathetic dialogue may help more those who fled death and destruction, in search for some peace and a chance to start a new and decent life.

Not even the most pessimistic scenarios imagined in 1990s a united Europe where extremist parties become part of the elite political leadership, where some governments openly adopt politics of hate and all new European democracies place themselves on the wrong side of history. When the UK will look at the European Union as a former member, extremist parties will lead EU parliaments and institutions, and Donald Trump will be the President of the US, some may regret that 2015 was lost again. We can only hope that most universities in Europe will not endlessly use the same echo chambers to hear how wonderful they are.

IMG_2989

With graduate employment at its lowest since records began in the 1980s, universities are trying to come up with ways to make their graduates more attractive to employers. One common way is involving employers and business representatives in their teaching and learning solutions, but this has rarely worked.

When the IBM Institute for Business Value recently surveyed academics and industry leaders about the state of higher education, it found both parties agreed that universities fail to meet the needs of students and those of industry.

It’s no surprise that in reality this dialogue has stalled. Employers too often come to the table with an agenda that has little to offer academics and university administrators.

Why don’t university-industry collaborations work?

Going to university has always been and remains a worthwhile investment for the individual and society as a whole. But this expensive endeavour has become much more uncertain in recent years.

Student debt is growing at concerning rates. In the US, student loan debt has reached US$1.2 trillion. In the UK, economists estimate that three-quarters of students won’t be able to pay off their debt.

Students have to ensure they are making the right choice about the course they enrol in, and universities have to ensure their courses prepare students for the world of work and life in general.

What set of skills do the majority of employers see as the most important for a good graduate? Universities spend significant time and resources on finding the answer to this question in order to put their students on the path to employment and ensure they are “industry ready”.

A recent survey of employers worldwide found that “like-minded” candidates are favoured. Specifically, over 80% of employers across the world indicate that “cultural fit” is their “top hiring priority”.

So how are universities expected to teach “like-mindedness” or how to “culturally fit” into organisations? This makes it clear that universities may be chasing a chimera in shifting their focus to employability.

Employability rankings and graduate employability measures often present a misleading picture. This is because employability rankings measure perceptions of employability or count how many graduates find a job six or 12 months from graduation.

However, things change dramatically over time. In Western Australia, a successful decade in the mining industry enabled local institutions of higher education to present excellent employment rates. This attracted students with the real prospect of immediate and well-paid employment. But data released in 2015 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that employment in the region is down by 15% and is projected to fall by 17.8% by November 2019.

Graduates in the best regional universities are now experiencing significant difficulties in gaining full-time employment. “Professionally relevant”, “industry related” curricula were good for the short term, but we now see its relevance questioned since it has become clear that other skills matter in the long term.

Higher education’s identity crisis

The heavy focus on career rankings, career outcomes and industry-corporate discourse makes universities an inadequate mix of research, vocational education and academic endeavours. This shift is leading to an identity crisis for higher education.

As more and more jobs are lost to technology, universities are teaching using the same methods and – even more damaging – following the same ideological directions adopted in the late 1980s. A focus on profits, “efficiency” and clearly delineated career pathways is dominating the discourse, policy and practice in higher education.

In a strange logic, the academic community and governance bodies in higher education are asking employers to provide solutions to problems falling outside their area of expertise.

In various surveys or working groups, this heterogeneous group is asked to provide solutions pertaining to university governance, teaching and learning, and research. No doubt employers’ opinion should be taken into consideration, as should that of the students, but the academic community should be able to provide vision and direction.

Despite higher education seeking industry solutions for graduate employability, it is harder than ever for graduates to find jobs. Rather than focusing on this employability, universities need to focus on producing well-rounded graduates who have experienced creative, imaginative and high-quality learning to ensure they are prepared for whatever life brings, not just one specific job, that is going to change by the time new students will graduate.

*This blog was published initially in The Conversation, with the title Universities can’t, and shouldn’t, educate to suit employers

Concrete

Youth is facing the income gap, the inequality gap, the opportunity gap, the health gap, and the access to education gap. It is a difficult time! There is also the justice gap. There are now major international banks publicly admitting that they were dealing money for drug cartels, but nobody goes to prison. A young men from a poor neighbourhood that is not very far from Wall Street or the London city is often imprisoned immediately for a minor crime, like possession of one or two cigarettes of marijuana. It becomes clear that if you can afford to pay fines like that of $1.9 billion paid by HSBC you can engage freely in money-laundering for some of the most ruthless criminal gangs in the drug world. The reality is – beyond the rhetoric and demagogy – that too many times rich can get away with anything!

The recent (and endlessly appalling) scandal of FIFA reveals much more than a simple story about an international federation of sport. A recent article went as far as saying that this is an unfolding narrative that explains the arrangements in the current world. It is clear that this FIFA-saga proves that one can engage in outrageous corrupt practices for decades even if this is ruining some of the most popular sports in the world, if dirty money oil the wheels of the system. One can rule with astounding impunity, with a style that could inspire even some of the most evil and experienced dictators, and no European justice system will ever bother you. Hope for European youth just got another hit.

It is relevant to remind here that FIFA is remunerating – officially! – its staff 34% more than hedge funds and 25% more than banks award their traders. Imagine now that you have a graduate diploma in your hands, but no house, no job (not even the prospect for a decent job) and hear the news about tens of millions of dollars in bribes and implausible arrogance and luxury going on for a lifetime… This is the situation for millions of graduates. It cannot ever feel right. Outrage is just a natural reaction to this. Youth is in crisis, the system is in crisis and the world is shaking behind ‘potemkin village’ screens. It may be safe at this point to remember that the rise of evil was was completely underestimated back in 1920’s.

Youth is in crisis, the system is in crisis and the world is shaking behind ‘potemkin village’ screens. It may be safe at this point to remember that the rise of evil was completely underestimated back in 1920’s.

Youth Marginalization and the Rise of Risks

While institutions like FIFA, many international banks and corporations are engulfed in scandals about grotesque corruption, some European countries are confronted with youth unemployment that is higher than even in a failed state like Libya. The startling reality is that youth in Greece, Spain or Croatia have now smaller chances to get a job than those who are living in some countries that are devastated by war.

This is just part of a general bleak picture. In countries where the situation was not as critical, unemployment recently climbed to new records. In France, unemployment reached new highs in April this year. The International Labour Organisation is warning that ‘the world is facing a worsening youth employment crisis’ and the situation is not improving in the European Union. 

Australia, a country able to avoid the effects of the global financial crisis, currently registers a steep increase in youth unemployment. In a report released by the Treasurer J. B. Hockey, we find that “the rate of youth unemployment sits at 14.2 per cent as of January 2015”. This is a two-decade high. It is also known that Australian graduates have in the last years a very difficult time.

In the United States, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce recently published a report documenting that long-term and high rates of youth unemployment (18- to 34 year-olds) costs up to $25 billion a year in uncollected taxes and increased safety net expenditure. The lost potential and long-term effects can be imagined. 

This makes some few sober and realistic politicians wonder if this crisis is not already too dangerous. In 2013, the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was worried that youth unemployment could lead Europe to severe social unrest, talking about a possible revolution. Currently, over 5 million young Europeans – one in four of those eligible to work – are currently looking for a job. In the last months of 2014, French President François Hollande said in a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Italian Premier Matteo Renzi that “This is the major challenge for Europe. If we are not capable or offering hope to the next generation, people will turn their backs on Europe. We see the risk, we see the threat.

The threat is much more serious than this and events after that conference proved it in a dramatic and horrifying succession of events.

Old Devil, New Faces

The threat is not only to turn their backs to Europe, but to turn their face to what can channel their frustrations or bring a sense of belonging, even if this is against all human values. In Europe and other parts of the world, many already turned their faces to a sinister shadow of recent history: extreme political movements, right and left. When disillusioned youth contemplates their lack of perspective, cynicism and corruption of many current leaders, some well-versed demagogues are able to use this sense of desperation and disillusionment for their own purposes. It often looks like a reconstruction of the horrible trail of what Tismaneanu calls the Devil in History.

The new fascisms are much more potent than only open the painful wounds of the past. Especially in Europe, a continent almost completely destroyed by the twisted ideologies of the extreme left and extreme right in the last century, it is unthinkable to hear that crowds in France yelled “Death to Jews” after ShoahThe new century finds innocent people killed for going to a Jewish museum or a kosher supermarket and synagogues are attacked across Europe. Lessons of the twentieth century are long forgotten at the grassroots level, where the youth lives today. This is also happening because political leaders, academia and in general  intelligentsia indulged for decades in a parallel existence where corruption looks less like a withering practice for economy and social fabric, but more as a sign of real stamina in people able to succeed. Increasing warning signs were covered for a long time with a rhetoric of demagogical promises, echo chambers and a constant effort to silence whistleblowers.

The reality is as bad as we can imagine when we see that reputed newspapers have headlines such as Antisemitism on rise across Europe ‘in worst times since the Nazis’. It is time to admit that something went very wrong if we are at the point where the horror of what Nazis represent for Europe and humanity mean so little that we really contemplate a replay of their times.

Youth is often part of these movements and there are many fast to blame again the new generation. But the so-called “entitlement” of a generation labeled as ‘X’, ‘millennials’, ‘Me generation’ or ‘the lost generation’ is part a simplistic stereotype and a convenient jeremiad chanted at the boys’ club on same nostalgic lines about some imagined good old times. It may be the entitlement for some, and also a real clash between the high expectations cultivated for youth. This was promoted with irresponsible cynicism for comfort, votes, and other vain interests. These high expectations now collide with the very grim reality of unemployment and underemployment, NEETs and inequality, lack of a coherent present and perspectives for a better future. The gap is too big! 

Effects of this complex reality are erupting now in various ways: some genuine forms of protests and indignation or cohorts lured by extremists and fascists. These parties are interested to channel exasperation into rage and hate, to grow the membership of their movements. This explains why the danger of fascism, anti-democratic and extremist movements is not requiring now any astute analysis or inspired predictions, but a simple reading of political polls are election results. The rise of neo-fascist and extreme left political parties in Europe cannot be ignored anymore. Openly neo-Nazi parties sit now in Brussels in the European Parliament, next to the far-left parties, equally dangerous for stability and the future, as Greece will show soon. The extreme left and the extreme right have now a type collaboration that is just fueling the risk, as a group of madmen are playing with fire. When Syriza, the Greek far-left party, was aiming to win Greece’s parliamentary elections, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French extreme-right party, 

When Syriza, the Greek far-left party, was aiming to win Greece’s parliamentary elections, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French extreme-right party, publicly announced support for the extremists on the left. Not that Neo-Nazis were not popular in Greece. The Golden Dawn was expected to come third in the Greek parliamentary elections – but this was not on the agenda for their sister-movement in France. The National Front in France, the PEGIDA in Germany, Jobbik in Hungary (…and to have a glimpse at how these parties understand society we can remind that Jobbik’s deputy parliamentary leader Márton Gyöngyösi said in a public address that “…it is timely to tally up people of Jewish ancestry who live here, especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who, indeed, pose a national security risk to Hungary”), Holocaust denialists in the Romanian government, the neo-nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, Geert Wilders’ ‘Party for Freedom’, the Austrian Freedom Party or Britain’s Ukip… are just part of a long and truly scary list of extreme right movements taking centre stage in elections, local and central parliaments. 

Moving from a repugnant eccentricity, extreme-right recently announced forming a new political bloc in the European Parliament to gain more power and influence. How is this even possible? Of course, a long time of ‘guilty innocence’ of European elites, of denial and corruption is to blame. But the current context is also important. Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin is strengthening his version of a fascist state with a bellicose political strategy based on military aggression and intimidation of Europe and its allies (the Russian invasion the Republic of Georgia in 2008 was just an opening move for what is happening now in Ukraine). The Newsweek and many other political outlets and analysts (see here and here other examples) document the fact that Putin’s Russia Is in the Grip of Fascism

The flames of extreme nationalism and intolerance can get out of control (as it always happened in the past). It is also important to realize that Putin’s regime is actively engaged in a “state-sponsored subversion of European democratic systems“. This translates into a constant investment in extremist parties across Europe and their propaganda machines. Uncovering the source of generous funding for the abominable political fringe explains just in part the current disturbing puzzle of the European political landscape, or why the extremists parties were on the rise. It is time to admit that the danger is real. The fascist temptation is a very dangerous game for Russia, for Europe and for the world.

The Reality Gap

It is interesting to see how far the economic, cultural or political elites are from the realities of common citizens. We can think about the surprising remarks of US President Obama, who underlined in his address to the United Nations General Assembly that “this is the best time in human history to be born”. It cannot be comforting for millions of people displaced by all wars across the globe, reaching record numbers after WWII, or for people experiencing the horrors of ISIS and Islamofascism. It is also hardly possible to say that it is the best time to be born when inequality is constantly rising for the last 30 years in all countries, reaching in some cases ‘historical highs‘ (according to OECD studies). It is hardly possible to be cheerful when you find that “Across the world the 80 richest people have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest. In Australia, the richest 1% are as rich as the poorest 60% of Australians.

Especially in the United States may be a difficult time to be born if we consider that the pace of growing inequality is reaching levels seen only before the 1928 Depression. There were ‘45.3 million people living at or below the poverty line in 2013′ there are many new mothers that may find hard to adopt this extreme optimism. Especially when we consider that studies show that being poor is affecting the human brain starting from kindergarten.

There are many ways to explore how the current disconnect between elites and the living reality developed to the current magnitude. It is difficult to find reasons for the current cynicism displayed by most who have the power to change. But a simple event may help. For example, David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, was recently invited to talk about his latest book, ‘The Road to Character’ in a recent TV show on Australian television. The interviewer is well known for his astute observations and line of questioning. In this particular instance he was at one point inquiring about the past where some values were strong – according to him – even though it was much worse, as the world after the war  had “racism and antisemitism”. Of course, the interviewer was implying that we live better times. These problems of the past are long gone and we still find our way to balance and strong character. This is more than just amazingly naive and irresponsible. It is speaking about a certain space where the world really looks different. The real news for the ‘old boys club’ is that it is truly terrible to be poor, it is not safe at all to be part of a religious or ethnic minority in almost every country around the world and so on.

A recent New York Times article presents the terrifying reality in the heart Europe:

<< …last year, according to the French Interior Ministry, 51 percent of all racist attacks targeted Jews. The statistics in other countries, including Great Britain, are similarly dismal. In 2014, Jews in Europe were murdered, raped, beaten, stalked, chased, harassed, spat on, and insulted for being Jewish. Sale Juif—“dirty Jew”—rang in the streets, as did “Death to the Jews,” and “Jews to the gas.” >>

It is not the best time to be born a Gypsy in Europe as it is not an easy time to be born an African American in the United States. The Confederate flag still flies high in the US and survivors are still in shock in the aftermath of the racial terrorist attack in Charleston. Indigenous people in Australia still have a very hard time and First Nations in Canada or Latin America have some of the most difficult tests of their existence, as their cultural marginalisation is doubled by that their environment is poisoned or completely destroyed. Despite progress – even in the most advanced societies and economies – we still find a gender pay gap and systemic discrimination against women. There is no doubt that people in various positions of power can high-five in meetings and congratulate each other in front of various banners announcing ‘mission accomplished’, but this kind of refuge from reality is always coming with a very high price!

The Road to Radical Mediocrity in Education

Vulnerable youth and disenfranchised voters are lured too often by half-truths and demagogical propaganda of extremist movements across the world and it is not Kremlin behind all these movements. It just happens that in Europe they found a weak point in line with the political beliefs at home. We can now see that Islamofascism is growing along with islamophobia. Extremes – Right, Left, religious or religiously against religion – are always despicable and dangerous. In the United States, the growing threat is well summarized in a recent article published by the New York Times: “…headlines can mislead. The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists. Just ask the police.

It may be the right time to get less hysterical about what mass media feeds us and use our collective brains to see if the right-wing extremists are not among us, if our societies are still compassionate and inclusive. We still hold our values or play and twist them when convenient to create new repressive rules. How many universities do you know talking publicly about this topic?

Of course, the only efficient way to fight manipulation and being mislead by sleek PR, headlines and propaganda is education. Education alone can separate what is decent and useful from manipulation and all the loathsome nonsense that is used to fuel hate and violence in the name of race, religion, gender, national or sexual identities. Educated minds have a common characteristic across ages and generations: a healthy curiosity.

This feature translates into an irresistible urge to place a foundational question mark next to all that seems to matter. It is a feature of those questioning dogmas and accepted truths, exploring different perspectives, challenging favored or adored ideas just because they seem wrong or can be improved, abandoning the comfort of convenient and familiar spaces to explore the unknown and find more. This is not only what is behind the progress of humanity, but it is what preserves our humanity.

An educated mind is what is changing the path from a herd life, a regimented existence that is apparently convenient, just because it limits the horizon. It is much easier to stir the fear and hostility to all that is unknown and unfamiliar in someone living with prepackaged answers, but this existence is always vulnerable to manipulation and servitude. Again, education is the main solution to cultivate human values, freedom, and a decent life. This is why education is not only a privilege for those who teach – who should, and used to be, respected for doing this difficult task – but a tremendous responsibility. 

The problem is that education is not in a very good state. Among a long list of vital problems, there is a very serious global teacher shortage. The chronic lack of trained teachers leads to a continuous drop of standards, even if they were in many countries already abysmally low. Data recently released by UNESCO shows that ’27 million teachers will be needed to achieve universal primary education by 2030′. Teachers are valued in very few countries. In general, we find them treated well in political discourses and despised in practice, as people with not-so-serious jobs. There are already too many teachers that not truly qualified to teach in any classroom. Against the myth, current arrangements do not make this the most attractive career and this is quite a difficult job if done right.

Along with the belligerent anti-science crowd attacking it, education is pushed by various forces to radical mediocrity, to a fundamentalist average.

Traditionally, universities have the responsibility to protect society, human values and civilization. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions we find education deeply muddled into a succession of fads and shallow approaches. Some blame academics for this, but this is just a simplistic and not entirely accurate accusation. It is also no solution there! The first reason of the ‘adoration for the average’ can be found in a new model of governance embraced by higher education across the world.

The New Public Management radically changed universities across the world, being quasi-adopted in higher education governance across the world, with very few exceptions. Despite the ubiquitous promise, the New Public Management, with the glorification of market-based solutionism, failed to improve public service performance. There are various studies that document this fact and we can leave this aside here. It is important to observe that higher education makes no exception. This change is not marked by an increase of ‘efficiency’, quality, depth, motivation of staff and students etc.

In 2012, the sociologist Roger Burrows published an article about the contemporary academia, under governance models inspired by NPM:

“…something has changed in the [British] academy. Many academics are exhausted, stressed, overloaded, suffering from insomnia, feeling anxious, hurt, guilt, and ‘out-of-placeness’. One can observe it all around: a deep, affective, somatic crisis threatens to overwhelm us […] We know this; yet somehow we feel unable to reassert ourselves […] In our brave new world, it seems that a single final criterion of value is recognized: a quantitative, economic criterion. All else is no more than a means. And there is a single method for ensuring that this criterion is satisfied: quantified control”.

One of the most important changes of the last decades is that the new model of governance completely eliminates Trust and professional independence from universities. According to NPM, academic staff must be controlled and monitored regularly, quantifiable indicators must be achieved, tenure should be weakened or eliminated and staff downsized. This self-defeating combination was naturally associated with a profound cultural change. The main features of this new culture are determined by fear and distrust.

Of course, there are some universities doing better than others, but the systemic problem erodes the foundation of the entire system. Statistics on stress, depression and motivation in academia reveal that something is seriously wrong in some of the most well-ranked systems of higher education (adopting the preferred judgement criteria now).

We can admit that we do not have now – when we really need it – the most conducive environment to stimulate the courage required to think beyond the norms, to challenge ideas and expose fraud, pseudo-knowledge, to critique and explore, to imagine new solutions and advance knowledge. This is a time when all this is needed, because we face the awakening of some of the most horrifying ghosts of the past.

The Mediocre Campus

Recently media acknowledged in different countries what is a known unknown for at least a decade in education at all levels: many educators avoid difficult topics of debate rather than responsibly helping students to explore them. Obtuse policies are ‘shutting down debate‘ on extremism, from Shakespeare to Oedipus or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, students require ‘trigger warnings’, so that they can withdraw in time from studying them to avoid the trauma of intense and unwanted emotions. In the US, the American Association of University Professors released the report ‘On Trigger Warnings“. Commencement speakers are banned from campuses as an insidious culture of fear, vulnerability, and ultimately intolerance, infiltrates academic life at all levels.

The groupthink strain to embrace mediocrity makes intelligent debates dangerous for one’s future and alternative views are unwanted. To deal with basic difference became so evidently difficult in campuses that comedians such as Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld refuse to set foot in campuses. This should terrify academics! A place where laughing is censored is not only boring… is scary as a fundamentalist stronghold!

This is why we find that a self-proclaimed intelligent crowd finds the ‘middle ground’ when journalists are slaughtered because they dare to ridicule. The argument seems to make sense, but it does not: ‘I am all for freedom of speech and all – they say – but this is too much: ridiculing that?!?” The evident fallacy is that freedom is not  working in halfs and pauses. This is also the problem with mediocrity: it blinds the minds so much that makes impossible to see how absurd is to say that anyone can be killed for drawing a cartoon. How inhuman is that. How low the person admitting that falls. This is when the ghosts of the past start to win ground fast, just before our own eyes.

The Rhinoceros by Eugène Ionesco is a play about the rise of fascism in Europe. Berenger – an indifferent and seemingly alienated character – is changed entirely by his last line, that ends the play: “I’m not capitulating!”

We have the responsibility to remind our students and fellow citizens not only how important is our freedom, how important our values are, but how fragile is democracy. We have to defend it and fight for it because… we have the knowledge and the brain to explain why we must defent it! Academics and students cannot and will not capitulate!