Higher Education

Brexit 2There is no case for nationalism in Europe, a continent where unspeakable atrocities caused in Spain by nationalism should be sufficient to close any discussion on it. The Holocaust and the Second World War have evident and well-documented roots in national exceptionalism, and we all know now what happened when nationalism that went ahead beyond control. The inhumanity, the absurdity, and the immensity of evil should be the unforgivable lesson that nationalism, national exceptionalism, in any corner of the world, should be always avoided. Unfortunately, it seems that Great Britain is not only ignoring these lessons, and the ultimate sacrifice that their own brave men and women made in the past against nationalistic parties that were invading Europe. Now the UK insists to show the world that British exceptionalism is even more alive than ever before. Here comes Brexit, the push to leave the European Union in a post-imperialist dream to join… the Independent Empire of Britishness.

With Brexit, all sorts of right-wingers have now a platform to present the most absurd ideas. We can take just one example: Boris Johnson, the former London Mayor, recently stated that the European Union is pursuing similar goals to Hitler! Because when one looks at the EU’s relentless pursuit of human rights, freedom of movement, democratic citizenship, rights of workers and so many others in the same vein one can only think of the Nazi ideology, right? Of course not! This kind of demagoguery and absurd discourse deserves a special treatment, most probably specialised. But the point remains that these characters have not only a platform but a surprisingly large number of followers! Something is wrong and went wrong for a long time, most probably since kids learned in schools that entire parts of the world map painted in pink represent the Great Empire that we own, ‘oh, aren’t WE the best?’…

At this point, it is the best to see the UK leave. The EU is a dazed and rickety structure, with too many pockets of corruption, not limited to the usual suspects (Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia.) To this point, the EU – with its quasi-incapable and aloof-OLAF – was unable to bring these groups and cliques to order, and those too-corrupt countries back to reality. Is also impotent in dealing with an increasingly aggressive and irrational Russia, at a time when a united front is vital. It is acting less than a family or a political union that is following the model of US – or a federation – but more of a hybrid looking for identity. In the current political and economic context, this cannot work. Brexit can be the best thing that can happen to the European Union: a wakeup call! This is what happens if you don’t get your act together. The impact on the UK will be so devastating that EU countries will learn and important lesson. Local nationalists in various EU countries, who currently beat the drums with equally absurd and idiotic arguments like those played now by the Brexit campaign, will lose fast followers. UK universities, agriculture, research, innovation, finance, tourism etc. will lose so much and so fast that any European voter will think twice when the sirens of nationalistic demagoguery will rise again.

Of course, there are no sound economic or national security arguments for the UK to leave the European Union! Nonetheless, when was nationalism associated with reason? The effect will be devastating and this may be the best thing for the UK and for the EU, as this is the best antidote on both for segregation, exceptionalism and nationalism. The UK will suffer – and this is their own citizens’ choice – but the EU family will finally look at the real chance to forge new and realistic solutions for a united future.

It is the time for Brexit!


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!

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!


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.


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