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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!

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

Mirror, mirror…

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

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

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

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

The foreseeable change of commercialization of higher education

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

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

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

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

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

University in search of identity and… financial troubles

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

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

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

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

Valuing education

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

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

The challenge of innovation and change

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

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

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