Tag Archives: creativity


If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu

It is widely accepted that creativity and innovation are more than ever before the key resource for individuals and societies. Innovation is now the main avenue towards job creation and economic growth and the only route to a sustainable future. International studies (e.g. OECD) document the fact that the most successful economies are those capable to nurture creativity and support innovative research and quality education. However, the attraction of innovation for investment returns represents just the most visible part of a variety of benefits.

In the uncertainty marking the present and the future of higher education it became clear that the successful modern universities will be only those capable to create knowledge and innovative solutions for the multitude of economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges. Universities must find ways to adapt, change and build on the power of their imaginations.

The effect of global economic crisis and the vulnerability of economic growth, the unprecedented youth marginalization, unemployment and underemployment, the impact of ecological and social crises require the power to imagine new approaches and design new possibilities. Creativity and innovation represent the fuel and the engine capable to provide new solutions for a sustainable future. The only certainty for universities is that days ahead will be filled with uncertainty, with serious risks and some opportunities. Only those able to change and use their creativity to generate new ideas and solutions for these fast changing contexts will be able to grow.

This is why we shouldn’t be surprised that “innovative research” is included now in the “aims and goals” of all universities and their departments, faculties and various centres. This is one of the few points where we find in higher education a widespread consensus over a goal: we need to have innovation! However, very few get any at all. This is because innovation requires most of all the courage to nurture free thinking, relax hierarchies and power structures, emphasize collaboration and refuse tokenism. These are some very uncomfortable decisions. The fact is that university leaders and administrators have the power to change direction for a sustainable future for their institutions, but this requires vision, intelligence and courage. 

Innovation requires courage and vision.

A widely known example is provided by Steve Jobs. Although he wasn’t a great innovator (all great innovations promoted by Steve Jobs are invented by other people and companies), he had the tremendous courage and vision to build on (and promote) innovations rejected or ignored by others. When he returned to Apple he had the courage to reduce the number of products offered by his company from 350 to 10! Against all he said that immediate profit was not all that matters and it proved to be right! The result was that those 10 products saved the company. Later, when Nokia refused to use the touch screen (because customers will never want that, right?) he had the courage to change entirely the face of a phone and Apple created the first iPhone. He had the vision and courage to launch an iPad when all experts said that this is a silly mistake. He changed the world with courage and vision!

There is no need to be a great inventor to build a culture of innovation.

This is something that many can contemplate in higher education. Universities have a modest record for innovation, especially in the last years (and many universities register a total failure in innovative research). What goes today as “innovation” in higher education can be reduced to an obsessive repetition of few slogans, some commercial leitmotifs and a small list of mantra-like sentences that failed to advance anything for a long time. The uncertain future and fast changing contexts call to see what goes wrong and seriously rethink our solutions.

Vision and a genuine commitment to nurture imagination and creativity, build engagement and stir the passion of all involved is what a leader must have. A genuine distaste for tokenism and mediocrity, a commitment for meritocracy and flexibility are crucial for innovation in higher education. 

There is no need to be an inventor to build a culture of innovation and excellence in a team or across a university. 

Innovation is a matter of strategic choices and decisions – it is better to contemplate them before! Hanging slogans on the walls comes with a price.

It is much better to think about the call for innovation before the rhetoric is visibly and enthusiastically announcing a strong commitment to go in search of it. Innovative research involves much more than a buzzword looking good in organizational documents. If the call for innovation is doubled with micromanagement, control and a rule for all to “salute the flag”, the effect is more insidious and damaging than it looks.

We can imagine that adopters of the paradigm of bureaucratic control and the strong emphasis on hierarchies enjoy to believe their own rhetoric, count useless research projects published in sham scientific journals while listening in pseudo-academic events the sweet tones of self-congratulatory chorus. However, the price of denial is devastating: promoting an inwards oriented incremental existence and hindering flexibility, these rituals severely undermine engagement, morale, trust and stifle innovation. This model leaves the university incapable to adapt to the fast changing realities that determine its existence and future. Masked as “commitment for innovation” this is a way to secure a future of slow and painful dissolution for a university.

“I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed.” George Carlin

How can we stir the imagination of so many experts involved in teaching and research in a wide variety of specialized fields of science and humanities to produce innovative research? What can be fixed to turn innovation from an empty buzzword into a vibrant reality across the campus? What can we learn from those universities capable to “get it right” in nurturing and securing innovation? How can we take creative ideas and apply them in universities stuck on the wrong alleys?

The bad news is that there is no magic solution to have innovation next Tuesday. The good news is that answers to these problems can be found in history, practice and a vast literature available to those who are interested to build a culture of creativity, maintain excellence in research and add innovation as an integral part of their universities*.

We explored in a book the mentality captured so well by George Carlin. In the ubiquitous call for innovation in higher education it became soon evident again that all rhetoric, effort and investments turn into a void exercise when “innovation” is accepted only when it stays in line with bureaucratic arrangements and reinforce hierarchies. Change – various bureaucrats and administrators say – but maintain status quo! Critique… but only if what you challenge is not involving us! Explore… but keep in mind that any exploration challenging status quo can cost your job! Innovate… but only in line with what we already know that we want!

This approach will never work. Innovation arises from a complex mix of factors in a certain type of culture, involving the skills and passion of those involved. It is not simply solved by pouring more money into it and assign a convenient ‘director’ to control and punish.

We can build a culture where creativity is nurtured, but innovation cannot be timetabled! 

The idea that “dropping a dollar in the machine” leads to innovation is constantly challenged by specialists (e.g. see here). Experts argue that innovation is much more determined by policies rather than pouring investments in research (eg. Allott, S.). Prioritising cash and control over the engagement of faculty and informed policies for innovation is in the current context a potentially disastrous decision for the future of any university.

Conspicuously rejecting any views and approaches that clash with their own world views, many administrators (include here Presidents, Deans, directors etc.) manage not only to turn the call for innovation into ridiculous examples of tokenism and failure, but further disengage and demotivate the faculty. The dollar dropped in the machine is wasted: indeed, nothing changes! Moreover, this poorly spent dollar is severely damaging morale and engagement.

Innovative research and academic freedom

In 1948, just few years before he was elected The President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower became the President of Columbia University. Eisenhower, a former army general used to military hierarchy and the chain of command, was addressing the faculty of this prestigious university starting by calling them “employees of the university”. A professor interrupted Eisenhower, saying “Mr. President, we are not employees of the university. We are the university.

This may seem idealistic, but the message is worth contemplating. In very few words, we can admit that a university is just the sum of professional qualities and engagement of its faculty and students. The walls are nothing without this genuine commitment for quality learning and teaching, research and their contribution to the world.

Bureaucratic hierarchy and ‘directed research’ stifle engagement and hinder change and innovation.

A modern university is facing very different demands from the audience that was familiar to the former American general. This institution is not a sum of disciplined “soldiers” working on the assembly line designed to deliver skills for a set of jobs (that may be gone when students graduate). A university is responsible to develop the whole thinking person, to expand horizons and instill the love for learning in individuals and build democratic citizenship with engaged and informed citizens who have the power to make democracy work. A university is also asked to cultivate imagination and creativity, defend civilization and create new knowledge, act as a forum where free and responsible minds can “question the unquestionable” for the benefit of our societies. Universities have the power to provide innovative solutions, but when tools of a successful army are used in this institution results are equal to those imagined if we promote debate groups for soldiers when they are in the line of fire. 

Dogmatism, control and fear are hostile to innovation.

Unfortunately, the risk to believe that administrative power is automatically synonymous to knowledge, vision and informed decisions is endemic. It is also a devastating belief for an institution. This – along with a strange managerial approach based on fear, which is viewed as a strong motivator and source of results – push ahead a misconception on the academic life and the nature of work in pursue of innovation. This approach involves serious risks for sustainability within and outside the walls of academia.

The lesson of this anecdote is that an obvious fact at the core of academic work is often missed by policy makers, administrators of universities and institutions of research: a university is fundamentally different from military! It is fair to say that both institutions deserve respect, but they have different roles, histories and demands from society. Military have to secure ironclad discipline as a key to secure the chain of command and execution, which stays at the basis of its power and efficiency. Control, fear and intimidation are important tools to train soldiers and maintain discipline, but for a university they spell disaster.

Imagine a small European city in 15th century, the size of a modern small neighbourhood (roughly 45,000 people), ruled by a wealthy family. Now imagine that in this city was possible to meet (often in the same days) some of the brightest minds of humanity, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Sandro Botticelli (unfortunately a nut like Savonarola was also there, but this is another interesting and significant part of the story). How was this possible? What was in the water? One detail is that the ruler of this city comes from a family famous for love of arts and culture, education and progress. His family protected important philosophers such as Tommaso Campanella or Galileo Galilei, the father of the Scientific Revolution. His grandfather spent a fortune to support arts, architecture, scholarly learning, establishing the Platonic Academy for the study of ancient works. This ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, known as “Il Magnifico” (The Magnificent), shares the values of his family. The enlightened leader is doing something unthinkable for those times: he protects different minds and encourages new ideas. He knew that Caravaggio is a drunk and a troublemaker, but a unique artist. He knew that Michelangelo is secretly conducting dissections on human bodies to learn anatomy, which was at that time securing a death sentence, but he was an innovator who deserved protection and encouragement.

A Cypriot crisis or a Renaissance Florence?

Lorenzo de Medici ignored the sacrilege (with some risks for himself) just because he knew that Michelangelo is a unique artist that will change humanity through his creations. He was a protector of culture and the lower class enjoyed a greater level of comfort, freedom and protection than it had before. In effect, that small town named Florence became one of the most important city-states in Europe and (arguably) the most beautiful city in the world at that time. What today is called “academic freedom” was secured for the first time in centuries and the culture and suppressed creativity exploded, opening for a period of great innovations and change. The administrator of Florence understood that “lower classes” need freedom to stay engaged and that creative individuals are not always comfortable to power. In our times we can look at this through what Michael Fullan notes as an important key to secure secure innovation:

Policy makers will have to design policy levers which give them less control than they would like […] in exchange for the potential of higher yield innovation and commitment on the ground

A relaxed approach on hierarchy, power and control is crucial if we aim to develop a reality of creativity and innovation. Great results do not come in this field if we constantly tell people what to do and what they should expect if they do not do it as indicated.

The contemporary story of the European economic crisis should be a valuable source of lessons for universities on the price of self-comforting denial, suppression of meritocracy and silencing voices speaking “truth to power”. This is a tragic story where self-absorbed local groups and a stunning lack of vision and care for the future clashed in the end with reality. The Greek and Cypriot crisis show that countries can pay a terrible price and we can agree that a university can fall faster than a country from the same reasons!

Encourage in-depth thinking and create the means to detect and address pseudo-innovations and tokenism

Looking once over a “faculty innovation report” it became visible the the only note about innovation was related to the use of iPads in classrooms. It should be obvious that using a tablet or a laptop is not innovative. Using an iPad in classroom is not making a lecturer “innovative”, but a good customer of Apple. If you like to believe that the shiny new tablet turns you into an innovator this is just great, but it will not create knowledge or solutions.

Academic freedom** is not a luxury or an ideological stand, but a necessary precondition to creativity and innovation. This is a matter of strategic choices that can enable a university to make the most of new opportunities and find the best responses to challenges as well as threats.

“Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something” Thomas A. Edison

Suppression of academic freedom turns de facto a university and the academic life into a farce. A travesty like this works for a while, but inevitably comes with devastating consequences on the long term.


We analysed in a previous article why universities should be much more concerned – and socially engaged – about the fast changing social, cultural and economic context. It is highly relevant for their future that unemployment and underemployment is increasingly affecting college and university graduates. In USA more than 40 percent of unemployed have been out of work for more than six months, almost double the previous post-World War Two record. Moreover, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that five million college and university graduates are in jobs that require less than a high-school education. The BLS statistics reveal that 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that require less than a four-year university education. 

The proportion of overeducated workers exponentially increased in various jobs in the last decades. It is worth to observe that in 1970’s less than 1% of taxi drivers and 2% percent of firefighters had college degrees in US, while in 2012 over 15% percent do in both jobs.

This is a common situation across the world. In China, graduate unemployment is an official concern for The Ministry of Education, with millions unemployed after graduation. College educated find more difficult to land a job than those who have little formal education: “those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education” (source here)

Unemployment and underemployment register a constant rise across European Union. According to Eurostat, in 2012 there were 9.2 million part-time workers in the EU27 who wished to work more hours and are officially considered to be underemployed. The situation is close to get out of control (and we have reasons to expect a tumultuous 2013). In Italy, unemployed workers (700,000) despair over the future as it was announced that the redundancy budget runs dry.

A report published by Credit Suisse in February 2013 indicates: “The rising trend of youth unemployment around the world threatens not just current economic growth but also political stability and the potential demographic dividend“.

In the unstable global economy innovation stays as the key factor of difference for the future of local economies, communities and countries. Our future depends on our knowledge and capacity to innovate. Too many administrators in higher education go ahead as self-proclaimed masters of innovation and astute management, wasting the time and resources of their universities on expensive tokenism able just to exhibit grave misconceptions, narcissism and mediocrity. It is vital to stop this and engage in efforts aiming to lead to a genuine change, and adapt to this new context affecting students and graduates.

Some institutions are still floating in a parallel reality where clicks and tricks are seen capable to solve systemic problems without a touch of the status quo. Too many university administrators are still sedated by the vision of eternal positions of power and control where they indicate what research is wanted and when innovation should happen. This state of facts in a general climate of economic and social instability is the recipe for disaster. In UK, today universities seek to explain a severe drop on student enrolments despite cutbacks (see here). Universities find that the new context requires new ideas, new approaches to attract students and contribute to their societies and economies. Imagining efficient and innovative solutions for student engagement becomes vital for the future of the university. Moreover, the fact that unprecedented levels of unemployment involve an increasing risk of social unrest is not only a problem of social responsibility for universities. It is also a problem for their future.

Innovation and creativity will be key for a sustainable future.

There is a known biblical story about Lot’s wife, who was punished to turn into a pillar of salt because she looked back at a burning city. This old story is a metaphor with multiple meanings and interpretations, but some details are based on facts of those times. Why turned into pillar of salt as punishment? Why not stone or sand? An explanation is that salt was used as a preservative for thousands of years. This was the most visible symbol for conservation – and it was used as a warning. Those failing to change are punished by turning into lifeless forms of salt.  

Higher education is at crossroads. It is the time for a serious reflection about the strategic decisions and choices for the road ahead for universities. Some prefer to maintain strong hierarchies, mimic change and glue the label of “innovation” on trivial and useless things just to maintain status quo. The “pillars of salt” of higher education are more fragile than it seems. It will become clearer soon that many will end up where they are heading.


** Resources on academic freedom:

1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure

Declaration of Academic Freedom (Scientific Human Rights)

The Magna Charta Observatory of Fundamental University Values and Rights

Network for Education and Academic Rights

Academics for Academic Freedom (UK)

A university is imaginative or it is nothing – at least nothing useful

Alfred North Whitehead

Imagining the future of university is now more than a safe-game with multiple advantages. It can be a practical exercise of building on the dynamic flexibility and capacity to use imaginations for a sustainable future for our institutions. Most of us know that we live a moment of unprecedented challenges and changes for higher education, all in the context of a dramatic economic crisis and a fierce competition. “Stories about the future” may be the best way to prepare for what was called “a tsunami” of change in higher education. Universities are forced now to find new solutions for their own future and this (harder than it looks) task may be best achieved if we play thinking about the possible future.

It happened in 2012…

2012 was marked by the activation of a strategic consortium with the online instructional delivery firm Coursera and some of the most prestigious elite research universities, including Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, and others. This was a shake of a magnitude able to seriously move the foundations of the old paradigm. Many have seen this as an important and clear sign that reshaping education  is already happening and resistance to change and engage new technologies in teaching and learning is not a realistic choice anymore. In 2013 it was already clear that universities will not have the option to leave technology just as an alternative for learning and teaching and a large number of universities followed the MIT and Stanford examples of serving the public with ‘open access’ to their courses. What started as an experiment in joining emerging initiatives in online education gained speed in the following years with the need to provide flexible content, time and space for learning. However, the change in the role and function of universities was more profound than anticipated. If new technologies opened new possibilities for higher education and learning, years of economic crisis increased the pressure on universities to design career-focused postgraduate degrees in collaboration with industry partners. In this new context, students achieved their degrees in complex online platforms able to enhance engagement and institutions shifted focus on their role as facilitator of learning, social and professional experiences.

Focus on flexible learning and the demise of traditional lectures

In 2030’s in-person, on-campus attendance of students and what was once called “traditional lectures” was a feature for marginal institutions unable to adapt to a new cultural, economic and social reality. This happened years before and most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation is dramatically changed by initiatives at the beginning of this century. Professors Cede Grading Power to Outsiders—Even Computers and universities actively explored the possibility to outsource marking and assessment as they have outsourced in the past their food services, print services, health services, learning management systems (LMS), IT services, staff recruitment, security, housing, the management of conferences, fundraising, student recruitment and others. Companies such as Edumetry were promising (and already offering services to some good universities since the first decade of this century) to “relieve the faculty of the burden of generating data on Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs)“, and were successful by inviting universities around the world to “leave the mechanics of assessment to us”. This tagline is already obsolete in 2050 as most universities have to use complex software and specialized companies to deal with marking and strategic partnerships with workplaces for bespoke assessments for students.

The university of 2020’s could not operate anymore as a separate space where students come to be taught by those authorized by the institution to impart their special knowledge, mainly by lecturing on campus or online. What was once called “the online option” is now the common feature of most successful universities. It became more obvious that learning is an ongoing and dynamic process that cannot be realistically restrained within the walls of a classroom. New technologies and media opened “virtual curriculum” to endless possibilities and institutionalized learning opened for congruence instead of fighting for an impossible supremacy and control. Learning in higher education is now shaped around the option to have guidance in making wise epistemological and axiological choices for complex challenges and problems. Designing learning by models designed in the middle of 20th century as versions of curriculum arrangements common in previous centuries was at last forcefully rejected by students, employers and civil society.

Imaginations, Networks and Connectedness at the Core of Universities

Around 2015 universities moved from the past obsession on the illusory monopoly of credibility on qualifications, control and certification of learning to a clear commitment to use advanced technologies for innovation, production of relevant knowledge and research for civic, industry and academic partnerships. Consistent collaboration is at the middle of 21st century an intrinsic requirement, as universities have only the binary option to seek genuine connectedness, work on their engagement to create institutional, national and international partnerships with industry, community and other academics for innovative solutions or the alternative to play in the bush-league. The challenge of ageing population, the growing number of students and their diversity along with the realization that inclusive and lifelong learning solutions in flexible formats is a requirement for prestigious universities shaped new institutional processes. Academic institutions where the simple idea to collaborate with people on the same corridors was seen as an extreme step have changed under the increasing pressure to engage in diverse networks and collaboration with community, industry, and networks of national and international scholars. These active networks are now able to generate new ideas and innovative solutions for a fast changing reality for students and other stakeholders. Universities employ a consistent effort to stay as imaginative and creative entities in similar ways as the emerging creativity and innovation was promoted across an entire industry by companies like Google at the beginning of 21st Century.

2050 Research Drive: Universities as Research and Innovation Hubs

There was the problem that change involved by technology and economic crisis in 2013 was affecting universities in very different ways and it became clear that any institution thinking that the simple adoption of same (online) solutions as Harvard, Stanford or MIT is the cure or provides the competitive advantage was a naive and disastrous approach. It became clear in time that institutions have to focus their efforts to create a culture of innovation, develop their human capital and replace the unsustainable practice of casualisation with more stable forms of employment in exchange of a genuine commitment for innovative research, collaboration and production of knowledge. Not only universities, but entire countries learned the painful lesson that the stubborn refusal to move from rhetoric to practice in opening for ongoing collaborations with industry, civil society and the large variety of possible stakeholders translated in declining number of students, lost funds for research and financial collapse.

As learners increasingly used the web as their first port of call for information (and this encouraged even more independent inquiries and learning in all forms) employers moved focus from stale paper credentials to seek genuine mastery of new skills, flexibility and innovative minds. Higher education realized that learning journeys have to be different from previous levels of education and placed a strong emphasis on self-learning and discovery: universities provided choices for learning in a vast variety and forms for bespoke journeys. These learning stages are certified with the use of professional entities specialized in marking and assessment designed in line with different specific institutional demands.

Universities had to change in practice the isolation of ‘silos’ created by departmentalization, the emphasis on hierarchies and promotion of comfortable mediocrity, the use of slogans and surface reporting as these proved to be dangerously unsustainable in a context of a merciless competition. It became clear in time that all institutions leaving creativity, innovation and research in rhetoric rather than having a consistent effort to make it a genuine trademark of their living culture cannot survive the competition. Universities, countries and regions stay as successful examples where the emphasis of flexibility, the permeability of institutional boundaries and the openness to work with community and industry provided sustainable solutions for all. Some lost the meaning of this change and disappeared or still struggle in the margins for survival. The most important lesson was that universities can build on their potential as main catalyst for knowledge creation, creativity and change for society in collaboration with other sectors. Successful universities present these days the advantages of proliferation of experimentation and innovation, of building connectivity and collaboration, openness and encouragement of diversity, equity of access and in-depth thinking.

The university is at the middle of this century dramatically changed: the old walls stay now as a symbol for tradition used to work in open hubs for local, national and international collaborations. These are now the main meeting points where where scholars, industry and civil society come together to share perspectives and build on the high expertise of researchers engaged in the creation of knowledge and innovative solutions for challenges ahead.

Final note

It may be already clear that only universities capable to use the strategic advantage on their own steps will be able to see the 2050 from similar positions as today. Institutions (and countries) aware by their crucial importance on knowledge generation, innovation and overall contribution to society and economy have no time to waste if they want to be part of the scene in 2050. This is why vision – and knowledge to achieve this vision – may be one of the most valuable commodities in 2012.

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)

The last blog post stirred some good conversations and feedback from scholars and friends from Australia and abroad. Grateful for their feedback and opinions, I had the idea to record one of these conversations. Therefore, Mr. Tom Kerr posted some questions in a recorded interview and you are invited to see it here and send your opinions and reflections.

One point of justified criticism is that I fail to offer here on my random posts clues on the alternatives, solutions for our challenges in education. In my defense, I have to mention that I work – too slow – on a new book, focused on imagination, creativity and possible solutions for educational change. In a first attempt to address this problem I have to briefly describe what I consider as first two prerequisites for positive and genuine change in education:

  • It is crucial to have an honest and open debate about the pedagogical advantages of new technologies in education.

Although this seems a truism, lobbying activities disguised as care for students’ learning and engagement, well-being of institutions and teaching staff, constitute already a living part of the unchallenged existence of academia. Tech firms promote often clunky, educationally useless or illusory products (see online solutions for plagiarism) for significant profits. This interested intrusion and well-funded influence stifle a genuine debate about the real advantages, traps, dangers, advantages and – ultimately – students’ interests. The pedagogical value of ICT solutions have to be discussed beyond the naive enthusiasm for fancy educational electronics. If we accept arguments like that educational technology is saving money, with the latest example of iPads replacing textbooks as a more economical solution… then we do not only ignore the real costs involved by these changes, the fast pace of change in technology, but – most important – a consistent body of research on learning and pedagogical solutions. It is important to have a wider, more diverse, consistent and courageous debate on what is genuine and positive change and innovation in education.

  • A real change in education requires imagination, innovation, creativity and interdisciplinary research as a vital component of thinking about learning and teaching in 21st century.

Imagine a discussion about the use of new technologies in education where moral philosophers, specialists in technology, scholars specialized in education, engineers and university administrators, teachers and researchers can openly debate various aspects involved in the practice of learning and teaching. Even more, imagine in this mix of teaching, innovation and research the perspective of rethinking education looking at the aims, not various (technological) tools, taking democratic citizenship, reasoning, nurturing imagination, curiosity, critical thinking, creativity and the thirst for knowledge, as paramount aims, not only as political statements designed to mask a neoliberal agenda guided only by immediate profit. Thinking about these possibilities may be more important for the future than it seems now and I argue that these perspectives deserve more consideration if we think about change and “disruptive innovation” in education.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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