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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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Euro-jima

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking

Everybody knows that the captain lied

Everybody got this broken feeling

Like their father or their dog just died”

Leonard Cohen – Everybody Knows

 

 

Rather than admit the fundamental errors and pitfalls of the system, European Union officials spend their time in the same parallel existence that lead to the current crisis spending a lot of effort in trying to create an alternative history. This is not working and sometimes it seems to be clear that their surprise is genuine. It is important to note that these symptoms are far from being a European problem, more of a common disease of our times. All will be just fine if this nuisance called “reality check” will be not only delayed, but entirely avoidable. The problem of Euro is not the simple utopian project consisting in a common currency for different governments that are going most often in perfect opposite directions, but total disconnection of policies, actions and solutions from realities. The most important: a stubborn refusal to have an honest look in the mirror and a visceral reaction against any heretics. It is still a time when your life is better if you clap your hands in total admiration for the emperor’s clothes. The fast changing situation is unavoidable for all – some will get out richer, some will have to pay the price of their delusions and most will pay a lot for citizenships’ complacency. Many investors in the common currency realize now that Sarkozy and Merkel can agree on all their plans, but after a successful meeting and general enthusiasm the problem is still there. Why?

To give some clues about the possible answer on this it is important to look at the context. I deeply love that part of Europe where you see the passion for culture and style, the amazing history and constant effort to keep alive the focus on the importance of the quality of life above other things, such as profit. I lived most of my life in Europe and – by working with some of the most important European institutions – I also had the chance to take a glimpse into their functioning, but I have to admit that this part I love in the old continent cannot be found there. In these institutions and their populations you find the reality of the other side of Europe, that of coteries, arrogance and prejudice, the underground legacy of endless wars of the past and stupid stereotypes about the “other”. But I have found that the most frightening side of this system was the depth and spread of incompetence and corruption.

Again, it is naive to think that the current crisis is caused only by the European corruption. However, some were a just a bit more honest about their problems and brave to approach them openly. Here is the crucial difference between US and Europe: Europe annihilated (with the notable exception of some singular voices in written media) all forms of structured intellectual resistance against the official narrative. Jurgen Habermas recently wrote about the sense of exasperation so common for decent hard working Europeans from all EU countries: “The European project can no longer continue in elite modus.” It is an elite of corruption and arrogance: few know that in the middle of a tremendous tragedy the greedy and cynical Greek oligarchs invested heavily in – among others – London property market! This elite caused the crisis and they are part of a European cleptocracy uninterested in any other ideal than bringing more money into their bank accounts. The European philosopher is speaking openly about this reality: “I condemn the political parties. Our politicians have long been incapable of aspiring to anything whatsoever other than being re-elected. They have no political substance whatsoever, no convictions.” Nevertheless, European universities do not join the discussion and have little if any influence in the public sphere. Their silence over what is causing now the European tremendous shakes was generalized. The reason of this cultivated mediocrity can be approached only in a different chapter…

Andrew Haldane, executive director at the Bank of England, offers a good perspective on what happened in this crisis. He caused recently some emotion when he labeled most parts of current global finance as being just a global scam:

“…In fact, high pre-crisis returns to banking had a much more mundane explanation. They reflected simply increased risk-taking across the sector. This was not an outward shift in the portfolio possibility set of finance. Instead, it was a traverse up the high-wire of risk and return. This hire-wire act involved, on the asset side, rapid credit expansion, often through the development of poorly understood financial instruments. On the liability side, this ballooning balance sheet was financed using risky leverage, often at short maturities.

In what sense is increased risk-taking by banks a value-added service for the economy at large? In short, it is not.”

Paul Krugman comments on the paragraph presented above that “Haldane argues that finance fooled investors into believing that it had found a way to earn higher returns, whereas all it was really doing was piling on hidden risk. And he suggests that much if not all of the rise in the share of finance in GDP reflected this deception; in effect, Wall Street and the City were con artists extracting huge rents from an unwary public (and eventually dumping much of the cost, when things went bad, on taxpayers).”

It is important to understand that the current crisis – affecting real lives, destroying real families and blurring the hope for a decent future for millions around the world – was caused by greed and corruption, but most importantly by selling illusions to a majority more than happy to believe them. Whistleblowers were ridiculed as lamentable figures obsessed by jeremiads, depicted as egomaniacs interested to draw attention with some apocalyptic scenarios or simply ignored. The simple history of this phenomenon of the last decade can be a fascinating PhD. The public was not unwary, but enchanted and happy to stay delusional. Unfortunately, history shows that this is always a terrible mistake.

Here is where the Europe is now, still unable to understand that the time to be realistic about its institutions is already gone. The armies of bored and well-related EU bureaucrats match their incompetence with cynicism and private interests are just too dense to allow the necessary changes. It is the (missed) time to talk openly about nepotism and mistresses hired as experts, about elites too corrupt to accept a decent dialogue about rights and responsibilities, privileges and abuse. The illusion is still at the core of what is presented to be the solution: to take just one example, where is the strong European debate about the fact that Germany, the new disciplinarian of this dysfunctional family, is breaking EU financial rules more dangerously than Spain? The European Commission estimates for Germany a debt ratio of 81.7% of GDP, significantly higher than Spain’s debt ratio of 69.6 percent. The problem may be more nuanced than this (even if the myth of a state saving in a sea of spenders is too blatantly against reality to be dismissed so easy), but the missing dialogue is the worrying sign. The missing sign here is on itself the sign of incapacity to start seeking a realistic solution. The fact is that Euro is sinking while the orchestra is singing an idyllic song. There is a striking similarity here with the evolution of higher education since WTO included education into tradable services just a decade ago.

I recently heard again in a conference devoted to higher education various scholars unsure about their intellectual identity that “universities must learn from business”. I have to agree – from different positions and very different reasons – that this is the most important call to be followed now by Academia. Universities must look at what happened in the global financial markets in the last years. The lesson for universities is too important to be ignored as this can have a crucial importance for the future of higher education. It is a complex story with huge scams ignored and accepted for increasing profits, with ideological motivations promoted as moral/political choices to mask new sources of easy money, with the blurring of real meanings for important concepts such as “sustainability”, “regulations”, “responsibility” and “accountability”. This ideal world presented to universities as the model for existence by various actors from different schools of business and economics (it is curious why they even exist in universities and not in vocational education altogether – but I digress) is now shaken by irrational feelings, rumors and emotions. Elaborate software and the science of business is clearly replaced in the Euro-drama by logic closer to psychoanalysis than the pure rational structures of mathematical predictions and actuarial studies. For example, when the newspaper La Stampa published just a week ago an article about a possible massive loan from IMF for Italy, the European currency gained significantly and stock markets moved positively until the world heard IMF saying clearly that this was just a rumor. Nothing real caused this increase: no new policies, no increase in industrial productivity or crops, no innovation or scientific breakthrough, no general decision for a more coherent management and less corruption across EU, but a simple rumor changed the value of immense investments. This seems to be not only the most unpredictable, but the most parallel from reality mechanism of our times. This is also the most influential pillar of the current establishment.

This chaotic puzzle of greed and illusions, irrational triggers and imaginary foundations is also the system presented and adopted with great enthusiasm by institutions of education managed now as speculative businesses. We reached the point when tertiary education is happy with this because we cannot imagine a different rationale than what was sold as the panacea for better functioning. Therefore, universities seek more profits as they need more money to invest – very little investments (if any!) are oriented to the quality of teaching, learning and relevant research as this became marginal in the engine of making money and doing “good business”. The pitfall of this model is that what proved to be very dangerous in the almighty financial world is even more dangerous for universities due to the vast implications for the future of society.

Most universities seem to be still oblivious of the fact that the not only the reality around them is changing very fast (this is why you still hear academics delivering ridiculous tirades urging all to “learn from business”), but the perception about their future is changing at tremendous pace. If you look inside academia and read most recent literature produced about the future of universities is easy to find common themes and solutions with a common ideological source: neoliberalism and the “sound business model”. Simplifying, we can read that that universities should resemble ATMs, producing fast, mobile, accessible and easily standardized knowledge units, that these institutions must be modular and learn how to work from shopping malls. Those who teach must be “dynamic” and function as employees in a relation that may make Walmart proud for being the source of such elaborate debates. This model of McDonalds-university is entirely wrong and it is hard to say that it will be a surprising to see this proven faster than expected.

In a recent editorial published by New York Times we read about this change in perception about the future of higher education – the burst of the bubble is not expected, we already talk about its dimension and effects:

“One of the greatest changes is that a college degree is no longer the guarantor of a middle-class existence. Until the early 1970s, less than 11 percent of the adult population graduated from college, and most of them could get a decent job. Today nearly a third have college degrees, and a higher percentage of them graduated from non-elite schools. A bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability.”

In other words, we talk about pure inflation and the same mechanisms of selling illusions. There are many factors causing this: political parties running for votes, ideological positions making the problem of access to higher education painfully simplistic, lack of vision and many others. However, there is no doubt that the most important source is the same perspective of huge profits. This lured universities to believe that if you have the tenacity to chant the same lies they will become facts. The problem is that – similar with the European facade – there are already big cracks. Students leave university with stunning debts and see that their investment is not giving what was advertised. There is the simple explanation that in the current context there is a shortage of jobs and this is why we have graduates in underpaid positions.  This explanation is simply not true! In US, where the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently announced in a quarterly report that it had significantly undercounted student loans and now estimates the current total of outstanding loans at $845 billion, not $550 billion, ManpowerGroup’s annual 2011 Talent Shortage Survey shows that about 52 percent of U.S. employers reported difficulty filling jobs (and 54% in Australia). I take most of these global rankings at the best as compass points rather than clear pictures – but it is important to remember that this is happening in the context of high unemployment. According to this global survey, employers see a lack of skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and agility that are critical to generate productivity and innovation. Just to put things in context we have to remember here the recent case of that university professor who was fired from Utah Valley University for “asking students even when they didn’t raised their hands”. Students’ complaints reveal that this professor asked students to work in teams; according to court documents, he was following the Socratic teaching style, asking questions to stimulate discussions. Same court documents record that students did not liked this: students did not want to work in teams and did not want the professor to ask questions: “They wanted him to lecture”. There are many other similar cases reaching courts and we can guess how many others are not reported. It may be a problem when entertaining in class is replaced with genuine critical thinking and is getting some out of the “comfort zone”. Consistent research also shows a constant decrease of time devoted to study and a constant increase in grades – here is another “mystery” of tertiary education. Please do not blame students – the lie about what education is all about is not their creation.

The rhetoric about “critical thinking” is still there and we still count “students’ satisfaction”, which is seen as an inalienable right to be entertained and comfortable. The pressure to pass students even if they are functional illiterates is already well documented and seems to be natural when we think that asking students to… learn may result in less profit. Universities report record numbers of graduates and most governments think that cutting funding for universities is a profitable decision as long as the pressure is to take more students able to bring money into the system. These students take loans and in time banks see these loans as unprofitable as more and more victims of this system discover that being entertained is not giving you knowledge, skills and – ultimately – a job! It is important to understand that many brilliant students do not take a job because they do not know the “right people” and some simply have no idea about what happened during university studies (other than “fun”). However, the effect is the same: the loan cannot be payed. This story of “toxic loans” promoted to sell illusions is very familiar for anyone interested to understand the roots of current financial crisis.

The artificial increase of supply (of graduates and diplomas) brings a fast drop in value and this is just the first effect. It may be the least important as well. Here we go back to our lesson from Europe: floating above reality works well for a while, but once those cracks ruin the polished facade it is impossible to hide from what plebeians simply call “a reality check”.