Redesigning higher education in the spirit of donut economics

How can higher education reimagine itself in response to the climate crisis?

I’ve been exploring this question for years, and was very happy to encounter a new paper offering an intriguing call for academic design.  It’s about donut economics.

To explain too briefly: professor Kate Raworth introduced the donut economics concept in a paper, a book, and a lot of public appearances.  She wants us to rethink economics in terms of two boundaries, the environmental limits which ultimately constrain human life on Earth and the humanitarian needs of people.  Between those two fields Raworth identifies a sweet spot, the titular donut, wherein our economy should operate:


donut economics model, showing ecological limits and social foundation

I’ve been thinking about the implications of donut economics for higher education since I first heard of the idea.  What might happen if the society around a college or university switched from neoliberalism (or whichever other system is in play) to the donut model? How would that impact campus sustainability in every sense? Would it change academic research and teaching?  What happens to community relations?  (If you’re interested, check chapter 6 of Universities on Fire).

Yet what if we consider applying the donut to higher ed in another way?

In “Rethinking academia in a time of climate crisis” professors Anne Urai and Clare Kelly ask us not to think about reacting to the outside world if it transitions to the donut, but by embracing Raworth’s model within colleges and universities.

What might this mean?  Well, you should read the article, but to give you an introduction: Urai and Kelly start with the vital importance of the climate crisis and how higher ed should grapple with it.

Addressing the climate and biodiversity crisis demands transformative changes in our economies and societies. Academics, both as inhabitants of planet earth and in their professional roles, should take a leading role in this transformation.

Then they ask us (nominally scientists, but also all academics) to do this:

[Adapt] the doughnut to academia’s microcosm [which] enables us to visualize a space defined by an inner social foundation (which universities should provide), and outer human and planetary ceilings (which universities need to avoid overshooting).

What is a university’s social foundation?  Which ceilings should we avoid hitting? The paper breaks this down in some detail:

The social foundation academia should provide:

  • Academic freedom. Time to think, room for curiosity-driven research.

  • Good jobs and careers. Work that is valuable and valued, in good, equitable conditions. Secure, satisfying careers with perspective and recognition. Sufficient and equitable resource provision for materials, infrastructure, and scientific support.

  • Community. Democratic self-governance. Norms and incentives that create healthy, supportive, and collegial communities.

  • Diversity, equality, inclusion. Freedom of expression and identity. The opportunity to flourish in an academic community without bias and inequality.

  • Service to society. Societal engagement and input to policy, free from the influence of corporate (e.g., fossil fuel) interests. Responding to society’s needs in our research. Providing high-quality, accessible and affordable higher education options.

  • Reliable, trusted science. Research that is open, verifiable, and community reviewed. A society that trusts scientists, and science worthy of trust.

On the other hand (or the other side of the donut), “the human and planetary boundaries academia should not overshoot:”

  • Human load. Human intellect and creativity, both individual and collective, are academia’s most precious resources. Exceeding this boundary leads to burnout, mental health difficulties, and apathy.

  • Individualism. The myth of the “lone genius” remains at the heart of the academic picture of success. Overshooting this boundary leads to a devaluation of collaboration and team science and to excessive competitiveness, harassment, and power misuse.

  • Competition. The gutting of public funding for universities and science has increased competition for scarce resources (grants, publications, promotions, awards), to the detriment of teamwork and collaboration.

  • Metric fixation. An overshoot of rankings, quantitative metrics, and assessment leads to runaway bureaucracy and perverse incentives to “game the system”. When promotions and hiring processes are yoked to the same goals, the overshoot leads to excessive pressure to publish and to win funding, resulting in irreproducible work, the “rich getting richer”, and academic nepotism.

  • Commercialization. Public funds should be used to provide common goods, services, and knowledge that benefit society. Excessive commercialization can lead to academic labor being siphoned off by extractive market players (e.g., for-profit publishing, corporate intellectual property, and patents).

  • Planetary impact. Science and academic research can be a high-resource pursuit. We need to change our own practices to stop overshooting planetary boundaries.

How this might play out rests on seven ways for academics to proceed, again adapted from Raworth:
Seven ways to think like a 21st century scientist.

1. Change the goal: from a business that produces papers and graduated students, towards a university that works towards the inside space of the academic doughnut. 

2. Get savvy with systems: from feeling like a cog in the university machine, towards being gardeners of our academic system. 

3. See the big picture: from academics who look out over the world from their ivory tower, towards scholarship which accepts its own embeddedness in (and dependence on) society and the planet. 

4. Create to regenerate: from a rat race where we tread water, towards “slow scholarship” that values community building, deep thinking and rest crucial for intellectual work. 

5. Nurture human nature: from the lone genius, towards team science. 

6. Design to distribute: from a funding system where the rich get richer, towards a fair distribution of opportunities and resources. 

7. Be agnostic about growth: from a focus on increasing numbers of papers, citations and students, towards rebuilding trust in our own academic communities and with society.

I’m fascinated by how these recommendations connect with various strands of academic politics, such as the resistance to metrics or the call for more public funding or the push some of us have been working on for open education resources and open access in scholarly publication.

I’m more excited by how Urai and Kelley connect such details of academic life to aspects of the much broader global crisis. Is there a rising anti-individualist ethos, and how might that apply to not only scholarship but also pedagogy? Do we decide collectively to produce less, both in terms of overall economic output as well as scholarship and teaching?  Do academics decide to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as part of the general decarbonization movement, or as a combination of leadership and experimentation?

See what you make of this paper.

(donut infographic by DoughnutEconomics – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


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5 Responses to Redesigning higher education in the spirit of donut economics

  1. Pingback: Redesigning higher education in the spirit of donut economics - Precisoh

  2. Vanessa Vaile says:

    My copy of Universities on Fire arrived Saturday. Lots to dive into — and share because my higher education labor colleagues need to keep this in mind too. Donut economics perspective is a good fit. More later, off to a zoom.

  3. sibyledu says:

    There is a lot to chew on in this paper, so these reflections are necessarily hurried ones, and come out of my own brain rather than conversation with others. So this is just a starting point.

    I certainly think there is a lot about the incentive structure of higher education that needs reforming. But on a first reading, this article seems deliberately unwilling to engage how academia is perceived from the outside, or how those outside perceptions affect potential revenue streams. The academic donut certainly seems like a wonderful place for its inhabitants, but that doesn’t create a desire for others to support it. Students won’t want to spend tuition dollars on it; their goal is to gain new knowledge rather than to create it. Corporate funders are seeking specific kinds of research and services. Governments do provide support for research, some of which is “curiosity-driven and blue-skies research without obvious monetary or applied value,” but very often it is for specific purposes. The article does not engage with the practical problem of how to change the mindsets of all of these external constituencies. (Moreover, its main action item seems to be to demand additional government subsidy, but most government subsidies these days — at least in the US — are tied to specific purposes and will include oversight and assessment that will only increase the forces squeezing the donut.)

    I’m not an expert in the history of European higher education. But in the United States, there have been five major laws that increased public support to higher education, and none of them were aimed at blue-skies research. The Morrill Acts were designed to encourage the diffusion of practical knowledge to a wider range of citizens than the traditional clerically-oriented college. The GI Bill was designed for civilian readjustment; universities were accidental beneficiaries of programs designed to slow down the return of ex-servicemen to the workforce. The National Defense Education Act unleashed a great deal of funding for research and education, but much of that funding was targeted for specific defense-related purposes (though some of that was indirectly related to defense and foreign policy, such as funding for language study). The Higher Education Act created enormous public subsidies for students to attend college. Four of these five bills were created in response to public demand, and the fifth was created to meet the defense-related demands of the federal government. If there is to be a large-scale change in public funding, academia will have to make a case for it to the public, and identify public benefits that justify public support. I don’t see anywhere in this article where the authors connect the academic donut to public benefits that might meet this description, though if I missed it I would gladly welcome correction.

    To be sure, they are trying to construct a theoretical model rather than anything else and so practical considerations like the ones I’m naming might be outside their purview. But I just don’t see how you can talk about the academic donut without understanding the resource constraints in which it would operate and the public benefits on which its public subsidy would depend.

  4. Glen McGhee says:

    Bryan, this overview does not capture the wrath and rage of Kate Raworth against economics — as a discipline — that forced her to introduce the donut economics concept.
    That said, donut economics is alt-economics, shifting to human values at a human scale, not this neoliberal cesspool we’ve fallen into.

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