HETL Global Communities

How Universities Can Nurture Creativity for Graduate Employability

December 28, 2015 in Volume 5

HETL Note: In this academic article by Dr. Stefan Popenici, the author explores the state of higher education at a time when it is under increasing pressure to satisfy the demands of the job market and student employability. The recent global financial crisis has added to the complexity of producing students who meet the requirements of the university but are also employable and possess the skills to meet the requirements of employers. In this context, universities are challenged with developing more practical ways to cultivate creativity and innovation in students. The author argues that developing creativity in students allows them to function more effectively in the emerging global knowledge society. The author explores how university governance policies can be used to cultivate a culture of creativity in higher education.

Author bio:


Dr. Stefan Popenici is currently working at The University of Melbourne, as Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education (MCSHE). He is also a member of the Knowledge Development Think Tank of the European Association for International Education and Associate Director of the Imaginative Education Research Group at Simon Fraser University, Canada. Stefan is an academic with extensive experience in teaching and learning, governance, research and academic development with universities in Europe, North America, South East Asia, New Zealand and Australia. He was a Senior Advisor of Romania’s Minister of Education on educational reform and academic research, a Senior Consultant of the President of De La Salle University Philippines, and Expert Consultant for various international institutions in education. For his work and strategic leadership in education, the President of Romania awarded Stefan the Order ‘Merit of Education’ in rank of Knight. He may be reached at [email protected].


How universities can nurture creativity for graduate employability

 Stefan Popenici

University of Melbourne, Australia



Higher education is not immune to the sum of pressures on the job market, and graduate employability takes a central role for universities’ stakeholders. The economic downturn caused by the global financial crisis, the impact of new technologies that changed the workforce demand and the debate on the skills gap require universities to explore new solutions. Finding practical ways to foster creativity and innovation in higher education is now a key challenge, and this paper argues that this can give graduates the set of skills required in the new contexts opened by the knowledge society. This endeavor calls for a rethinking of university governance policies that are influencing the culture and academic life in higher education across the OECD area. This critical investigation aims to find new directions to nurture a culture of creativity and innovation in higher education.

Keywords: academic management, employability, innovation, creativity, technology.

Higher education and employability

Educational research provides a vast set of data and analysis to argue that higher education is playing a crucial role in the progress of economies and societies (OECD, 2013a). National and international comparative studies document the fact that individuals and economies have measurable benefits from participation in higher education (Carnevale, Rose, & Cheah, 2011; OECD, 2013a; OECD, 2013b; Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2013). Nevertheless, as Baum notes, financial benefits are easier to measure than indirect (and nonfinancial) benefits, even as “the latter may be as important to students themselves, as well as to the society in which they participate” (Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2013). As the competitive edge for world economies resides in the capacity to change and innovate for sustainable change, the focus on universities is to find solutions to nurture creativity and support innovative research and quality education.

Imagination, creativity and innovation are placed at the core of knowledge economy and represent key conditions to design new sustainable solutions for an uncertain future. Benefits of participation in higher education are arising from research applications in the industry, spin-off companies, export earnings through international student fees and domestic spending, increasing productivity and flexibility for the labor market, faster economic growth and increasing entrepreneurial activity. For example, data reveals a direct correlation between educational attainment and entrepreneurship indicators. A study on 17 countries reflects that higher levels of education positively correlate with indicators of entrepreneurship within a society (Bloom, Hartley, & Rosovsky, 2006).

Also, data analysis reflects that human capital associated with high levels of innovation play a crucial role in economic growth and development (Asheim & Gertler, 2005; OECD, 2013b). This is why countries and regions worldwide are aiming to build or increase capacity for innovative research. The winning formula revolves now around a mix containing highly educated individuals, creative and innovative, with skills for research and practice, able to make the transition from labs to market. The creative potential and the entrepreneurial spirit able to use the set of specific skills for innovative applications give the competitive advantage for economies and individuals in the knowledge economy.

It is well documented at this point that in the OECD area governments and universities emphasise the importance of higher education for economic growth. The assumption is that higher levels of education and diverse training opportunities play a critical role in building the supply of skills for an economy. Increasing the pool of skilled graduates results on economic growth, with an active and engaged workforce that is capable to function in the knowledge economy. This perspective promotes the view on education as an instrumental process able to enhance entrepreneurship and employability, if designed well. As human capital determines the pace of economic growth, policy makers increasingly put pressure on higher education to equip graduates with employability skills (Mason, Williams, & Cranmer, 2009). In effect, looking at higher education as a driver to employability and net economic benefits is the dominant perspective that is influencing governmental policies in higher education (OECD, 2013b). This is especially important as employment, and youth unemployment and underemployment, stay at the top of the agenda for governments across the world.  Solving this complex problem is more difficult than it looks, especially as many experts predict that new technologies are going to displace even more jobs.

Much more must be done to provide youth with the skills they need to get a good start in the labour market and we argue that individuals able to combine high levels of education with flexibility of mind, critical mind and creativity have the advantage in the context opened now in knowledge economies.

There are serious reasons for policymakers to remain concerned about youth unemployment and underemployment and the effects that high rates of these can have on social stability and economic growth. In 2013 there were close to 40 million 16-29 year-olds across OECD countries not in employment, education or training (NEET), and this is part of a worrying trend that continues to grow since 2008. The effect of this situation resonates not only on tremendous costs for the national welfare systems, but creates the potential of social instability. Ultimately, we contemplate the real possibility of an unforgivable perspective of looking at a “lost generation”. Recent statistical analysis performed by the OECD reveal that we currently have a “shift in the age profile of poverty, with young people replacing the elderly as the group most at risk of poverty, continuing a trend lasting for the past 30 years” (OECD, 2015). Statistical data collected and analyzed by the International Labour Organization (ILO, 2012) also reveals that over 75 million youth are unemployed around the world. This problem is also magnified by the extent of underemployment, which is affecting youth and graduates across the world:

“Around the world, many youth are trapped in low-productivity, temporary or other types of work that fall short of their aspirations and that often do not open opportunities to move to more permanent, higher-productivity and better-paid positions. In developed economies, youth are increasingly employed in non-standard jobs and the transition to decent work continues to be postponed.” (ILO, 2012, pg. 8).

According to UNESCO, over 25 percent of youth are employed in jobs that keep them at or below the poverty line (UNESCO, 2012). The German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned in 2013 that “youth unemployment is perhaps the most pressing problem facing Europe at the present time” (Connolly, 2013). The impact of youth unemployment and underemployment on the future of world economy and social fabric is drawing attention to political leaders across the world. When the European Commission released the Education and Training Monitor 2013, the analysis based on official data collected across EU reveals that underemployment is severely affecting also university graduates:

“The employment rate of recent graduates with at least upper secondary education stands (in 2013) at 75.7%, down from 82.0% in 2008 […] Across the EU, 21% of people with tertiary qualifications are active in jobs that usually require lower qualifications.” (European Commission, 2013, pg. 6)

In the United States, the Accenture college graduate employment survey reveals that almost half of all who graduated in 2013 and 2014 “consider themselves underemployed, or working in a job that does not require a college degree”. Moreover, only half of graduates were able to find work full time and 41% of have an income lower than US$25,000 (LaVelle, Silverstone, & Smith, 2015).

Across the world, universities compete to find solutions suitable to secure jobs for their graduates and to score better in international rankings that also start to take into consideration employability as a factor of success. The problem is that universities have a very complex challenge ahead that is related to the specificity of their mission. Universities are asked to act as a producer of new knowledge (research), pass on human culture and act as a pillar of human civilization (educate) and create good citizens, ethical and active members of their communities (democratic citizenship). Preparation for the workforce, or employability, is just one element in a complex mission for an institution placed currently under financial and ideological pressure. Moreover, we can add at least two more factors that can hinder the difficult task of achieving “graduate employability”: a general bias against creativity and the current preference for a corporate form of managerialism dominating university governance.

University governance, creativity and innovation

The economic rationale made policy makers look at universities as institutions of innovation for economic growth. This is a perilous impoverishment of imagination and stands as a source of hindrance for creativity in higher education. An influential report on the creative economy is taking note of this tendency of new university governance to focus solely on the economic function, and opens with this astute observation:

“… There has been a movement in the U.S. and around the world to make universities ‘engines of innovation’ and to enhance their ability to commercialise their research. Universities have largely bought into this view, both because it makes their work more economically relevant and as a way to bolster their budgets. Unfortunately, not only does this view oversell the immediately commercial function of the university; it also misses the deeper and more fundamental contributions made by the university to innovation, the larger economy, and society as a whole.” (Florida et al., 2006, pg. 1).

One of the core challenges for creativity and innovation in higher education is rooted in how policy makers imagine a university. The market logic is naturally associated with forms of control and subtle repression of all factors that are perceived as dangerous for “efficiency”.  Unfortunately, for universities this leads to toxic effects not only for higher learning, but also in blocking factors that stimulate creativity and innovation. As universities are increasingly ranked and valued by their market position (Saunders, 2011), the new managerial university governance (Luescher-Mamashela, 2010) stands against innovations and hinders the creative environment within universities (Bok, 2003; Charle & Soulie, 2007; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004). In fact, this is not a feature limited to higher education. A survey conducted by Forbes Insights, ACCA and Ipsos Observer on 1,245 business executives across Europe reveals that managers identify corporate management as the biggest reason that innovations fail (Forbes, 2011).

There are various ways managerial practices inspired by the New Public Management (Hood, 1991) and market orientation in higher education hinders creativity and innovation. The most harmful is what Chris Lorenz identifies as “intensive managerial control practices” (Lorenz, 2012). Managerial practices in higher education are marked in the last decade by the intense promotion of efficiency, accountability and quality assurance as ultimate aims of the academic institutions. In effect, academic governance became closely associated with mechanisms of audit and control for quality assurance. The tendency of the New Public Management to exacerbate control through surveillance and monitoring of individual performance is the foundation for a culture of audit and distrust (Broadbent, Gallop, & Laughlin, 2010). This is in direct opposition with the possibility to nurture creativity, as Trust is crucial not only for a functional organisation and the morale within universities, but for the creative process (Robinson, 1996). Key performance indicators and merit-based performance evaluations not only leave academics unmotivated, as research proves (Culbertson, Henning, & Payne, 2013), but send the message that they cannot be trusted and close control is required. The double effect of this trend is destructive for creativity, innovation and real change.

Innovation requires first and foremost the courage to relax hierarchies and power structures in favor of collaboration. Nurturing freethinking and the joy of discovery may turn sometimes into uncomfortable decisions. Michael Fullan observed in a seminal work on change in higher education that:

“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.” (Fullan, 2003)

What Fullan identifies in 2003 as a solution to nurture creativity and innovation in universities stands against the ideas and practices promoted by the new public management, which is currently embraced by most institutions of higher education across the world. The uncomfortable move from hierarchical bureaucracies designed to serve the managerial control to an open culture oriented towards creativity and innovation requires university leaders and administrators a shift in vision, to a long term strategy marked by tolerance to uncertainty, randomness and courage to change.

Contrary to the promise of market-oriented reforms, higher education is marked by continuous accusations – well backed by data – of grade inflation, soft marking and rampant plagiarism. In the United States, for-profit higher education is engulfed in a costly scandal involving bankruptcy of mammoth institutions such as Corinthian Colleges and students decrying the “fraud and victimization” (Weise & Lorin, 2015). For profit institutions were undoubtedly taking advantage of all possibilities opened by an unregulated market in higher education. Students accusing for profit higher education of deceptive and predatory practices are most probably right if we take into consideration that just 11% of the student population in the US is enrolled in for profit institutions, but register a critical 44% of all federal student loan defaults (U.S. Department of Education, 2014).

The promise of “professional management” in higher education that a market oriented education combined with academic acumen can only result in better quality control, transparency, higher efficiency, outputs and performance remains unfulfilled after decades of intense practice. In fact, we can argue that the proposed solution turned into a source of serious problems. Higher education is dealing with well-documented trends such as falling standards and grade inflation (Arum & Roksa, 2011), low morale and high levels of stress for the academic workforce (Court & Kinman, 2008; Kinman & Wray, 2013). In a study investigating higher education systems in 19 countries, authors found that market-oriented managerial reforms “bring a breath of fresh air to the academic society” and high levels of stress that are associated with various factors, such as “declining job security, and lower salaries” (Shin & Jung, 2014). Beyond the “fresh air”, authors conclude that evidence indicated that market oriented managerial reforms are cost inefficient, resulting in higher costs in administration and associated expenses. The cost for creativity and innovation is even higher: an academic workforce stressed and insecure, placed constantly under pressure and surveillance – or performance review – is set to fail in finding new and creative solutions. Those that can challenge and innovate learn fast that this can be a dangerous exercise and it may be better to embrace mediocrity and obey the system.

Creativity, leadership and educational policies

Creativity is ubiquitously found in the rhetoric of current educational policy documents and in various research papers. Presented as an achievable goal for institutions by different speakers and officials, university leaders, an achievable aims and part of admirable goals that could and will be achieved by students, institutions, countries or corporations. Unfortunately, creativity and innovation is rarely substantiated in practice and especially in educational practices. Sources of this inertia are complex, but it is partly caused by the fact that creativity is rarely acknowledged and accepted. In The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire but Reject Creative Ideas, researchers used a set of experiments to see how people embrace creativity. They found that the uncertainty involved by change and the perceived disregard for the accepted rules and norms make creativity unwanted in practice. Moreover, these researchers conclude that people hold a certain bias against creativity and in consequence:

“… we cannot assume that organisations, institutions, or even scientific endeavours will desire and recognise creative ideas even when they explicitly state that they want them. This is because when journals extol creative research, universities train scientists to promote creative solutions, research and development companies commend the development of new products, and pharmaceutical companies praise creative medical breakthroughs, they may do so in ways that promote uncertainty by requiring gatekeepers to identify the single “best” and most “accurate” idea, thereby creating an unacknowledged aversion to creativity.” (Mueller, Melwani, & Goncalo, 2012p. 11).

Research shows that cultivating creativity is an endeavour marked in practice by an apparent paradox: even those who say that creativity is a highly desirable attribute tend to squash it when it happens close to them. For students, this can also have a significant impact. In a series of studies, two psychologists found that teachers have a “negative view of characteristics associated with creativity” and this make schools, in general, “inhospitable environments for creative students” (Westby & Dawson, 1995). From first grades to the university, classrooms are most often difficult places for the creative type, tempted to try what seems impossible, launching in seemingly ridiculous attempts to solve a problem or deal with an idea, apparently irreverent regarding the established rules. Experimental research proves that although creativity is part of the accepted and desired educational goal in countries such as USA, Australia, UK and most other OECD countries, teachers tend to dislike creative students and reprimand their tendencies to break the rules and express their non-conformity.

This is particularly damaging in a space often currently eroded by low morale, mistrust and high level of stress. In addition, universities are a complex web of bureaucratic rules and regulations, fragmented departmental policies and politics, with a labyrinthine organisational strategy. This complex web is creating in itself a context that is not conducive to nurture imagination and creativity for academic staff and students. In Forbidden Knowledge: Public Controversy and the Production of Nonknowledge, a group of researchers open the debate on the type of impact hierarchical bureaucracies and new public management in higher education have and how ominous market ideology shapes the production of knowledge. The authors of this study, (an area which remains significantly under-investigated) found that over a third of the academics involved in the study admitted that they choose not to pursue a particular line of inquiry, or publish an idea or findings because the knowledge was considered “too sensitive, dangerous, or taboo to produce” (Kempner, Merz, & Bosk, 2011). Fear is paralysing and works as an irresistible force for homogeneity and sameness, an erudite form of mediocrity that leaves large breaches in knowledge and science. There are numerous examples of how these mechanisms of fear of dealing with dangerous ideas create vulnerabilities and disasters. Creativity and innovation may be in this context the least important victim.

In effect, very few universities are de facto places of entrepreneurship and innovation vitality (Wildavsky, Kelly, & Carey, 2011). In November 2013, the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities co-signed a letter addressed to the US Congress, urging political leaders to take action to “close the nation’s innovation deficit”. Higher education will soon face the pressing choice presented in 2003 by Michael Fullan. Universities will soon find that students need to learn and grow within a culture defined by a genuine commitment to meritocracy and courage of free-thinking, creative approaches, relaxed hierarchies and flexibility, even if new ideas are uncomfortable or seem to be counter-intuitive. The change will come as soon as only these graduates – and most probably those few educated in the super-rich, hyper-rarefied and super-connected elite institutions – will find jobs suitable that place them in meaningful rankings. The respected university will have to change beyond the new public management mantras or slowly become part of a serious problem of social discontent and economic decline.  The “innovation deficit” signaled in 2013 is slowly, but constantly, moving to the front page in mass media across the world, especially as youth and graduates find increasingly hard to find jobs for a decent future.

Excellence in leadership is the key ingredient required to build a culture of innovation and excellence across an institution. History and recent examples show that the road to innovation is a matter of strategic choices, intelligent decisions and courage. If the call for innovation echoes in a reality shaped by micromanagement, and hierarchical control the effects are just tokenism and inward oriented processes. This is hindering flexibility and undermines engagement, morale, trust and stifle innovation (Lock & Lorenz, 2007). This model leaves the university – and graduates – vulnerable to uncertainties and fast changing contexts and conditions. Marching ahead as “commitment for innovation” this is de facto a pathway for individual unemployment or underemployment and institutional irrelevance.

The question for higher education is not do we need to make the effort to achieve innovation, but how can we stir the imagination of all the creative minds and expertise gathered in campus for new solutions and knowledge. What can be fixed to turn innovation from a simple catchword into a vibrant reality across the campus? What can we learn from those institutions that were able to get it right in nurturing and securing innovation? Innovation arises from a complex mix of factors in a certain type of culture, involving the skills and passion of those involved in achieving it. Some studies indicate that the key to innovation is not an increase in investments or the appointment of a star manager to control the process, but well designed policies for nurturing talent and entrepreneurialism lead to innovation (Allott, 2005). Leadership interested in innovation should explore a shift of focus from short term profits and managerial control, hierarchies and quantitative measures with immediate gratification toward vision and long term strategies and goals, which focus on building a culture of creativity and flexible exploration of ideas, passion for knowledge and engagement.

In higher education there are some historical examples of how this can be approached. Before his work as President of the United States of America, Dwight Eisenhower was the President of Columbia University. In 1948, the year of his election at the helm of this prestigious university, the former army general had a speech in which he was addressing academics as “employees of the university”. A faculty member interrupted Eisenhower by saying “Mr. President, we are not employees of the university. We are the university.”

The astute politician immediately realised the substantial difference between the Army, with the strict hierarchy and clear bureaucratic structure, and the role of an institution of higher learning. When Eisenhower became President of USA, Isidore Rabi, the faculty member who interrupted his speech, was appointed to a number of influential positions. A university is just a collective sum of professional skills and expertise, ethical values, potential and passion (or engagement) of faculty and students. This substantial difference that was immediately acknowledged by Eisenhower should be accepted as an ideological foundation for the new educational policies for higher education. The knowledge economies are currently challenged by changes of unprecedented pace: the rise of artificial intelligence and machines able to replace large numbers of workers, and rapid shifts in the global economy. This requires more than ever the individual and institutional capacity to negotiate uncertainty and use change in creative ways, for innovative solutions and new ideas. Dogmatism, control, fear and rigid rules hinder these processes.


To understand how this balance can work we can remember the story of a small European city. In 15th century, this city had only 45,000 people, roughly the size of a small neighbourhood of Paris or Berlin. At that time, a wealthy family ruled the picturesque Italian town called Florence. It is true that in the narrow streets of the city was possible bump into some of the brightest minds in the history of humanity: Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, Caravaggio or Sandro Botticelli, even extremists such as Savonarola were part of the town. Florence was under the rule of Lorenzo de Medici, known as “Il Magnifico” (The Magnificent) and this is the birthplace of European Renaissance. This is the time of unprecedented growth of arts and sciences, when the progress of human civilisation opened for the most significant achievements of modern life.

How was this possible? What was so special about Florence that it was possible to meet these artists, philosophers and engineers that changed the history of humanity? One detail that may be worth remembering is that the ruler of this city comes from a family that was famous for the love of arts and culture, education and social progress. His parents were the protectors of philosophers such as Tommaso Campanella or Galileo Galilei, the father of the Scientific Revolution. His name is Lorenzo de Medici and he was deeply committed to serve the values of his family. This is why we find the enlightened leader of this city as a unique character of his times, who was taking personal risks to shield artists and thinkers from the punishment of stepping out of strict dogmas imposed by the Catholic Church (Unger, 2008). We have to note that it was not easy to deal with these unusual personalities, especially as they were famous for breaking all types of rules, including the laws of Florence. For example, Caravaggio was inclined to drink too much and start fights, and Michelangelo was constantly performing dissections to understand how human muscles work (a detail known by de Medici), which was at that time a sacrilege punishable by death.

Lorenzo de Medici was also a protector of rights for every citizen of his town. Regardless of class, they enjoyed a greater level of comfort, freedom and protection than any other city had in centuries before and many after that (Johansson, 2006). We can say that the Florentine ruler created the first massive university ruled by academic freedom. Giving away control was a very profitable bargain and Florence remains today, after so many centuries, the capital of Renaissance, the city were Western culture was reborn.

The entire system of governance in higher education requires now a serious reconsideration in the new context created by the economic crisis, the constant rise of inequality, decline of economic growth, ecological and social vulnerabilities, and the continuous development of technologies with their significant impact on workforce dynamics.  Management cannot focus on cultivating control and distrust for an illusory efficiency, but engage researchers in finding new solutions for a sustainable future by creating a culture of genuine engagement for change and innovation. New robots and software are now rapidly adopted by labor-intensive industries and this impacts decisively on the supply and demand evolutions across the world. In effect, universities are approaching a point where the campus needs to turn into a place where its unique potential is used to challenge new dogmas and find new ideas, create new knowledge and innovate with courage and responsibility. The alternative is to maintain the illusion of rhetoric on chance, creativity and innovation and maintain rigid structures, hierarchies and obsolete approaches for ideas presented in academia’s echo chambers. The problem with this approach is that the economy and technology is at point where graduates from these institutions will not be really needed. The structural change is not just an imperative for a sustainable future, economic growth and social stability, but is of paramount importance to find realistic solutions to develop the set of creative skills, flexible and innovative minds that can make graduates substantially (or economically) different from intelligent machines and give them the advantage on the workforce market.


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This policy article was accepted for publication in the International HETL Review (IHR) after a double-blind peer review involving three independent members of the IHR Board of Reviewers and one revision cycle. Accepting editor: Dr Charlynn Miller.

Suggested citation:

Popenici, S. (2015). How universities can nurture creativity for graduate employability. International HETL Review, Volume 5, Article 9, URL:  https://www.hetl.org/how-universities-can-nurture-creativity-for-graduate-employability

Copyright 2015 Stefan Popenici

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and as such do not necessarily represent the position of other professionals or any institution. By publishing this article, the author affirms that any original research involving human participants conducted by the author and described in the article was carried out in accordance with all relevant and appropriate ethical guidelines, policies and regulations concerning human research subjects and that where applicable a formal ethical approval was obtained.

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