A note on technology, outsourcing and the privatisation of higher education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 8 November 2010

Charles Arthur wrote in Saturday’s Guardian that the UK Government shouldn’t hang on Google’s every word. Arthur makes some interesting points around the increasing privatisation of public spaces and assets. [Although he does not explicitly make this connection, I am happy so to do.]

  • He notes issues of governance and evidence-for-policy, in the face of progressive use of technology [rather than technology-as-progress]: “sometimes there’s a temptation to think that because a big, successful company tells you something’s wrong, that it really must be”.
  • He notes issues of technology-as-progress that risks catalysing enclosure of the commons by our decision-makers, with PM David Cameron arguing that “we are reviewing our IP laws, to see if we can make them fit for the internet age”, and David Willetts, the Minister with responsibility for higher education adding “The US rule is that ‘anything man has invented under the sun you should be able to patent’. That’s something we do wish to investigate.”
  • He notes that there is limited critique of the role of technology in defining the state and its services: “But ministers and prime ministers are in thrall to those who would sell them technology.”

A key point that Arthur makes is about the productive value of opening-up, rather than closing down the web through overt institutional policy and governance. A central point here is that decision-makers are able to take action based on a view of technology as a function of systemic, socio-cultures, that are historic, rather than by seeing technology as a-historic and neutral. In referring to the opening-up of UK data under the last Labour Government and linking it to a view that open agendas spur innovation, Arthur argues that “There’s a lesson here: Berners-Lee spurned the idea of commercialising his invention of the web, in favour of giving it away; and everyone, including government, has benefited enormously.” The lessons of technology-in-education demand a political view rather than one which is driven by economics.

This gave me pause-for-thought, around what we give away, what we control, and what we open up, in terms of the recent Educause and NACUBO white paper on Shaping the Higher Education Cloud. The paper highlights how the Cloud offers hope for efficiencies and economies of scale, but that HE will need to overcome its “long tradition of building its own systems and tendency to self-operate almost everything related to IT”, as if culturally-specific norms, operations and strategies are inherently bad. The paper mentions the core mission and competencies of HE, hinting that these are not informed by technology [and neither do those norms inform the development of technology], and moreover that technology is socially, culturally and historically neutral, and can therefore be left to “experts”, or at least the managers who control the labour of those experts.

The argument given for efficiency in the face of mounting economic pressures, for flexibility in the cloud, for the commoditization of IT, makes no attempt at meaningful critique of what services, systems or data should be in the Cloud or why. It makes no attempt to focus upon an institution as a complex socio-cultural set of spaces, within which technology and those who work with it are situated. The paper highlights how privatisation of technology and infrastructures that support public assets like Universities are vital. Moreover, it highlights HE-as-consumption: as the consumption of content and data; and as the consumption of services. It says nothing of the lived experience of HE; it says nothing of the lived production of HE by those who work within it; it says nothing of the open engagement of those within HE with a range of stakeholders; it says nothing of the co-operative production of academic forms that are socio-cultural and which incorporate technology. In stating that by moving infrastructure, software and platforms-as-services to the cloud, universities can then concentrate on core competencies, the paper speaks of homogenisation, where the only choices on outsourcing are based on cost and risk, rather than academic practices and forms.

Whilst the paper says little about wider issues of enclosure of the open web, through Apps and the logic of private clouds, it does at least argue for federated access. However, identity management hosted by a broker for a set of private companies offers different perspectives from those negotiated and managed in the public domain, in co-operation. If my identity is in the cloud, and I am separated from my institutional ties through the dislocation of people and place, what does that do to my alienation from my work through myself? As I am further virtualised, and my identity commodified for the use of brokers or aggregators, what does that mean for the value of my labour and the control of my self or access to my self, whether by me alone or in conjunction with others? Separation rather than co-operation is at risk here, in the logic of outsourcing.

In this, as with so much analysis of technology-in-education, there is a chronic lack of critique. The paper argues for the “promise of cloud computing to transform higher education learning and business processes”, and yet offers no evidence for the former, or for systems that might be migrated [although the risk of payroll being managed in the Cloud gets a mention]. Does technology really transform learning? This is a classic positivist position, and one similar to traditional, historical arguments for the productive efficiencies of technology that underpin progress and ‘growth’. In this, other unsubstantiated statements are made for green facilities and the value of integration, whilst there is no meaningful focus on the impact of our outsourcing of carbon emissions or of our resource use. In spite of this, the key to the logic of outsourcing and the cloud is given on page 8: “the ability of cloud providers… to substitute capital for labour – makes it unlikely that higher education can compete on cost”. Here, the logic of technology within capitalism is laid bare, and it is reiterated on page 15, where the stepped-plan of what institutions should move to the cloud develops with no focus on culture and/or meaning, but simply on economic efficiency and ‘growth’. [Academic engagement is first mentioned on page 19.]

This demands a further reading of Postone’s Time, Labour and Social Domination. Where technology is divorced from academic endeavour and seen neutrally through a purely fiscal lens, it can be used to define the privatisation and marketisation of higher education, irrespective of that sector’s role as a key state asset. In this, the discourse of other technologically-driven innovations, like the personal learning environment needs critique against a prevailing libertarian standpoint, and in connection with co-operative and open, academic engagement. The fear is that an uncritical treatment of innovations that might be seen to be against the institution and against the public, and for the separation of private, individual consumption [including the PLE and OERs], work for neoliberal agendas of the marketisation of that which is ‘technologically-neutral’. Technology-in education has to be analysed in terms of critical, social theory, rather than simply economics.

This is an emerging crisis of the public space, which re-focuses our need to raise major questions of technology-in-education. Where are the spaces for partnerships of students-as-producers, or communities-as-producers with institutions or academic staff? What is the idea of the university where HE seems to be focused on consumption of data, networks, learning, resources, and the curriculum, and migrating this consumption to the cloud? Who should control the means of production in HE? There seems to be little space for denial of the dominant logic of outsourcing-as-privatisation, or technology-as-efficiency-for-learning. Within a logic of higher education as ancillary of business, seen in the Coalition’s cuts agenda and its response to the Browne Review, the privatisation of institutional functions risks HE becoming an edufactory for training/economic provision alone. Harvey saw this emerging in 1986, when he argued that universities were moving from being “guardians of national knowledge to ancillaries in the production of knowledge for global corporations”. As public control of HE as a public good is marginalised, and as we become less well able to think through the relationships of our local activities to global ecology and resources, this risk is amplified.

So I wonder, is the outsourced space one in which democratic governance can be imposed, in the face of the logic of markets? Is the outsourced space one which furthers the enclosure of the commons? Is the outsourced space about marketising higher education for efficiency of technological services before it is privatised for the consumption-of-training-as-learning? Does the outsourced space further remove us from the ecological damage of our resource-intensified life-worlds? Can our work towards open educational models help provide alternatives?

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