Open education, cracks, and the crisis of higher education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 26 October 2010

The Browne Review and the cuts announced in the UK CSR have prompted much heat and some light around the idea of higher education [HE], and the notion of state support for the established social forms of higher education institutions. This is a crisis for those engaged in HE and for whom higher learning is more than economic outputs, and in that the crisis in HE takes on the characteristics of the broader political economic crisis within society.

In the model of coercive capitalism proposed by Naomi Klein, the impact of crisis is used to justify a tightening and a quickening of the dominant neoliberal ideology. This ideology highlights the transfer control of the economy and state or public assets from public to the private sector under the belief that it will produce a more efficient [smaller, less regulatory] government and improve economic outputs. This implies a lock-down of state subsidies for “inefficient” work [Band C and D funded subjects in UK HE], the privatisation of state enterprises in the name of consumer choice, economic efficiency or sustainability [like encouraging the privatisation of HE], a refusal to run deficits [hence pejorative cuts to state services], and extending the financialisation of capital and the growth of consumer debt [like the increase in fees]. What Klein terms the shock doctrine uses “the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters [or in this case the trauma of a structural economic crisis] – to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy.”

In particular we might now revisit the critical work on the neoliberal university, the student as consumer and the marketisation of HE, in order to critique and negate the path that we are pushed towards. This work identifies the types of controlled, economically-driven, anti-humanist organisations that will possibly emerge, and the ways in which oppositional, alternative, meaningful social change might be realised. This connects to the work of Harvey (2010), who argues that there are seven activity areas that underpin meaningful social change.

  1. Technological and organisational forms of production, exchange and consumption.
  2. Relations to nature and the environment.
  3. Social relations between people.
  4. Mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs.
  5. Labour processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services or affects.
  6. Institutional, legal and governmental arrangements.
  7. The conduct of daily life that underpins social reproduction.

These activity areas help educators and students examine how HE might engage with Browne and the CSR’s neoliberal agenda, in order to develop shared, or co-operative alternatives. This re-imaging is critical if we are to remove the emerging iron cage of bureaucracy and technocracy.

Imagining and creating alternatives is critical and might usefully be seen in terms of the dialectics of social change. As the hegemonic view of society radicalises itself, in turn other opportunities for change emerge. Holloway’s ideas of exploiting cracks in capitalism is important here, in seeing how the internal tensions in the dominant political economy offer up possibilities for radical change at very specific moments. Some of these opportunities exist in the more open and radical (Trapese), or the local (The School of Everything), or the co-operative (as outlined in Affinities and within the UK Co-operative College) forms of educational organisation. We do not have to settle for a pre-determined business-as-usual.

This also goes for the University itself, as a social form. One of the key areas that is opened-up for critique and re-imagining is the openness of our social forms of HE, crystallised in-part through technology. An outcome of Browne and the CSR is a shrinking of the institution and a negation of non-economically determined activities, based around efficiencies as a predetermined scale and the consumption of higher learning by students as consumers. It may be that Browne’s focus on the idea of the student gives us a chink here to focus on issues of open identities and open engagement with the institution by its stakeholders. Browne clearly views students as consumers. The report argues (p. 25):

“We want to put students at the heart of the system. Students are best placed to make the judgement about what they want to get from participating in higher education.”

Whilst the actuality and maturity of this view is highly contested, it implies that HEIs should engage meaningfully with their stakeholder’s unique and possibly shared identities, rather than forcing them to adapt to the institutional position. There is a space here within which work on OpenID, OAUTH and more broadly on open educational models might be catalysed. This user-centred work is less about control and moulding of a user’s identity to meet institutional standards and is more about co-operative engagement and sharing.

This view hints at our ability to move away from thinking about technology to thinking about relationships and people, so that technology is just one component within a broader socio-cultural approach to change [as noted by Harvey, above]. So, institutions might work towards being open, rather than branded as, for example, an iTunesU or a Microsoft/Google University. We should be aiming for openness, and allowing users to engage with other (web-based) services in ways appropriate to them. This view connects to that of DEMOS, in their view of The Edgeless University (pp. 54-5) that:

“Technology should be in the service of an ethic of open learning. Just as technology provides ways to open up access to information, there are technological tools to close it off and reinforce existing barriers and potentially inequalities. Wherever possible investment should encourage open standards and avoid overly restrictive access management.”

Brian Kelly highlights clearly the contested nature of the place of technology within higher education in the face of cuts, and the impact on the HE environment. Brian argues that “we will need to accept many changes in order to survive”. Acceptance is not necessarily the view one might take at this radical juncture, if one viewed adaptation through resilience as a possibility. Irrespective of whether demonstrations and protests in support of business-as-usual [i.e. pleas for the same model of state funding], or re-modelling service provision in the dominant economic mode [i.e. re-shaping services in the face of cuts], are viable options, there are alternative forms of social organisation emerging.

In a separate Resilient Nation paper, DEMOS argue that communities have a choice between reliance on government and its resources, and its approach to command and control, or developing an empowering day-to-day, scalable resilience. Such resilience develops engagement, education, empowerment and encouragement. Resilient forms of HE should have the capacity to help students, staff and wider communities to develop these attributes. As technology offers reach, usability, accessibility and timely feedback, it is a key to developing a resilient higher education, with openness (i.e. shared, decentralised and accessible) at its core. Seizing these opportunities to reshape the dominant institutional forms of HE and their ways of operating, in the spirit of promoting co-operation and openness, offers hope.


This reshaping is proactive and creative, and is not focused upon crisis planning. It might also focus on the shared production of distinctive services by and for institutions, rather than the consumption of services provided by outsourced providers and a focus upon tying the institutional brand to products and vendors. The recent EDUCAUSE ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology argues that “there is no stereotypical student when it comes to technology”.  Can institutions afford to be stereotypical when it comes to engaging with those students’ and their identities/individuality? This doesn’t mean leaving those students to create their own outsourced personal learning environments. But it might mean an activist role for institutions in building frameworks that are open enough to make sense to the variety of students in their own contexts. The reality and medium-term effectiveness of centralisation or outsourcing of homogenised services is therefore a major issue, in light of the need for institutional uniqueness.

One of the key outcomes of Browne and the CSR is that modularity, rather than homogeneity, in the HE sector will out. Modularity and diversity are key planks of resilience, tied to feedback from key users. Thus the scope, values and visions of institutions are key, and the ways in which social media or technology are placed in the service of those values and that scope is pivotal. George Roberts engages with this idea of the form of higher education, and the ideas raised by David Kernohan’s recent critique of the idea of the University, by asking whether “it may be time for the academy to abandon the institutions which have housed it for the past several hundred years”. George concludes by asking “So, where does the academy go?” This is an important question related to alternative social forms, away from that of the university, and supported by appropriate, distinctive and open technologies. However, this is also a scary question for those wedded to financialised capital through mortgages, debts and consumption.

I have no answer to George’s question here, but I suggest that we need to re-focus our critique in-part on the place of technology in the idea of higher education. David Jones argues that “It’s the focus on the product that has led university leaders to place less emphasis on the process and the people”. We need to address whether an obsession with tools is helpful in the face of crises. I suggest that a discussion and critique of what higher education is for, and how it is actualised has never been more pressing. I suggest that business-as-usual is not an option, and that goes for the determinist use of technology as outsourced, as integrated, as PLE, as whatever. I suggest that we need to offer up alternative views of the idea and forms of higher education, based on shared values beyond acceptance of economic shock doctrines. I suggest that we might focus upon resilience and openness as alternatives, and as cracks in the dominant ideology.

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