The political economy of openness in HE: or what is the point of it all?

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 8 April 2010

I’ve been quite taken with the emerging discussions around openness and transparency in HE, the creation and management of open educational resources, and the concomitant lack of a discourse around open governance in HEIs. In particular I am interested in why there is a focus on the mechanics, rather than the ideologies, cultures and political economics, of openness, and whether this is a function of educators colluding in their own coercion.

This notion of colluding in coercion, in acting in ways that either overtly or unquestioningly maintain dominant power and economic relationships, exists at several levels: the individual, the discipline, the institution and the sector. One example of such collusion was been picked-up by Joss Winn, who highlighted the place of parallelism through which higher education and its programmes of work set agendas that mirror dominant economic models:

“we collude in our own oppression… [even suggesting that] new autonomous spaces needed to be created apart from the agenda of neo-liberal education… [our] parallelism would still serve the interests of the State by removing the responsibility of funding ‘uneconomic’ subjects. In effect, parallelism would act as a form of efficiency under the neo-liberal agenda.”

Economically inefficient courses or items of content or ways of working risk being cut by institutional managers, even in programmes of openness, because they are working to or in parallel with the core economic values of the State. In the same way, we fund projects that are aligned with the view of those who are qualitatively dominant – *our* values are set by those with power, rather than by way of deliberation with the quantitative majority.

This issue of power is important because it speaks of values, inclusion and justice, and is amplified by the traction within society that openness, in terms of data and government, is gaining. Clearly for some HEIs this is subjugated within a dominant economic paradigm. However, openness is also emerging throughout the practice of higher education, and in programmes of work around open education, like the JISC OER programme. Catalysing a culture and set of values around openness offers spaces for cultural reinvention, which offer opportunities to re-fashion social relationships. Thus, whilst at the moment, for example, the Humanities OER project Humbox, with its wealth of open resources, overtly demonstrates a focus on staff, peers and disciplines, and tends to paint learners as objects who have content made for them, or made available for them, it offers a valuable space or catalyst for the socio-cultural re-invention of higher education. The issue is whether we have the will to do this re-invention.

Joss Winn makes this point in his call for a manifesto for sharing, when he eloquently argues that “sharing doesn’t need institutionalising”. In quoting a paper by David Noble, which argues that universities are responsible for “the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and, hence, intellectual property”, Joss notes “that by institutionalising OERs, we’re producing constraints that go against sharing. Scaling up the production of OERs to an institutional level where sharing is considered in terms of an IP Policy, business case, marketing and ‘best practice’ will kill the potential that already exists to share.” Moreover Joss argues that this is alienating precisely because “[it] is just another way of creating capital out of immaterial labour.” We collude because we legitimise the role of the institution or the discipline in taking surplus value from our own labour, or that of our students when we co-create.

Debating and fighting for the idea of the University, infused with and by a culture of openness, is vital, and that resistance might usefully be centred on deliberating the social relations that enable learners and tutors to manage disruption, rather than situating OERs within “the adoption of appropriate business models” that may ultimately be alienating. In situating openness as a form of cultural production, a recent EDUCAUSE paper, Innovating the 21st-Century University: It’s Time!, argues that “Universities are losing their grip on higher learning as the Internet is, inexorably, becoming the dominant infrastructure for knowledge“. They state that the value produced for students and the control of the mode of production are central elements of a meaningful experience in Universities. The authors quote Charles Vest’s view that “a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms” is central. However, they then focus upon shared course content and connections, rather than negotiated ownership and co-governance.

It is this notion of co-governance that ought to be central to the development of openness and its value in the idea of the twenty-first century University. One proactive example is the Really Open University’s ideologically-driven stance on the need for praxis, in re-asserting the idea of the University as a site for critical action, resistance and opposition, lead by students. This aligns with the model for organic intellectual endeavour proposed by Gramsci, in challenging institutional or state-legitimised power and hegemonic ideologies, through an engagement with, and challenging of, values and attitudes. What is required in this view is counter-hegemony, a counter-culture in which we deliberate and re-assert the social, rather than economic, obligations that drive us, and through which we focus upon social rather than economic enterprise.

So, is re-invention of the production of content, by enabling the mechanics of re-use, the key issue? Or rather is it more important to re-think and change the rules of the game? It is clear that established corporate and industrial models dominate the discourses around openness. So we see the Open Data and Open Gov movements colonised by corporates, or those seeking to gain from traditional political economic models, which are generally focused upon re-use of content rather than re-invention of models of power. It is necessary then to fight for the prioritisation of people over organisations or business models, and against the use of open agenda for “online opinion research and consultation”.

More important for me are the legitimation of our social obligations and a move towards the commons, catalysed through acts of sharing and underpinned by a deliberative, shared socio-cultural values or co-governance of the means of production. In an excellent article on Twitter and Copyright Shinen argues that “creators needed incentive to create” and generally Copyright Acts frame this incentivisation financially . But what if incentivisation could be re-shaped as social or cultural, and be defined democratically?

One of the positive outcomes of the angst over the Digital Economy Bill (#debill) might to be a renewing of praxis, framed by shared socio-cultural values, with educators acting as conduits for production and in resistance to the alienation that is enforced through a business model that legitimises domination of production. This would truly align with Raymond Williams’ view of the power of the cultures that are publically defined and fought for, and that enabling social transformation. In the debate on openness we are in danger of losing sight of the interaction between political, economic and cultural forces, and the possibilities that openness can be a site of resistance against established norms that have lead us towards crisis, or which at least seek to oppress.

The ideas both of oppression and control of the value of content and the means of producing and sharing it, can be read into the reaction to the #debill farrago. Mike Butcher noted the telling use of the term “likely to be used” in the Amendment to Clause 8 of the Digital Economy Bill: “a location on the internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright” will lead to disconnection. The economic model defined by business, rather than one framed by social relations, won out. The language of consumers and industry used by MPs in the Digital Economy Bill, is just the same as the language deployed within HE about the relationships between students and institutions by those in power, which we hope will be socially-constructed but that are increasingly infused with economic determinism.  What hope for co-governance here, especially when the dominant discourse is co-creation or co-production, which risks objectifying students?

In this we should forget the issue of whether access to the internet is a basic human right – this is an incredibly problematic statement and risks diminishing the struggle for true human rights as enshrined in the European Convention and the UN Declaration. However, there is an increasing unease about the possibilities for openness and truly open governance, where societal values clash with those of business, and this stretches beyond #debill. Chris Marsden makes an interesting point around control of the web and net neutrality, arguing that #debill is an affront to that, and when taken with the  recent ruling in favour of Comcast versus the FCC over net neutrality in the US, we might see this as reflecting increasing confrontation over the control of web-based means of production. The Open Rights Group certainly begins to make that case, in arguing for democracy and transparency.

In reclaiming the spaces for openness we might usefully revisit the histories, cultures and values of the Commons. This is important because overcoming disruption and enabling justice lies in shared values, and as Joss Winn argues, we achieve this not through “institutionalising sharing, but by sowing the humanity in sharing; the joy of giving and receiving; the immaterial wealth of knowledge that already exists and the pleasure of creating social relations that resist the organising principle of private property and wage labour.” We need to question continually the extent to which we collude in coercion.

One of the drivers for the emerging discussions around openness and transparency in HE, and the creation and management of open educational resources role, should be the socio-cultural praxis around co-governance. This needs to highlight issues of legitmation and alienation, of value and active participation in practical life. We need to move beyond objectifying the student as co-creator or co-producer to celebrating our shared, subjective deliberation of democratic governance. Through such an approach, the idea of the University might come to be re-framed as active, creative, self-aware and socially-constructed. Moreover it might also tap into the joy and passion of mentoring learners, and of developing truly transformative spaces that change lives. Our approach to openness ought to stand against the production of diminished or controlled spaces, impacted by business models and metrics, which in-turn focus instrumental engagements.

In standing against the economic ideology of openness, and in support of our shared, deliberative democratic values, we might consider and add to the manifesto stared by Joss Winn.

  1. A commitment to transformation and solidarity
  2. Learning our own histories and not his-story
  3. Starting from daily reality
  4. Learning together as equals
  5. Getting out of the classroom
  6. Inspiring social change

The momentum being developed around the idea of openness, through resistance to #debill or threats to net neutrality, or the opportunities of OER programmes, offers us sites for resistance and hope. The question is whether we have the energy to deliberate and then fight for our shared values in the idea of the University.

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