A few notes on Pearson and the privatisation of academic labour

The formation of Pearson College enables the education corporation Pearson Education Inc. to leverage: its learning management system and on-line content produced by academic labour; the partnerships that it has with established academic institutions in the UK, like the University of Sunderland and Royal Holloway College; and its connected educational think-tank; in order to gain fees/rents/profits from an emergent HE market.

The possibility that for-profit providers like Pearson College might gain UK degree-awarding powers was signalled in the UK Coalition Government’s response to its white paper consultation, which noted a desire to enable greater diversity and competition by widening access to University Title.

This quickens the process of destabilising academic labour inside universities, and furthers the questioning of the idea and purpose of a higher education that is publically-funded, regulated and governed. Mechanisms for: separating academic labour from other forms of labour inside the university; for surveilling it through mechanisms like the National Student Survey or the REF; and for commodifying and reifying it for-profit.

Critically, the mapping of academic labour onto new terrains opened-up by Pearson College is also tied to the possibility that the HE administration, teaching and accreditation/examination processes might be separated, enclosed and commodified. Pearson Education runs a for-profit examination board, Edexcel and this underpins the idea of accreditation for-profit, which is also developing elsewhere in terms of massive on-line open courses like Coursera (which wishes to tear down the limits of time, geography and money). Here there is a separation of the teaching process from that of examination or of assessment for learning, and the commodification and enclosure of each process.

Ravitch has written critically about the role of Pearson in the privatisation and monetisation of public education in the USA, stating that

tests are the linchpin of the attack on public education. The politicians throw about test scores as evidence that our entire public education system is a failed enterprise.

This has ramifications for academic labour inside a more competitive and enterprising UK HE market, as the government uses secondary legislation to lever open the sector for privatization. Witness the mass outsourcing of services at London Metropolitan University.

As for-profit providers are encouraged into the sector often using the promises of study at a distance using technology as a catalyst, an architecture is opened-up that threatens the public funding, regulation and governance of HE. The profitability of HE partnerships for companies like Pearson Education highlights how educational technology is developed as a way-in both to the extraction of value from universities, and to the recalibration of the purpose of universities to catalyse such extraction further. Partnerships and leverage are enforced, in-part, because academic labour is shackled inside the demands of performativity revealed in the research evaluations or student satisfaction scores. Engaging with external partners like Pearson for service-driven efficiencies make sense for universities that are being recalibrated as businesses.

Thus, the role of Pearson cannot be disconnected from other recalibrations that affect academic labour inside the University, including: outsourcing of services; securitisation and bond financing; learning analytics as a cybernetic mechanism for surveillance, monitoring and the extraction of new forms of value; the militarisation of academic space; the role of venture capital, joint-ventures, think tanks, policy makers etc., as neoliberal transnational activist networks, acting inside education.

Pearson College also signals the possibility that a surfeit of new, for-profit providers will cheapen the costs of academic labour that does not develop proprietary knowledge or skills. This risks driving down labour costs and increasing precarious academic work based on post-graduate rather than tenured staff. Flexibility, redundancy, productivity, privatisation, restructuring, value-for-money, all underpinned by technology, risk becoming the new normal for academics involved in teaching and research. As the discipline of the market enters HE in the guise of for-profit, technologically-rich operations like Pearson College, the spaces that are available to develop critiques of the recalibration of the University are reduced. There is no alternative.

The point, then, is whether academics can develop new forms of labour in new, collectivised spaces, in order that the complexity of their labour as a process inside HE might be unravelled and re-stitched against technologically-enabled, new public management.

However, even here there is a risk of replicating the systemic inequalities that are promoted through hegemonic positions. As Hoofd argues, all forms of activism and innovation risk their own subsumption inside structural regimes of domination. In fact

the current mode of [neo-liberal] late-capitalism relies on the continuous extension and validation of the infrastructure and the optimistic discourses of the new information technologies. Discourses that typically get repeated in favour of what I designate as the emerging speed-elite are those of connection, instantaneity, liberation, transformation, multiplicity and border crossing.

Thus, even those educators who claim to be hacking or co-creating ‘new spaces’ with students, or developing and deploying personal learning environments or massive online open courses as opposed to institutionalised systems, are operating inside structures that were created with the goal of facilitating global capitalism and which contribute to refining technologies of surveillance and control. Hoofd argues that ‘The idea that subjectivities from social movements are in any way less produced by neo-liberal globalisation is highly problematic.’

Pearson, MOOCs, badges, Coursera, PLEs, PLNs [insert your own innovation], therefore, are each developed inside the logic of capital. Whether they can form a front against the logic of alienation is another issue. In 1966 Marcuse wrote that

The incessant dynamic of technical progress has become permeated with political content, and the Logos of technics has been made into the Logos of continued servitude. The liberating force of technology – the instrumentalization of things – turns into a fetter of liberation; the instrumentalization of man.

Our response to the reality of Pearson College might then be the same as our response to Coursera or to Change MOOCs or to bring your own device or to [whatever]. We might ask whether and where it is possible for counter-hegemonic networks to develop. We might ask whether and how academic labour might form a rupture in the existing logic. We might ask whether and when it might become possible to reclaim academic labour for democratic engagements in general assemblies, for militant research strategies against their control by capitalist agendas, and for doing, working or labouring in public, rather than for enterprise.


3 Responses to A few notes on Pearson and the privatisation of academic labour

  1. As someone whose academic labour will be ruptured in a few months time 😉 I have been thinking about what action teaching academics might take as they move from full-time to part-time/casual labour. An interesting counter-hegemonic network might be one where people supported each other in retaining control of their own ‘creative works’ that support their teaching and others’ learning. Repositories of self-published resources where the work is attributed to individuals not institutions. I should blog this.

  2. Richard,
    Interesting points that merit serious consideration.

    There is, of course, an interesting tension in that often there are people beavering away to subvert the system and outside of there own little enclaves they make little impact. All of a sudden the ideas they have been quietly supporting are picked up by winds of the system and blown around at hurricane strength.

    Thus the system cannabalises their original idea at the same time as it gives them the best chance of spreading their idea. It seems to me MOOCs are an example of this situation.

    A similar principle can be applied to outsourcing though – administrators want to cut costs out of a desire to provide the best educational experience they can to students, yet it invariably ends up being counterproductive because it increasingly corporatises the university.

    Wish I had the answers!

  3. Pingback: Ten points on the 2012 UCISA Survey on Technology-Enhanced Learning | Richard Hall's Space

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