on the solidarity of openness: the current and future state of higher education

In his 1979 review of EP Thompson’s Poverty of Theory, Alex Callinicos notes that

The commitment to the self-emancipation of the working class is married within it to the careful study of the laws of motion of capitalism and to the cold calculations of revolutionary strategy and tactics. This is the heritage of Marx and Lenin. It is no less morally powerful for being geared to the struggle for power which is the only road to human emancipation.

Callinicos connects the need for a critique of the inner workings of capitalism, in its structural and cultural forms, its disciplinary nature and its revelation of power, to the human desire for self-determination beyond the market. This is more than a moral or ethical focus. It is about discovering and realising the legitimacy of action beyond the value form. It is about recognising and acting on an identity of interests that may be different and opposed to those of others.

It is this focus on legitimacy of action and identity of interests that underpins consciousness as the first step to political emancipation, and as a cornerstone of Callinicos’s struggle for power, which Thompson highlighted in his definition of class in The Making of the English Working Class Thompson wrote:

Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their-interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born – or enter involuntarily. Class consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas and institutional forms. If the experience appears determined, class consciousness does not. We can see a logic in the responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar experiences, but we cannot predicate any law.

Here Thompson begins to shape the interplay between cultural forms and relations of production, so that interests are formed as forces of production out of humanistic solidarities. Those cultural forms include educational norms that are preyed on and developed inside the structural realities of capitalism. One of Thompson’s great legacies is to remind us of the humanist nature of our shared experiences and the ways in which they enable solidarity beyond the value-form. However, he also reminds us that hegemonic interests are shaped against working class solidarities, so that we need to assess the ways in which dominant narratives are maintained. How is hegemony produced and re-produced, in order to maintain power? How are established traditions, value-systems, ideas and institutional forms recalibrated in order to conserve and sustain power and to discipline counterpoints of solidarity?

Stephen Ball picks this up in his work on the neoliberal networks that now dominate global education as a set of corporate forms. In his work on new philanthropy, or philanthropy 3.0, Ball argues that philanthrocapitalism sees ‘a move from palliative to developmental giving’, which restructures charity or giving in the name of capitalism. Here benefactors are consumers of social investment and philanthropy for educational ends is geared around entrepreneurialism. There is a clear need to see a business return on cultural or educational giving. Thus, there is an increasing use of commercial or enterprise models of practice as a new generic form underpinning what Ball calls ‘venture philanthropy, philanthropic portfolios, due diligence, entrepreneurial solutions and so on.’ Thus, he emphasises the subtitle to Bronfman and Soloman’s 2009 book, The Art of Giving, where ‘The soul meets a business plan.’ Here the strategies of private equity are used to leverage social enterprise.

Ball argues that philanthrocapitalists often seek silver bullet solutions to grand challenges, which in turn utilise business partnerships, to develop technical, generic or universally-applicable, and scalable solutions. The idea is that strategic giving that is problem-focused, interdisciplinary, time-limited and high impact will ‘extend leverage’ between the private and public sectors. On this point of grand challenges, Ball quotes Brooks, Leach, Lucas and Millstone who talk about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who’s logic model for philanthropy links technical change, leverage and scale, to transfer business models to the social sector to maximise returns on investment through venture philanthropy and social enterprise. Here the end-point is to connect Thompson’s established traditions, value-systems, ideas and institutional forms through business-driven cultural change to the market. Ball (2011, p. 72) notes that:

Through CSR [corporate social responsibility] programmes, corporate foundations and individual philanthropic action, wealthy families and rich companies are beginning to ‘assume socio-moral duties that were heretofore assigned to civil society organizations, governmental entities and state agencies’ (Shamir, 2008, p. 9). These methods and commitments create new opportunities for those with money and purpose in what Horne (2002) calls the ‘parapolitical sphere’. That is, as Frumkin (2006, p.1) argues, ‘philanthropy allows private actors to vote in public ways’ or as Saltman (2010) puts it more directly, givers ‘vote with their dollars.’

It is against this view of class interests and philanthrocapitalism that one might view the latest re-working of the MOOC, as an ideological platform for the struggle for power. Billed as an open, online course on the Current/Future State of Higher Education, #CFHE12 starts by stating the relationships between economic competition, service-driven economic growth and the role of education. As a result it hints at the tensions that may result. The introduction then conflates democracy and democratic ideals into the struggle for what the University as entrepreneurial space both is and might be.

University leaders are struggling to make sense of how internationalization, the current economic conditions, and new technologies will impact their systems. Educators are uncertain of the impact of open educational resources, alternative accreditation models, de-professionalization of academic positions, and increased grant competitiveness. What is role of the academy in increasing national economic competitiveness while preserving the “vital combat for lucidity” that defines an open democratic society?

This is higher education described and re-produced for the sole purpose of economic growth; a higher education that risks being collapsed inside the logic of the neoliberal restructuring of society and the idea that public spaces should be vehicles for value-extraction. This is higher education as a site for profit, with the open, online course as a vehicle for cultural hegemony.

There are two references that are connected to this opening definition of the current/future states of higher education. The first is a policy piece from the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government that highlights how Ball’s analysis of philanthrocapitalism is connected to the economisation of culture, including education. It declares (p. 2):

Some of the characteristics shared by the most active institutions in the field can be identified now, however. They have the leadership to make economic revitalization a priority, the culture to mesh that objective with their academic mission, the legal flexibility to mix and match assets and brainpower with the private sector, and the resources to make it all work.

Here it is knowledge for entrepreneurial, service-driven innovation that is of critical importance in economic regeneration and renewal, and this is the point of higher education. As the policy piece continues (p. 20):

This points to an important distinction in the taxonomy of theeconomic development efforts of higher education. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development pointed out in 2007, universities and systems really have two separate, though related, roles: “knowledge creation through research and technology transfer; [and] knowledge transfer through education and human resources development.”

Thus, an argument is scoped that seeks a silver bullet for the purpose of higher education. A need to redefine the space in which academics operate that is for the market. Thus (p. 54)

In the economy of the future, the businesses that will have staying power, and growth potential, will be those most dependent on knowledge — on research, new ideas, new technologies, new processes, upgraded skills for their workers.

Or, in the world of philanthropcapitalism, in order to maintain the increase in the rate of profit, the economy needs an education system that can provide technical fixes or technological solutions to knowledge-creation, which are generic and scalable. Thus, the second reference, Morin’s Seven complex Lessons in education for the future concurs that (p. 2) ‘We should teach strategic principles for dealing with chance, the unexpected and uncertain, and ways to modify these strategies in response to continuing acquisition of new information.’

The focus on uncertainty and the management of risk in decision-making makes the involvement of the Society for Learning Analytics Research in #CFHE12 natural. The use of data mining and algorithmic control as forms of cybernetic management of human autonomy stretches from High Frequency Trading on the markets to the surveillance and management of student learning outcomes. The focus is on performativity and the use of data to impose order and reduce risk, and to impose the discipline of the market on marginal innovations or innovation on the margins. The learning outcomes for #CFHE12 make this clear as they prescribe a space in which solutions for the future of higher education can be developed that are technical, generic and scalable.

In this engagement with the current and future states of higher education it then becomes important to note that participants are engaged inside an open, online course that might come to resemble a governance network for the restructuring of education as a neoliberal subjectivity. Thus, the course is scoped inside a space that is sponsored by the philanthrocapitalist Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the technology vendor Desire2Learn, the Technology-Enhanced Learning Research Institute at Athabasca University, and that is organised by a range of higher education providers, commentators and NGOs like The Chronicle of Higher Education and EDUCAUSE. In this one might ask whether it describes what Ball has called a transnational activist network acting for the market inside previously public spaces? As I note elsewhere, describing these new networks of hegemonic power inside higher education is necessary, in order:

to open-up an avenue of thinking about hegemony and hierarchy in higher education, and the possibilities for academic labour to utilise technology to critique responses to the current crisis of capitalism that is recalibrating the sector. In this project, it becomes important to highlight, as Stephen Ball and Jonathan Davies have, the importance of network analyses that focus upon the production, reproduction and contestation of power, and the processes through which alliances, like Ball’s neoliberal transnational activist networks, that emerge from shared ideologies and resource interdependencies further reinforce asymmetric power relations.

Ball sees transnational activist networks facilitated by networks of power and affinity that enable the re-production of ‘geographies of social relationships’ that are in the name of money, profit, choice and unregulated markets. These networks form shifting assemblages of activity and relationships that reinforce hegemonic power. Moreover, they are transnational activist networks consisting of academics and think tanks, policy-makers and administrators, finance capital and private equity funds, media corporations and publishers, philanthropists/hedge-funds interested in corporate social responsibility etc., which aim at regulating the state for enterprise and the market.

There are two points on which to conclude. The first is whether we might begin to critique the co-option and recalibration of allegedly open innovations like MOOCs, or of open education itself, as it is presented in the name of risk-management and the rate of profit by networks that act in the name of the market and marketised solutions? The second is whether we might ask, in the face of global crises related to commodity futures, climate change, resource shortages and austerity, if an analysis of the current and future state of higher education that is predicated on entrepreneurial zeal and the argument that the market provides the only logic for solutions, is really valid?

In developing answers to these questions and in critiquing the educational forms that are being scoped for us by networks of think tanks, universities, key educators with social capital, finance capital, publishing house and those engaged in data mining, and media corporations, we might return to Callinicos’s call for an understaning of the laws of motion of capitalism, so that we are able to analyse spaces like #CFHE12 in light of those structural constraints. However, we might also develop a critique of Thompson’s points about the development of class interests, namely that:

Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their-interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born – or enter involuntarily. Class consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas and institutional forms.

In articulating an entrepreneurial future for higher education that connects the soul and a business plan, one might ask for whom #CFHE12 is created, and whether it is possible to scope a future for higher education that lies beyond the neoliberal discourse identified in its learning outcomes.