For a critique of MOOCs/whatever and the restructuring of the University


In analyses of the circuits and cycles of capitalism, interpretations of crises underpin our individual and collective responses to them. In classical interpretations, overproduction/under-consumption or the tendency of the rate of profit to fall have dominated discussions of what might be done to move beyond crises. Critical here is recognising that the discourse of crisis is framed by how capital can overcome the barriers to the production and accumulation of surplus value. Typical mechanisms have been: the implementation of new technologies that revolutionise the production process; new working patterns that increase the productivity of labour; or the destruction of unproductive capitals or institutions, so that the surplus value that is tied up inside them can be released and further accumulated. Inside such analyses, the relationships between civil and political society and the mechanisms through which the battle of ideas can be waged is critical. It is here that the historic idea of the University, and the responses inside capitalism to declining profitability, might be developed.

In the UK we are witnessing the restructuring of higher education as one response to the financial crisis of 2008. Thus, the discourse is of individual student choice, new public management, value-for-money, impact etc.. The reality of this approach is that it tends to work towards individuation and the market as the touchstones of effective and efficient higher education. This then acts as one negation of the perceived historic role of the University. In reflecting on the aspirational and social democratic role of the University post-the 1963 Robbins Review, John Holmwood has recently argued for the university’s “wider social and political value in contributing to culture and an inclusive democracy”. Martin Weller has also argued for the incremental and developmental change emerging inside education, rather than buying into a (generally techno-determinist) view that education is broken.

Such public, developmental arguments for the University and the institutions of education, sit uneasily against the market mechanisms now being foist upon higher education, from consumerisation and student fees, to pay-to-publish, to impact metrics and research excellence frameworks. Each of these mechanisms negates the perceived public, democratic role of the university in the face of the discipline of the market. This is important because, as Karl Polyani argued, “To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment… would result in the demolition of society” because through that mechanism the economic system lays down the law to society, and the capitalist economic system takes primacy over the system. In the face of the neoliberal incantation that there is no alternative, higher education is being torn by the mechanisms that Wolfgang Streeck describes for democratic capitalism, namely

a political economy ruled by two conflicting principles, or regimes, of resource allocation: one operating according to marginal productivity, or what is revealed as merit by a ‘free play of market forces’, and the other based on social need or entitlement, as certified by the collective choices of democratic politics. Under democratic capitalism, governments are theoretically required to honour both principles simultaneously, although substantively the two almost never align.

At issue is how these conflicting principles are affecting higher education, and how the idea of the University as a historic structure is being negated by the primacy of market principles. The arguments over Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are important here because their logic points towards the revolutionary potential of capitalism to overcome barriers and release surplus value for reinvestment and accumulation.


Inside the logic of MOOCs is emerging a technology-enabled business model that, for example: enables the student or facilitator to become entrepreneurial or enterprising at lower cost than in traditional educational forms; separates out the structures of the university, like teaching, assessment, student support, careers-matching etc., in order that they are commodified for profit; enables teaching assistants to be used to drive down the costs of academic labour, which are traditionally high inside the University; disciplines the social, co-operative and time-consuming nature of the accumulation process inside universities; and enables capital to release social capital previously accumulated inside the university for its own accumulation and profit. Thus, for instance, we witness how Coursera is “officially in the headhunting business, bringing in revenue by selling to employers information about high-performing students who might be a good fit for open jobs.”

Critical in analysing how and why MOOCs form one attempt by capital to negate the institution of the University, as a function of its internal, market-driven dynamics, is a political economic analysis of their impact. Thus, Anna Fazackerley in the Guardian clearly connects the relationship between investment banking and higher education for profit.

Financiers are hearing stories about a global revolution in online learning in the US, and they are eager for that revolution to catch on over here. But so far they have been disappointed. “UK higher education is extremely good, but the scale of ambition is low,” says Robb. “I was talking to an investor the other day who said: ‘At the moment no university is looking at anything big enough for us to write a cheque’.”

Peter Scott, also writing in the Guardian, argued that market discipline and the power of finance capital in particular is opening-up higher education and corporatising its management, thus disciplining the traditional academic behaviours in the face of hegemonic narratives of what the University as a corporate body should be.

Against this background of investment banking and market discipline, it is interesting to reflect on Clay Shirky’s argument that:

the fight over MOOCs is really about the story we tell ourselves about higher education: what it is, who it’s for, how it’s delivered, who delivers it… The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system.

We might ask, for whom and for what is this unbundling taking place? Shirky goes on to make the crucial point that:

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it.

Yet, across the global North we are witnessing the weight of negative prospects that are equally acting as disciplinary mechanisms on the form and function of the University as anything other than a vehicle for entrepreneurial activity.

  • The Bank of England’s Andrew Haldane has stated that debt and an indentured future, in which our labour is securitised, now dominates our foreseeable future: “If we are fortunate, the cost of the crisis will be paid for by our children. More likely it will still be being paid for by our grandchildren.”
  • Zerohedge has reported on The Social Depression Within Europe’s Recession, in particular looking at the rates of suicide, crime, homelessness and poverty in the Eurozone as austerity bites, and destroys the social capital upon which middle class lives were built.
  • RT reports that “The number of American youth who are out of school and unemployed has hit a half-century record high, with 6.5 million teens and young adults staying at home without the skills required to find employment.”
  • Zerohedge highlights the rise in student loan repayment delinquency rates, and Mike Shedlock’s analysis of student loan debt versus graduate earnings reveals that “as student debt piles up, wage growth for college grads certainly doesn’t”. This reinforces the view that a squeeze on profits has been replaced by a squeeze on wages (see the graph on page 6 of this link which takes wages as a proportion of GDP between 1955-2008). This has been accelerated after the financial collapse, as Zerohedge has again shown in its analysis of how labour’s share on national income has collapsed in the USA.

The political economic background against which the University’s mission and role is played out is one of indenture, collapsing real wages, unemployment and depression. It is against this background that the political economics of MOOCs might be addressed, as one form of the negation of the historic role of the University, and as a mechanism through which capital can extract rents (through access rights or accreditation) or release (social or human capital as) surplus value for the market. One important strand that emerges from any such analysis surrounds the meaning of academic labour and the role of academics as organic intellectuals.


In The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism,David Harvey argues that the sustainability of modern capitalism is beholden to rising effective demand and consumerism. In particular, he notes that the creation of new spaces inside and against which surpluses can be invested and returns taken out is critical. Thus, he notes:

The production of space in general and of urbanisation in particular has become big business under capitalism. It is one of the key ways in which the capital surplus is absorbed… The connections between urbanisation, capital accumulation and crisis formation deserve careful scrutiny.

Whilst Harvey is thinking about physical space as a motive for consumption and production, this might also be applied to the mixed physical/virtual spaces inside which higher education is folded. This is important for analysing technologically-driven innovations as one possible negation of the idea of the University, because higher education in whatever form is inscribed inside the totality of capitalism. Thus, the idea of the neoliberal University needs to be addressed against the circulation of capital, and in response to potential blockages that might induce a crisis by constricting capital flows. I want to hint at these as ways in which innovations like MOOCs might be analysed, in order to reflect on higher education and the idea of the University inside neoliberalism. The issue then will be what is to be done?

ONE. How do we understand the historic university as a potential blockage to (human, social, financial etc.) capital flow, and MOOCs as one response to overcome it? For Harvey, overcoming blockages involves analysing the following seven factors, which I have edited in the current context.

  1. Assemblage of the Initial Capital: e.g. universities as congealed intellectual and social capital/value that is socialised in form and needs to be commodified, marketised and privatised.
  2. The Labor Market: e.g. how a global market impacts a commodified higher education
  3. The Availability of the Means of Production and Scarcities in Nature: e.g. the impact of open access and service-driven rents.
  4. Technological and Organization Forms: e.g. the impact of new forms of higher learning or higher education like MOOCs or autonomous social science centres on universities.
  5. The Labor Process: e.g. the impact on academic labour’s historic autonomy of automisation, lean management etc..
  6. Demand and effective demand: e.g. the place of informal education, and the relationship between student debt, time and profitability.
  7. Capital Circulation as a Whole: e.g. the impact of the idea that there is no alternative to an entrepreneurial higher education that serves the market.

TWO. What is the relationship between the University and crises of under-consumption fuelled by a lack of credit? Under-consumptionist arguments have focused on the recessionary impact of falling wages, and labour’s lack of access to a surplus through which effective monetary demand for the commodities that are produced across the economy can be maintained. Crucially, this also includes the services and commodities produced or represented by education. Inside the market, as is witnessed by governmental economic strategy/fiscal stimulus, the key is that entrepreneurs are persuaded to invest. Mechanisms for doing this include lowering costs to re-start demand, or opening-up credit, or persuading people to take out loans or to stop hoarding money as savings. The marketisation of higher education, the role of investment banks and publishing houses in developing alternative services using technology, and the nature of the MOOC as an alternative (set of) business model(s), sits inside-and-against this background of demand for and consumption of commodities/services, in order to maintain the rate of profit.

THREE. What is the relationship between the University and the productive extraction of surplus value? Simon Clarke has argued that capital needs to create the conditions for the renewed production of surplus value through the control of labour power and the means of production in appropriate proportions. It does not do this by stimulating appropriate levels of consumption. This is important in terms of higher education because the University is a large store of human, social and finance capital, which might be commodified and released into new, gobalised markets. At present the UK Government is manufacturing this process by opening-up the sector through financialisation and indenture so that previously socialised surplus value can be accumulated by corporations or entrepreneurs. The key here is to overcome the limits of profitability inside capitalism as a whole, with higher education as one department or tentacle of the system of capitals. Innovations in the provision of higher education as a service or commodity need to be related to this point about surplus value.

Isaak Rubin, in his classic Theories of Surplus Value, argued that to understand the mechanics that underwrite the totality of capitalism a critique of value was central. He argued that value is a social relation among people, which assumes a material form and is related to the process of production. The theory of value is related to the working activity of people. In this, ‘The subject matter of the theory of value is the interrelations of various forms of labor in the process of their distribution, which is established through the relation of exchange among things, i.e. products of labor.’ Thus

The social form of the product of labor, being the result of innumerable transactions among commodity producers, becomes a powerful means of exerting pressure on the motivation of individual commodity producers, forcing them to adapt their behaviour to the dominant types of production types among people in the given society.’

Where educational relationships form one strand of a production relation that is framed by commodities, then those relationships tend to take the appearance of relationships between the things for which and through which people relate. Hence, in the current moment we see the ‘reification’ of MOOCs as the seat of productive relations between people. This process underpins the creation of social capital and subsumes people under the capital-relation, just in a different space. Whilst the University as a public good might act as a barrier to the reification of educational goods or services, where that barrier is torn down through marketization or securitisation or massification, the social form of things appears as a condition for the process of production. Thus, the MOOC is declared to be revolutionising education.

As a result, we need to analyse the MOOC as a reified, entrepreneurial space inside which education as commodity is produced and consumed, and through which surplus value in a range of forms can be extracted and accumulated more easily. Value is crucial because as Rubin highlights it connects commodities and the relations of production that create them, to technological and labour-driven productivity, alongside the social nature of that productivity.

FOUR. What is the relationship between the University and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall? Basu and Vasudevan have written about Technology, Distribution and the Rate of Profit in the US Economy: Understanding the Current Crisis. They highlight that we need to understand the role of technology in maintaining the rate of profit:

Marx’s discussion of technological change, accumulation and profitability gives a primacy to technology in driving profitability. Capitalist competition compels a process of technical change that deploys increasing capital intensity and mechanization as a means of extracting a larger surplus from labor. This pattern of labor-saving technological change is critical to Marx’s formulation of the law of tendency of the falling rate of profit.

Thus, in the current crisis of capitalism we witness a persistent decline in capital productivity that exerts an inexorable downward pull on profitability. For these authors there is a mix of productivity, labour market discipline, and the imperative to reduce circulation time, that catalyses innovation in the forces of production, in-part through technology.

[T]he pervasive adoption and growth of information technology would have almost certainly played an important role in shaping the particular evolution in the nineties when capital productivity showed an upward trend. New forms of managerial control and organization, including just-in-time and lean production systems have been deployed to enforce increases in labor productivity since the 1980’s. The phenomena of “speed-up‟ and stretching of work has enabled the extraction of larger productivity gains per worker hour as evidenced the faster growth of labor productivity after 1982. People have been working harder and faster. Information technology has facilitated the process. It enables greater surveillance and control of the worker, and also rationalization of production to “computerize” and automate certain tasks.

Critically, much of the research and development that underpins privatisation or marketization, or the creation of new services and products, is driven by state-subsidies, including those from inside the University, and with ready access to global markets and off-shoring certain elements of production such state-subsidised privatisation allows a further cheapening of investment capital alongside making labour more intensive. The interrealtionships between MOOCs, finance capital and the University need to be addressed in the face of the global relocation of production of certain services, the need to overcome declining rates of capital accumulation, and the need to increase capital intensity, as barriers to the maintenance of the rate of profit.

FIVE. What is the relationship between the University and the hegemony of Transnational Activist Networks? See my previous on MOOCs and hegemony/hierarchy and the rate of profit. As Heinrich has argued ‘Capital has become totally vendible, within and across borders. There are no crown jewels any more. With the exception of “national-security” companies and other such oddities, every asset is now fair game. During the recent crisis, the U.S. authorities all but begged sovereign wealth funds to buy U.S. assets.’ The negation of the historic University and academic labour inside it has to be seen against the hegemonic power of neoliberal networks that form geographies of accumulation.

SIX. What is the relationship between the University and capital’s desire to annihilate circulation time? The time for capital to complete one circuit is given as Production time + circulation time = Labour-process time + idle time (pauses in production, time in which means of production are held in stock) + circulation time. Critical then in the turnover of each capital and in the extraction of surpluses is the ability of capitalists to minimise the idle part of production time by enforcing just-in-time processes, innovating technologically, and in enforcing labour productivity patterns like shift work. Circulation time is also decreased through the use of high technology, by ensuring that the means of production are supplied in a reliable manner, by extracting rapid payments and by delaying their own payments to suppliers. Thus, in education we see the equivalent of theHigh Frequency Trades or algorithms and ghost exchanges that exist in high finance, in the use of data-mining and learning analytics, in the use of technologies to monitor working practices, in squeezes on academic labour through productivity drives, in work-based learning strategies, in the drive to quicken the accreditation process (why take a degree in three-years if you can do it in two?), and in describing cultures that prioritise being “always-on”. The key is to drive down idle time and to maximise the speed at which capital can be turned-over. In this space slowing down is a revolutionary act.

Crucially, as Marx points out in Volume 2 of Capital, capitals seek to reduce the circulation time in order to reduce the period for which their capital is unproductive, and thereby increase the rate of profit (since the same capital can now produce more surplus value). Economic sectors with a long total circulation time i.e. those requiring large fixed-capital investments which pay back only slowly, appropriate some of the surplus-value produced by those sectors lighter on their feet. In The Grundrisse, Marx argues that the circulation and accumulation of capital cannot abide limits. When it encounters limits it works assiduously to convert them into barriers that can be transcended or by-passed. This focuses our attention upon those points in the circulation of capital where potential limits, blockages and barriers might arise, since these can produce crises of one sort or another. A longer circuit-time has a negative effect on the expansion of capital, and it is against this dynamic of agility, flexibility and speed that the business models of MOOCs, and the reaction of universities to them, might be analysed.


One might argue that MOOCs are one form of capital’s attempt to overcome barriers to the creation and extraction of surplus value and profitability. In this way they are seen to be revolutionary but only on capital’s terms, and certainly not on those of academic labour or of students. However, it might also be useful to see them in terms of a negation of the historic idea of the University, in its social democratic form. In such an analysis, we might reveal marketised imperatives that are driving higher education inside the totality of capitalism. Neither MOOCs nor the University mean much outside such a systemic analysis, and any understandings developed without such work will tend to degenerate into platitudes about student participation, agency or marginalisation inside the traditional classroom, or assertions that education is somehow broken.

At issue then are Shirky’s questions: what is higher education and who is it actually for? How is higher education delivered and who might be involved in delivery? One of the interesting points that the MOOC debate raises is then around academic exodus from the marketised University. In addressing this previously I argued that the University/MOOC/whatever, cannot be separated from its social environment because the University does not have an autonomy of action. In reality, what the University/MOOC/whatever does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the University/MOOC/whatever does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any University/MOOC/whatever that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from it. Our forms of education and the social relationships revealed inside them are situated and alienated inside capitalism.

The implication of this is to question how academic labour might take an activist stance where it is politicised inside whichever space it finds itself. Thus I argued

the interstices between academic and public, and between accreditation and informal learning, and between the private and the co-operative are surrounded by political tensions, and culturally replicated structures of power. Any process of academic activism demands academic reflexivity in understanding how academic power impacts the processes of assembly and association and historical critique.

We might bring this to bear on the idea of the MOOC as one negation of the University, in order to attempt to argue for what higher learning inside a system that promotes alternative value-forms might be. This is not to fetishise or celebrate the University/MOOC/whatever. Rather it is an attempt to critique the participatory traditions and positions of academics as organic intellectuals, and how they actively contribute to the dissolution of their expertise as a commodity, in order to support other socially-constructed forms of production. How do students and teachers contribute to a re-formation of their webs of social interaction in whichever spaces are comfortable for them? These spaces might include networks of free universities or co-operative universities, but they need to be deeply politicised critiques of the ways in which the historic university and historic ideas of higher education are being co-opted for the market. Only in so-dong might the negative prospects outlined above, of indenture, collapsing real wages, unemployment and depression, themselves be negated.

One Response to For a critique of MOOCs/whatever and the restructuring of the University

  1. Pingback: On the structural adjustment of higher education | Richard Hall's Space

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