On student debt, big data and academic alienation


 Mike Neary, in a recent article on Teaching Politically, quotes the Joint Declaration of the Knowledge Liberation Front that emerged from a meeting in Paris in 2011. The Declaration points out the struggle against the financialisation and corporatisation of the University and of academic labour, and then points towards exodus from the restructuring of higher education that is taking place globally.

Since the state and private interests collaborate in the corporatisation process of the university, our struggles don’t have the aim of defending the status quo. Governments bail out banks and cut education. We want to make our own university. A university that lives in our experiences of autonomous education, alternative research and free schools. It is a free university, run by students, precarious workers and migrants, a university without borders.

This weekend we have shared and discussed our different languages and common practices of conflict: demonstrations, occupations and metropolitan strikes. We have created and improved our common claims: free access to the university against increasing fees and costs of education, new welfare and common rights against debt and the financialisation of our lives, and for an education based on co-operation against competition and hierarchies.

 In an earlier posting on exodus and the process of struggle I argued for “way(s) of re-framing the relationships between academics and the public in an age of crisis.” This seems more relevant after the publishing of FBI documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) relating to the Occupy movement. These documents bear analysis in the context of higher education for three reasons.

ONE. They reveal the Occupy movement being seen as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the FBI acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did “not condone the use of violence” at occupy protests.

TWO. They link law enforcement, and governmental agencies to corporate strategy and demands, clearly articulating the kinds of geographies of neoliberalism that Stephen Ball has described in Global Education Inc., and which form hierarchies of power inside global capitalism. Thus, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the PCJF argued that “These documents show that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity. These documents also show these federal agencies functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America.”

THIRD. They tie the University, academic labour and student-life clearly into this discourse. “Documents show the spying abuses of the FBI’s “Campus Liaison Program” in which the FBI in Albany and the Syracuse Joint Terrorism Task Force disseminated information to “sixteen (16) different campus police officials,” and then “six (6) additional campus police officials.” Campus officials were in contact with the FBI for information on OWS. A representative of the State University of New York at Oswego contacted the FBI for information on the OWS protests and reported to the FBI on the SUNY-Oswego Occupy encampment made up of students and professors.”

One outcome of this process is that forms of protest against, for example, the marketisation of higher education need to be viewed in light of how they threaten global corporate identities and strategies for profit that are being opened-up by the State. In this, the mechanisms by which established hierarchies maintain their power through financialisation and information-sharing need to be described, and alternative positions developed.


Developing alternative narratives is critical because the hegemonic description of what higher education is for is being destabilised. In particular we are witnessing a polarisation of higher education around universities as competing capitals. Thus, in a recent Novara discussion on Finance, Financialisation and English Higher Education, Andrew McGettigan made a series of points that illuminate this argument.

ONE. The formal, higher education system will become increasingly polarised and stratified over time. This will then increasingly make higher education a positional good for individual students-as-entrepreneurs as a differential market develops, with certain HEI brands having more social capital for individual students as they compete in a job/wage market that is increasingly squeezed.

TWO. As the fee cap is lifted, the student debt loan book becomes increasingly important. The new polarity across the sector, with top-tier universities agitating for an unrestricted market, will have the most profound effect. In particular, as the data around the loan book develops this will impact fee structures as some universities will be able to articulate their present value (by demonstrating how students are able to repay outstanding loan balances) and their relationship to future graduate earnings. The £9,000 fee cap is important in securing the State’s overall liabilities but the use of data related to earnings and efficiencies in repayments will be stressed by certain universities to enable them to agitate for an exemption from a fee cap. The importance of this as a strategy can already be seen in the expansion of Russell Group (see the expansion of the Russell Group reported in the THE). Thus we have a diminishing sense of higher education as a publicly-funded, regulated and governed good, with it instead forming a space inside which universities become competing capitals inside a market.

THIRD. We are witnessing the secular transformation of universities into new kinds of corporation that are commercial and financial, rather than having charitable status that provides tuition or research. Where generating revenue is the fundamental corporate strategy, and as public funds dry up in face of private finance, at root the internal functions of the University are changed.

FOUR. Data around the state-backed student loan company/book becomes critical. Loans unlike grants generate information via HRMC. Pattern-matching that links UCAS tariffs to retention data to loans and loan repayments will enable actuarial tables to be produced that in-turn differentiate HEIs and courses and entry grades. This will form the performance metric par excellence because it will have a present and future pound sign attached. Such information means that Government can monitor the spend of public money and possibly remove access to the loan book for certain HEIs or courses. The use of data linked to profitability is therefore disciplinary. As the PCJF analysis of linked FBI files showed, federal agencies were functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America. There is reason, therefore, to suspect that data about student repayment and university performance will be shared across geographies-of-neoliberalism in the same way to discipline behaviour.

FIVE. These data are increasingly problematic because modelling on graduate salaries uses historic data, and we lack complete datasets. Modelling suggests that there is no uniform premium but a polarisation/hierarchy of graduate classes based on social capital accrued. Moreover, our basic assumptions about employability and wages are under threat, and predictability of repayments is a problem.

SIX. The involvement of global private finance is key to the expansion of the sector and the competitiveness of individual universities as competing capitals. Thus, we see Goldman Sachs and the Ontario Teachers Pension scheme lobbying for investment with universities in for-profit joint ventures in foreign markets, funded by bonds or equity. Investment is not for efficiencies in-country (e.g. the UK), but to take the established UK HE model abroad and to monetise degree-awarding powers.

Whether we like it or not private finance and the disciplinary nature of both the student loan book and big data are restructuring academic labour and the idea of the university as a public or socialised good. 


Zerohedge’s 75 Economic Numbers From 2012 That Are Almost Too Crazy To Believe, focuses on what the author calls “bubble(s) of debt-fueled [sic.] false prosperity that allows us to continue to consume far more wealth than we produce.” Just a handful of the 75 illuminate the argument made above that student debt is an insidious and inflationary attempt to use higher education reform to discipline our behaviours as consumers inside capitalism. They therefore demonstrate how education forms a single mechanism through which capital can continue to extract value from previously socialised goods. These numbers highlight the attrition of the myth of the growing middle class, empowered through a university education, that can maintain growth and accepted standards of living. They highlight the increasing immiseration of vast tranches of society in the face of debt.

17: According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of all Americans were “middle income” back in 1971. Today, only 51 percent of all Americans are.

18: The Pew Research Center has also found that 85 percent of all middle class Americans say that it is harder to maintain a middle class standard of living today than it was 10 years ago. 

19: 62 percent of all middle class Americans say that they have had to reduce household spending over the past year.

20: Right now, approximately 48 percent of all Americans are either considered to be “low income” or are living in poverty.

21: Approximately 57 percent of all children in the United States are living in homes that are either considered to be either “low income” or impoverished.

37: Recently it was announced that total student loan debt in the United States has passed the one trillion dollar mark.

43: 53 percent of all Americans with a bachelor’s degree under the age of 25 were either unemployed or underemployed last year.

44: The U.S. economy continues to trade good paying jobs for low paying jobs. 60 percent of the jobs lost during the last recession were mid-wage jobs, but 58 percent of the jobs created since then have been low wage jobs.

56: Corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are at an all-time high. Meanwhile, wages as a percentage of GDP are near an all-time low.

We might also want to view Lisa Scherzer’s piece on student debt and the bubble that is affecting older generations who are taking on debt to support family member’s in college, escalating college tuition costs, poor job prospects, and a collapse in real wages. However, the role of big data in maintaining this process is also critical.


I want to quote at length, Steve Lohr in the New York Times, writing about big data, precisely because it highlights how this corporatised technique becomes a mechanism for control. This is important for higher education because using data or information is likely to be used to discipline both universities who need to provide returns to private equity or bond markets, and to students with outstanding, individual tuition debts. Witness McGettigan’s point about the production of usable actuarial tables for repayments related to courses and HEIs. 

Lohr writes:

 These drumroll claims rest on the premise that data like Web-browsing trails, sensor signals, GPS tracking, and social network messages will open the door to measuring and monitoring people and machines as never before. And by setting clever computer algorithms loose on the data troves, you can predict behavior of all kinds: shopping, dating and voting, for example.

The results, according to technologists and business executives, will be a smarter world, with more efficient companies, better-served consumers and superior decisions guided by data and analysis.

Big Data proponents point to the Internet for examples of triumphant data businesses, notably Google. But many of the Big Data techniques of math modeling, predictive algorithms and artificial intelligence software were first widely applied on Wall Street.

Here we might wish to focus on Zerohedge’s analyses of Wall Street’s use of high frequency trading, and Karl Marx’s discussion, in Volume 2 of Capital, on Capital’s systemic need to reduce the circulation time of commodities. 

Lohr continues:

Big Data proponents point to the Internet for examples of triumphant data businesses, notably Google. But many of the Big Data techniques of math modeling, predictive algorithms and artificial intelligence software were first widely applied on Wall Street.

Models can create what data scientists call a behavioral loop. A person feeds in data, which is collected by an algorithm that then presents the user with choices, thus steering behavior.

We are thus returned to the use by the State and corporations of data to control and shape behaviour, including threats of protest and exodus.


Student debt becomes a key power source for this drive to privatise in the name of efficiencies, scale, value-for-money and impact, and in fact generates a pedagogic and structural view of student-as-consumer that further recalibrates higher education. In a separate posting on Goldman Sachs and the privatisation of the University I drew attention to how Goldman Sachs’ investment banking arm works to develop Higher Education and Nonprofit Institutions teams, by working

with public and private universities and nonprofit issuers nationwide to structure and execute tailored debt capital markets financings. The firm has a dedicated group of credit specialists whose primary responsibility is to assist the investment banking team and issuers or clients in evaluating and achieving their rating potential. They take an active role on the credit analysis, rating strategy and investor sales process. In addition, with specialty expertise in areas such as athletics risk management, royalty monetization, public-private partnerships and online learning technology implementation, our experts can provide advice and financing solutions tailored to the needs of our issuers or clients.

As a result, the internal logic of the University is increasingly prescribed by the rule of money, which forecloses on the possibility of creating transformatory social relationships as against fetishised products and processes of valorisation.

In the HEA research and policy seminar series reported in the Guardian, Roger Brown has argued that in analysing the impact of debt on the student experience:

We also need an agency that is independent of the government that will take responsibility for addressing these issues on a continuing basis, he added, and “that will be prepared to raise its head above the parapet when necessary, rather than simply being an agency of an agency of the government. We must have some credible, authoritative means of monitoring what happens to the quality of student learning as marketisation proceeds.

However, the risk is that such monitoring merely becomes another form of evidence-based practice that seeks to tweak the internal functioning of a system that is alienating.

This idea of alienation in the face of indentured service and financialisation is highlighted by Gajo Petrović’s essay on Marx’s Theory of alienation. “According to Marx, the essence of self-alienation is that man at the same time alienates something from himself and himself from something; that he alienates himself from himself.” This breaks down into four aspects or characteristics of alienation. The first is the alienation of the results of human labour (the objects produced by human labour constitute a separate world of objects which is alien to us, which dominates us, and which enslaves. The second is the alienation of production itself through alienated labour activity, because our own activity does not affirm but denies and subjugates us. Third, by alienating our own activity from ourselves, we alienate ourselves from our very essence as creative, practical beings. Crucially, Petrović argues that “Transforming his generic essence into a means for the maintenance of his individual existence, man alienates himself from his humanity, he ceases to be man.” Fourth, as an immediate consequence of the alienation of humans from themselves in the face of the market, individuals are alienated from each other. For Petrović “As the worker alienates the products of his labor, his own activity and his generic essence from himself, so he alienates another man as his master from himself. The producer himself produces the power of those who do not produce over production.” So we are left with an element of a totalising system inside which humans are alienated from their humanity.

Our standard refrain in the face of debt is to seek our research opportunities to monitor outcomes and impact, which are themselves alienating. As Neary argues, this is not enough:

In this new financialised world foreign providers can intervene in domestic markets undermining regulatory national frameworks, with devastating consequences for academic labour in terms of insecure employment, increasing precariousness, as well a contravening academic, ethical and value aspirations. The outcome is that academic culture is replaced by an enterprise business culture so that universities come more and more to resemble multinational corporations, with student compliance enforced by a pedagogy of debt.

Thus, what is needed is to understand how we might intensify “the processes of militant/co-research and self-education in praxis”. One way might be to understand how the geographies-of-neoliberalism described by the PCJF’s FBI documents, are allied to the interrelationships between both the techniques of big data and finacialised commodities of higher education, and how they contribute to our alienation from ourselves and each other (as potential entrepreneurial threat or terrorists or whatever). We might then need to ask whether, by describing and analysing the ways in which the State and corporations use such techniques to discipline academic labour and student behaviour and thereby increase alienation, alternatives might be developed.

2 Responses to On student debt, big data and academic alienation

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