On the structural adjustment of higher education


I’ve been trying to develop an argument that the development of innovations like MOOCs, learning analytics, personal learning networks etc. are a form of structural adjustment of higher education. In previous posts I have argued that MOOCs and other specific technologically-driven innovations need to be critiqued in terms of their impact on the historic forms of the University and the idea of academic labour. Thus:

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.

Beyond their capitalisation by transnational networks to attempt either the restructuring of the University or the release of the surplus intellectual value contained inside it for entrepreneurialism, technological innovations are also aimed at maintaining an increase in the rate of profit. Hence the role of transnational educational corporations like Pearson, or of transantional finance capital, like Goldman Sachs, in the privatisation of higher education, with technology as a crack in that idea that the University might be publically-financed, governed and regulated.

Structural adjustment across the globe has taken very specific forms, promoted by transnational organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. There has been some pushing back against the imposition of structural adjustment, for example in Malawi where subsidies for grain fertilizers were re-introduced in 2005 to alleviate famine in the face of global pressures.

The important lesson for policy-makers in other African countries, which continue to battle with chronic hunger and food insecurity, from the Malawi turnaround, is the fact that it has been triggered solely by a government policy intervention- a reintroduction of deep fertilizer subsidies as part of the 2005 Fertilizer Subsidy Policy. This policy was implemented at the cost of inviting the wrath of the donor community, particularly the IMF, World Bank and the USAID.

However, the story of structural adjustments ties into Naomi Klein’s precepts that underpin the shock doctrine and the impact of austerity politics.

  • The relentless law of competition and coercion [the rush to internationalise].
  • The impact of crisis to justify a tightening and a quickening of the dominant ideology [student-as-consumer; HE-as-commodity].
  • The transfer of state/public assets to the private sector under the belief that it will produce a more efficient [smaller, less regulatory] government and improve economic outputs [outsourcing; service-driven innovation].
  • Lock-down of state subsidies for “inefficient” work [Arts and Humanities subjects].
  • The privatisation of state enterprises in the name of consumer choice, economic efficiency or sustainability [creating a political and socio-cultural space that encourages the privatisation of HE].
  • A refusal to run deficits [pejorative cuts to state services].
  • Extending the financialisation of capital and the growth of consumer debt [increased fees; the use of bonds].
  • Controlled, economically-driven, anti-humanist ideology.

This focus on structural adjustment and shock is important in the unfolding crisis of higher education, and it relates directly to MOOCs/technological innovation and change, precisely because we are witnessing the policy space being recalibrated to marginalise the idea of the University as a public good. Within UK HE, the move by the last Labour administration to place higher education within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and their introduction of a fee regime, the Browne Report and the Coalition Government’s subsequent response to it, have turned the global economic crisis into a means to quicken the privatisation of the state, and to attempt the strangulation of possibilities to energise transformative, co-operative relations. This places previously socialised goods like healthcare and higher education in the vanguard of austerity-driven shock, which designs “to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy”. The extraction of value, or the state-subsidized privatisation of higher education (in Christopher Newfield’s terms) is what follows.


This line of thinking is important because of two recent statements that further shape the policy/practice space of higher education. The first is the latest statement released by Moody’s, the credit rating agency, about higher education, and the second is the funding letter from DBIS to the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Each of these documents is critical in recalibrating the ways in which we are allowed to think about higher education and what higher education is for.

Inside Higher Education reports that:

Moody’s analysts caution that revenue streams will never flow as robustly as they did before 2008. The change will require a fundamental shift in how colleges and universities operate, they say, one that will require more strategic thinking. “The U.S. higher education sector had hit a critical juncture in the evolution of its business model,” wrote Eva Bogarty, the report’s author. “Most universities will have to lower their cost structures to achieve long-term financial sustainability and to fund future initiatives.”


The report notes that colleges will have to rely on more strategic leaders who address these challenges through better use of technology to cut costs, create efficiency in their operations, demonstrate value, reach new markets, and prioritize programs. Many of those efforts could be grounds for disputes with faculty members or other institutional constituents unless leaders can get the collective buy-in that has long been the staple of higher education governance.

Thus, in terms of the mechanisms through which profit might be generated, in particular given the attrition on enrolment being reported in global North due to rising costs (see this report on families being priced out in the USA and hand-wringing over falling admissions in particular in the Russell Group universities in the UK):

The ratings agency argues that they are an opportunity for market leaders — those institutions that already have diverse revenue streams and brand recognition — to further improve their position. Such institutions could find ways to monetize MOOCs by potentially granting credit for a fee, licensing their courses to other institutions and advertising. Moody’s also notes the possibility of technology to increase faculty productivity by increasing the number of students one faculty member can serve, potentially creating efficiencies in the long term.

Whilst Moody’s is reflecting on HE in the USA, it has clear ramifications for UK HE, as institutions are seeking credit ratings for bond issues, and because transnational organisations like credit ratings agencies are integral to the geographies of neoliberalism that underpin transnational activist networks (TANs) that are in-turn adjusting the space inside which the University operates. Thus there is a space being opened up by the inter-relationships between ratings agencies like Moody’s, global finance capital, like Goldman Sachs, global private education providers like Pearson and Blackboard Inc., think-tanks like Pearson Education, and policy makers or administrators.

Whilst the report highlights the impact and risk profiles of both the growing issues of a student debt bubble and ensuring that the degrees awarded are of sufficient quality, a third issue is developed in the report and that is labour relations. Structural adjustment demands a restructuring of labour costs and practices, as is witnessed by the Troika’s actions in Greece. This is also hinted at in the Moody’s report which Inside Higher Education notes:

The report notes that any efforts to prioritize programs will likely run into opposition from various campus stakeholders. The governance model of universities vests varying authority in boards, managers, and faculty members. Even when faculty members are cut out of decision-making, the institution of tenure gives them leverage.

At issue then is the role of organised labour in the University sector, and its ability to push back against the restructuring of individual institutions or the sector as a public good. This is more important in the UK given the DBIS letter to HEFCE about funding. The letter highlights:

  • the pace of change through the clear link between HEFCE and ensuring that the Coalition’s “reforms are delivered in a timely and efficient way” [para 5];
  • the focus on competition through enabling alternative providers to enter the emergent HE market [para 6];
  • the focus on generating a culture of philanthropy or what has been called “philanthrocapitalism” [para 7];
  • the co-option of organisations like the Higher Education Academy, which have a vision to support the student experience, teaching excellence and innovation, to the service of the Government’s readjustment strategy and entrepreneurial/industrial agenda [para 11];
  • the imperative to develop information and learning/institutional analytics as a central disciplinary tool for managing higher education agendas [para 14];
  • the generation of universities as sites of service-driven change and marketisation [para 15];
  • the co-option of publically-funded “university research infrastructure”, in order to underpin “strategic research partnerships between universities, businesses and charities” that enables economic growth through state-subsidised privatisation [para 16];
  • the use of science and research by “selectively funding on the basis of only internationally excellent research,” to drive further competition between universities [para 18];
  • the explicit shackling of HE to the Coalition’s industrial strategy, so that the idea of the university is driven by economic growth [para 20];
  • the use of the term “legitimate students” playing into an agenda that continues to demonise “the other” inside and across UK society [para 21];
  • the use of a risk-based approach to HE, which Andrew Haldane has critiqued for its lack of respect for non-linearities and its inability to model contagion [para 23];
  • the use of financial incentives to model social mobility as a disciplinary function [para 25]
  • the imperative to seek efficiencies through outsourcing [para 26];
  • the demand that the pay and conditions of academic labour are managed with “restraint” [para 26];
  • the use of core and margin student numbers as a policy lever, now through custom and usage rather than primary policy the everyday reality of higher education, that creates the objective conditions for a competitive market to be structured [paras 30-35].

Some University leaders, notably DMU’s VC, have reacted to this letter by outlining how it impacts the relationship between staff and students, with a focus on student charters, admissions policies, and the development of a “Darwinian approach to enrolment” that prefigures an increasingly competitive higher education policy. Quite how this Darwinian approach plays out in terms of: University missions and diversity; the idea of the university as a public good; the use of financial mechanisms like bonds; the impact of a differential approach to implementing fees; a new regulatory approach for cross-sector organisations like HEFCE and the QAA; and the relationships between management, unions, academic labour and students; needs more meaningful critique across the sector.


The pace of change demands that alternatives or spaces for critique and action are developed, in particular because those TANs are restructuring the idea and the reality of higher education. In terms of how innovations are presented inside civil society in terms of social mobility, or reducing the rights of academic labour, or in terms of economic efficiencies, or in terms of access and student rights, or more brutally in terms of socio-economics in terms of the rate of profit and addressing issues of under-consumption, a critical emergent issue is about the place now of organised academic labour inside the University, and the role of, for example, UNISON and UCU. In this I am reminded of Paul Mason’s argument after the March 26 2011 anti-cuts demonstration in London, when he argued that

The big takeaway from today is that the trade union movement – though dominated by the public sector – is certainly a force to be reckoned with: what it chooses to do now will be interesting because Miliband’s strategists certainly want nothing to do with the mass, co-ordinated strike movement advocated by Serwotka, Len McCluskey etc.

We tend to forget, because we obsess about political parties, that in organisational terms the unions are much bigger than the Labour Party itself. Indeed the Labour Party branch banners I saw were often carried by a few, oldish, colourfully dressed people, whereas unionists tended to be younger and very “branded” by their professions or unions, as with the Unison Filipino Nurses, the FBU etc.

Another note: we tend to think of the public sector unions as white collar or from the service industries but this was not true of today: there were many tens of thousands of manual workers in their bibs, hi-vis uniforms etc. I met binmen from Southhampton furious that they pay is being cut; and of course the Firefighters, designated “stewards” in order to deter the anarchists from coming anywhere near the demo.

In terms of higher education there are clearly issues of labour relations and solidarity within the sector between different unions, and across sectors that now matter. Thus, there is a second emergent issue, related to this issue of solidarity, namely the relationship between formal higher education and the academic labour located therein, and those alternative educational projects that still survive two or three years after they originally coalesced. These alternatives might be MOOCs, where they have not been co-opted for capital, rent, profit or restructuring, but more importantly they include ideas like the Social Science Centre in Lincoln or the Workers Education Association or adult education providers, or the educational spaces opened up by, for example, the transitions movement. How we connect across the range of spaces that exist so that they can co-exist, energised by organised academic labour in the face of structural adjustment is our emerging challenge.

2 Responses to On the structural adjustment of higher education

  1. Pingback: On Globalisation and the University | Richard Hall's Space

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