On the Education (Information Sharing) Bill and accumulation

Earlier this month Tony Hirst pointed out some upcoming possibilities for the “distribution and application of open public data (that is, openly licensed data released by public bodies.” Of particular interest in the debate over opening-up higher education is the Education (Information Sharing) Bill, 2013-14. Tony notes that 

The bill allows for “student information of a prescribed description” to be made available to a “prescribed person” or “a person falling within a prescribed category”. If the bill goes through, keeping tabs on these prescriptions will be key to seeing how this might play out.

The Draft Bill notes:

13. The three clauses in this Bill are intended to make the sharing of information between Government Departments and schools, colleges and other assessment centres easier. This is expected to have the following effects: first, to enable parents and students to make more informed choices as to education and/or employment destination; secondly to help schools and colleges to assess their information, advice and guidance services; and thirdly, to inform Government about which qualifications and courses lead to sustained employment outcomes and higher income returns.

Last week in a piece On co-operation, accumulation and the University, I wrote about how spaces were opened-up through policy or coercion, as terrains for the accumulation of Capital:

through the commodification of digital infrastructures, it enables new services to be turned into products and sold or to be rented out. In this way, although movements claim to be for “open” or “free” on the web, without a democratic control of that infrastructure, and without a social or communal definition of its value, it simply becomes a new set of spaces to be enclosed for the creation of value, or the dictates of competition, or the extraction of rent.

It’s important to keep an eye on where the policy and processes for enclosure or commodification begin. I argued that it is

through the policy activity of the State, in converting the process of education into a service for Capital (through training in basic commodity or leveraged skills, or in creating spaces for skills that can be commodified), and then into a commodity for valorisation (like the creation of courses that must be purchased by students using a debt-driven fee, or the commodification of research as knowledge transfer or incubation, or the sale of student data to publishers), that education is transformed. Critical in this transformation is the subsumption of the circuits of educational practices and knowledges inside the circuits of capital. Education (c.f. low-cost degrees, student-as-consumer or entrepreneur, or MOOCs) becomes a series of individually-purchasable commodities, which open-up new markets and mass markets, as costs fall and production increases.

This Private Members’ Bill, sponsored by Andrew Selous (PPS to Iain Duncan Smith). Selous argues on his website that:

A few months ago, I got the chance to bring a private member’s bill before Parliament and it was an education issue that I chose to raise.  My Education (Information Sharing) Bill will publish for the first time, information on which vocational qualifications, GCSEs and A levels lead to the highest and lowest earnings returns.  It will mean that young people and their parents will get reliable information on which courses and qualifications are likely to lead to a job and higher earnings.  Pupils, teachers and parents will be able to see the earnings premium between say doing a GCSE in chemistry as compared with one in additional science.

The Bill will allow schools and universities to link earnings and employment information with the subjects and qualifications school children and university students have studied.  This already happens with further education colleges like Central Bedfordshire College and there is no question of individual student data being made public, it would be the overall information for earnings and employment for the subjects and qualifications concerned.

Schools, colleges and universities need the information the Bill will provide to assess their own effectiveness in creating routes to employment and good earnings. Critically they will really help young people and their parents to take much more informed decisions.  I think this is a poverty reducing measure.

The Bill will also show the earnings potential of apprenticeships.  At the moment only five per cent of students take an apprenticeship after their GCSEs and only three per cent after their A levels.  I believe that this low take up is in quite large part because pupils and parents do not realize that apprenticeships are leading to some of the highest paid and most prestigious careers in the UK and abroad.

Selous reminds me that in a Novara discussion on Finance, Financialisation and English Higher Education, Andrew McGettigan argued:

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.

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.

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.

As I noted: “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.”

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