On money, labour and academic co-operation

As David Kernohan has argued over at Followers of the Apocalypse, the Coalition is busy re-writing history in the name of its cultural revolution. This is usefully applied to David Willetts’ recent pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation, Robbins Revisited. The pamphlet made me think of three things.

ONE. This is a clear manifestation of the subsumption of academic research, in particular about progression into higher education and about pedagogic practice, for policy that is based on re-engineering society for market principles. Whilst networks exist (here from policy maker to think-tank) to promote those privatised principles in spaces that were/are publically-regulated, funded and governed, a critical question is whether it is possible to nurture networks that push-back against this hegemonic position? Whether this will happen in think-tanks whose policy advisory boards represent the structural hegemonic power of the media, politicians and academia is questionable. Are we able to create activist literacies through co-operation that connect academics and disaffection in society?

TWO. Willetts’ pamphlet pivots around money, productivity and data-informed choice. Notably, he writes the following.

The expansion in higher education has had little impact on the considerable positive graduate earnings premium, which today stands at comfortably over £100,000 (p. 18)

a one per cent increase in the share of the workforce with a university degree raises long-run productivity by between 0.2 per cent and 0.5 per cent, which implies that at least one-third of the increase in UK labour productivity between 1994 and 2005 was due to the growing number of people with a university degree (p. 19)

One reason for this exceptional performance [in research] is that over the past twenty years the academic community and governments have created very strong competitive funding… However there was no matching incentive to focus on teaching. Universities had a fixed allocation of student places which most could fill almost regardless of the offer they made to students. The student experience suffered… The introduction of higher fees covered by income-contingent loans has stopped this decline (p. 36)

Students aren’t merely buying a degree, as they might a holiday. They are engaging in something inherently worthwhile and also investing in their future. The paradox is that unleashing the forces of consumerism with more information for prospective students and funding following their choices is the best way of bringing back traditional academic focus on high-quality teaching (p. 36)

The clear breakdown of work commitments for each course now provided to all students and parents – including the percentage of time spent on independent study – gives them a realistic idea of what to expect, as well as an important basis for judging institutions (p. 37)

Institutions can lay on extra lectures – but this is unlikely to result in more satisfied students with a better grasp of their subject. This brings us back to Robbins, and his analysis not just of teaching time, but of the time spent in discussion periods (p. 40)

This is a very useful pointer for us as we review how we might extend the Key Information Set data in the future. Asking institutions to provide a breakdown of the average number of discussion classes for each course – broken down as Robbins suggests into tutorials, small seminars and large seminars – would allow students and parents to judge courses by the sort of teaching they value (p. 44)

One option would be for the Key Information Set data to mirror what was available to Robbins fifty years ago, with a requirement for institutions to specify how many essays or how much work students can expect to have marked on each course – and whether feedback will be written or discussed (p. 46)

Without radical changes to how universities were financed however it was going to be difficult to change their behaviour. Now there is an opportunity to use our funding changes to push a real cultural change back towards teaching (p. 47)

It is not for ministers to dictate what subjects universities offer – nor the subjects that students choose to study. Yet given that going to university can change your life, it is quite right that students and parents should think hard about which institution and course is right for them. That is why we are requiring universities to provide more information than ever. Students now have easy access to comparable information on everything from employment outcomes for particular courses to how satisfied students are with course assessment or feedback (p. 55)

Yet a report from 8th October by technology consultancy Gartner made some startling predictions for IT Organizations and Users for 2014 and Beyond, which materially affect Willetts’ assumptions and assertions. These include:

  • The organising principles that underpin how academic/student data is regulated and used;
  • The labour relations that underpin employment in the increasingly digitised and stratified economies of the global North;
  • Predictions about the economic utility of higher education as a positional good that is based solely on income.

In particular Gartner focused upon the impact on labour and labour-relations of technological changes linked to the digital economy, smart machines and consumerisation. It noted the need to engage with “disruptive shifts [] coming at an accelerated pace and at a global level of impact.” This impact is predicted to be deeply political and based on economic disenfranchisement. The report goes on as follows.

Gartner’s digital business predictions focus on the effect digital business will have on labor reductions, on consumer goods revenue, and on use of personal data [emphasis added]… Engineers, scientists, IT professionals and marketers at consumer goods companies are engaging crowds much more aggressively and with increasing frequency using digital channels to reach a larger and more anonymous pool of intellect and opinion. Gartner sees a massive shift toward applications of crowdsourcing, enabled by technology, such as: advertising, online communities, scientific problem solving, internal new product ideas, and consumer-created products.

By 2020, the labor reduction effect of digitization will cause social unrest and a quest for new economic models in several mature economies. Near Term Flag: A larger scale version of an “Occupy Wall Street”-type movement will begin by the end of 2014, indicating that social unrest will start to foster political debate.

Digitization is reducing labor content of services and products in an unprecedented way, thus fundamentally changing the way remuneration is allocated across labor and capital [emphasis added]. Long term, this makes it impossible for increasingly large groups to participate in the traditional economic system — even at lower prices — leading them to look for alternatives such as a bartering-based (sub)society, urging a return to protectionism or resurrecting initiatives like Occupy Wall Street, but on a much larger scale. Mature economies will suffer most as they don’t have the population growth to increase autonomous demand nor powerful enough labor unions or political parties to (re-)allocate gains in what continues to be a global economy.

The escalation of consumer awareness of data collection practices has set the stage for offering consumers more control over the disposition of personal data — collected both online and offline. As increasing demand and scarcity drives up the value of such data, incentives grow to entice consumers to share it voluntarily.

Smart Machines The emergence of smart machines adds opportunity and fear as “cognizant and cognitive systems” and can enhance processes and decision making, but could also remove the need for humans in the process and decision effort. CIOs will see this as a means of delivering greater efficiency, but will have to balance between the active human workforce and the cold efficiency of machines that can learn [emphasis added].

Gartner forecasts that smart machines will upend a majority of knowledge workers’ career paths by 2020 [emphasis added]. Smart machines exploit machine learning and deep-learning algorithms. They behave autonomously, adapting to their environment.

In her outstanding Ph.D. thesis onThe State Machine : politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973”, Jessica Miller Medina highlighted how the Allende Government in Chile attempted to utilize technology and data (through cybernetics) to create a new representation of society beyond the market, using different, co-operative organizing principles. The key for Miller Medina was to describe

not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management (p. 17).

Moreover, her work reminds us to see the technological and technocratic ideas of Gartner and Willetts as means to “solidify a particular articulation of the state that was supported by new claims to legitimate power” (p. 96). Thus, she quotes Allende (p. 252) arguing for democratic renewal:

We set out courageously to build our own [cybernetic] system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.

This is increasingly critical in the world described by Gartner, where large proportions of society are subsumed under a system in which they cannot participate, and against which they demand to push-back. It also makes it critical that the academic world described by Willetts, which is reduced to money and data, is refused. Clearly this refusal needs to reflect the fact that Willetts’ argument for debt-driven study and choice risks the creation of indentured lives. Debt-driven study is in-part based on the demand for entrepreneurial education that delivers economic impact inside a society organised around the market. But what is the value of that inside economies in the global North that are de-developing, or in the face of risks to the US economy of attacks on the dollar as the global reserve currency (especially from China and Russia), or where capital intensity and reduced productivity/wages become the norm, or where jobs are leveraged or outsourced, or where commodity skills are in short supply?

One response might be to open-up a discussion about the link between the production of a higher education that is against-and-beyond indenture, and that is described by alternative, co-operative organising principles. In this way, Willetts (p. 47) might do well to understand the ramifications of the University of Lincoln’s curriculum that driven by the idea of student-as-producer, not just through banal connections between teaching-and-research for new inventions or productivity or entrepreneurialism, but in its democratic intentions and organising principles.

THREE. We need to discuss Ecuador and the environment, not just because of the IPCC’s recent report on climate change or the Royal Society’s People and Planet Report, but because addressing global problems demands more than the poverty of the market. Willetts cannot see beyond this space:

Many developing countries have extraordinary ambitions to expand the number of people entering higher education, and at a great pace. British institutions are well-placed to help, and it is fortuitous that we now have MOOCs to help achieve these ambitions. The jury is still out on whether there will be one or two dominant platforms or whether there will be several diverse names (p. 68).

In The Republic of Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living 2009-2013: Building a Plurinational and Intercultural State, the Government argues for five interconnected revolutions: democratic; ethical; economic; social; and Latin American dignity; in order to build a fraternal and co-operative coexistence. In part, this is based on “The transformation of higher education and the transfer of knowledge in science, technology and innovation.” The plan explicitly critiques neoliberal market-driven solutions to problems, and attempts to tie education to co-operative, democratic renewal that will in turn overcome inequalities. The aim is:

The combination of ancestral forms of knowledge with state-of-the-art technology can reverse the current development model and contribute to the transition towards a model of accumulation based on bio-knowledge.

This aim of linking environmental to historical and cultural knowledge through a democratic agenda based on equality not the liberal sop of equality of opportunity, is further realised in Ecuador’s recent announcement that Michael Bauwens of the Peer-to -Peer Foundation will join “a major strategic research project to “fundamentally re-imagine Ecuador” based on the principles of open networks, peer production and commoning… The project seeks to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.”

What remains for academics in the global North is to resist and push-back against the tyranny of the rule of money and the marketisation of everyday life, in order to explore whether another, co-operative way is possible. This means an activist stance in-and-beyond capitalist work that strives for the common. Refusing the Coalition’s agenda for higher education, through alternative projects like the Social Science Centre or critiques/negation/occupation of the REF or of open pedagogy or whatever, is a start. However, the realisation that technology consultants like Gartner are focused on the political and economic marginalisation of large swaths of the global population, and concomitant social unrest, ought to sharpen our thinking about the lived, transnational realities of capitalism and the need to describe and reveal alternatives. We have access to alternatives based on different organising principles, and these historically and geographically distinct examples need to be rehabilitated and discussed. The question is whether collectively we have the courage.

2 Responses to On money, labour and academic co-operation

  1. This is invaluable, Richard. Great stuff. The contradictions you and others describe point, because of oppositions created within capital’s fundamental dynamic, to something better; more humane. But that’s in the long term. Somebody said – I forget the author but not the words – “Great world systems do not fall as swiftly as their opponents like to believe, and perhaps MUST believe, if they are to attack with the necessary force.”

    I see terrible times ahead but what else is there to do but go on the attack as best we can? One thing, for sure, is to find ways of expressing ideas like these in the simplest possible language.

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