Some notes on the creation of a higher education market

ONE. Staking out and enclosing y/our education: they have to create a market

They want to marketise our pedagogy. They want to marketise our interactions with students and staff. They want to create a market by quantifying y/our interactions with students and re-defining y/our work as data inputs and learning outcomes and impact and quality. They want to create a market because enclosing education (as a public good) for private gain depends upon the circulation of educational services as commodities. Without a market there can be no circulation. They need to create commodities and they need to create a market. Because without them money (M) cannot circulate, and without t hem money and its increment (M’) cannot be had. And as a by-product they will discipline the circuit of educational production, including y/our pedagogy.

So David Willetts’ recent pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation, Robbins Revisited tells us the following about the drive to marketise y/our pedagogy.

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)

And as McKinsey Consulting will tell you, we can only unlock innovation and performance with liquid information and open data: “we see a clear potential to unlock significant economic value by applying advanced analytics to both open and proprietary knowledge.” Your pedagogy has to be converted to liquid information. Your relationships as data and as liquidity.

They want to use information and data to quantify academic labour, and to drive funding, and to enclose and commodify pedagogy, and to extract value. A real cultural change. The new normal.

TWO. A new higher education market of commodity producers

In Volume 2 of Capital, Marx demonstrated that Capital is the unity of three circuits: it is formed of moments of the circulation of money, of production, and of commodities. Money and commodities are mobile, and intellectual or cognitive services or commodities are especially so, and are productive of value. Production, situated in reality, is less mobile, and needs to be corralled or kettled or coerced. Hence the drive for internationalisation or the MOOC, or their need to find spaces from where value can be extracted or invested. And they are no longer just Vice-Chancellors. They are private equity and hedge funds and private providers and policy-makers and transnational activist networks. But mostly they are money.

As David Harvey shows, the money form is more visible and is prioritised because it is how surplus value is realised. Accumulated money and the power that accompanies it means that other forms of human or humane value in the production of commodities are marginalised. Money is hegemonic. The creation of money recalibrates the world.

One form of recalibration is taking place inside higher education, where the discourse of mission-group leaders, Vice-Chancellors and Ministers of State, is around finance, the consumption of education, and business needs. In order to restructure higher education for the market, universities need to be formally subsumed in their current (public/private) forms within capitalist production and circulation, and then restructured inside the circuits of productive and commodity Capital. So we see the transformation of educational services into products, and the use of data, and technological and organisational change to drive further the processes of consumerisation and commodification of academic labour. And this includes the curriculum.

Critically, the subsumption of universities inside the mechanics of capitalist reproduction demands a market. This applies to Vice-Chancellors acting as CEOs or nascent business leaders, and to private providers of educational services, both of whom need specific use-values (course content, data, knowledge exchange partnerships, research outcomes as products, technical infrastructure and so on) in specific amounts that can be purchased and put to work. Crucially, this work has to be productive of surplus value, and profit. Hence it needs a market, and if one doesn’t already exist it must be created. This need for a market is also extended to potential students who carry debt, and who are encouraged to purchase commodities or services-as-commodities, as positional goods. Thus, the material circumstances of the production, purchase and circulation of educational commodities are critical, and they catalyse policy as a means of restructuring. Because policy and secondary legislation (there has been not HE Bill under the UK Coalition Government) are being used to create a market.

However, one of the central issues for academics is that as they labour under commodity capitalists, they have to vie for a place on market, and this makes them vulnerable to crises related to futures-trading, or access to means of production, or to overproduction, or to market-saturation, or to an inability to access credit markets, or to more general, societal access to debt. Hence the very real impact of finance capital in creating a higher education market based on catalysing new systems of production or organisational development or technological innovation leaves universities at risk. It leaves academics at risk. The University’s much-vaunted institutional autonomy abstracts it from a notion of public good and distances it from any socialised purpose or meaning. Autonomy prefigures marketisation and competitive restructuring. It is thus impossible to separate out Governmental policy based on funding, or Governmental support for MOOCs, or venture capital investment in educational technology start-ups or MOOCs, or University restructuring and reorganisation, from this need to create a market. One outcome is the need to commodify and marketise y/our pedagogy, and to commodify and marketise y/our relationships.

And pace Marx in Volume 2 of Capital, education as a commodity is critical to this because the commodity is the social form against which every educational capital can be considered. The circuit of educational commodities is the form of motion common to all educational capitals. It is social only in that it forms the total social capital of the capitalist class, as it is restructuring education. Moreover, the movement of individual educational capitals is conditioned by its relationship to other educational capitals, or universities. This is a material relation underscored by competition, surplus value, risk, hedges, and the rate of profit.

THREE. Catalysing a new higher education market

Read my lips: there is no alternative. Or at least that is my interpretation of Christopher Snowden’s address to members as incoming President at the Universities UK Annual Conference, in September 2013. My emphasis is emboldened, as I am trying to become emboldened.

It’s about a university education as an entrepreneurial good

In an ever shrinking world, where businesses and trade are becoming increasingly global, a university education is a passport to a life that opens up wonderful new opportunities. Universities provide life skills – much more than simply scholarship and subject expertise.

It’s about connecting the University explicitly to the creation of value

Public support for investment in the sector could be damaged because society does not fully appreciate the value of higher education.

Without better insight into how universities generate value, we miss an important opportunity to achieve more with limited resources, and will struggle to engage in purposeful debate with wider society about the future direction of the sector.

This is a debate the sector must take hold of and lead on.

It’s about positioning “business” as the critical form of governance in the University

We need to pull together and communicate the value of higher education using real examples that mean something to the public, business and politicians. We need to demonstrate that universities are a major asset to the UK with economic, social, cultural and scientific benefits that go well beyond the superficial treatment and short-termism that is often reflected in the media.

We enjoy tremendous public goodwill but higher fees mean we’re seen increasingly as businesses by our stakeholders. Indeed only recently John Cridland, Director-General of the CBI, made it clear that he saw universities as businesses. We may or may not agree but we are all in very different positions financially

It’s about failing to make the case for anything other than economic value

We know that senior politicians acknowledge the case for universities in terms of their economic benefit, but it is less clear that the fundamental and diverse contributions universities make to the fabric of the nation is understood when so many references focus only on the flow of students from secondary to tertiary education and then into employment.

But then we immediately make the economic case

One of our great strengths is our capacity to make our argument on the basis of evidence. So let us look at the facts.

The higher education sector generated £59 billion in 2009 in output for the UK economy and provided employment for 1.2% of the UK workforce. Updated figures will be available early next year but we can be confident that they will be substantially higher.

As an export industry the sector is worth £10 billion, with the potential to reach £12 billion by 2020 for fees and living expenses alone if unencumbered, according to BIS. This figure rises to £17 billion in by 2025 when research income is included.

For teaching and research, the sector is ranked second in the world. A quick look at the latest THE world university rankings reveals that the UK had three universities in the top 10. The rest were in the USA.

It is not surprising therefore that we are the second most popular destination for international students.

For research productivity the UK is more efficient than the USA – in fact more than three-and-a-half times the world average – but the UK spends only 1.4% of its GDP on higher education compared to 2.8% in the USA.

Whilst we could also cite why universities were created in the first place – to satisfy a thirst for knowledge and the belief that society would benefit from the scholarly expertise generated from these institutions – I believe we need to find new stories that reflect the world of today and universities’ future potential, describing who we are and what we do, and they need to be intellectually convincing as well as economically sound.

“As well as economically sound”, because that is fundamental. The rule of money is fundamental. The circulation of money. Money.

To do this we need to address four main current issues which lie at the heart of higher education in the UK: Student funding; Research and capital funding; Regulation; and international positioning.

And how can it be any different when the President of UUK believes that industry validates education

My own experience in industry in the UK and USA as a former CEO of a globally-based technology manufacturing company and as a professional engineer has convinced me that transforming a bright school leaver within a few short years into a work-ready, savvy employee who can hit the ground running requires much more than the acquisition of a few workplace skills that meets the needs of today. 

And when his point-of-reference is the CBI and growth, then what is to be done to push-back against the economisation of higher educational life?

A recent report by the CBI entitled Tomorrow’s growth aims to advance the debate about how the UK can meet the higher skills requirements of our future economy.

We all know that the research in our universities contributes not only to the knowledge base, culture and economy of the UK, but also makes an extremely important impact in supporting innovation in business and industry.

And in case you missed it, that much-vaunted institutional autonomy bears further financial risk and further restructuring of what it means to be an academic because

Of course we have further financial icebergs ahead, including the deficits in the sector’s private pension schemes. The introduction of the new financial reporting standard FR 102 will mean a reduction in institutions’ net assets as they account differently for pension liabilities and other expenditure.

As we heard in yesterday’s sessions, the 2014 triennial valuation of USS, the second largest pension fund in the UK, is likely to be challenging, but the employers have taken early action to develop proposals for addressing the deficit. We will be working with USS and entering into discussions with the Pensions Regulator about our plans to ensure that the scheme is sustainable in the longer term.

And so the market is the only way

If universities become over-regulated, we run the risk of extinguishing the enterprising and entrepreneurial culture of our institutions

Our education system is a huge export sector with considerable potential to grow, and the government has recently estimated that growth could be in the region of 15 to 20% over the next five years. There were already 4.3 million students enrolled outside their home country in 2011 and forecasts suggest this could grow to 7 million by 2020.

And in spite of the environmental crisis I wrote about yesterday, there is no alternative

Without high educational attainment, the UK will not maintain its wealth, quality of life and status in the world. A highly educated population is essential to Britain’s success in the global knowledge economy.

And the idea of the academic and of academic labour is subsumed and restructured by this, and for this market.

Universities UK’s ability to make a positive contribution to addressing these issues depends on the extent of engagement by members. We depend on you giving up your time for our policy networks and task groups, and encouraging your staff to contribute to evidence gathering and campaigning work. We have shown that when we act together we can have a significant impact.

FOUR. Is there any space for critical pedagogy in this brave new world?

It strikes me that it is impossible to discuss the History and Future of Higher Education, without an appreciation of political economy, and of the realities of the ways in which the relationships between educators and students, inside-and-against institutions, are being restructured by the market. A political critique is needed that is against students and teachers as entrepreneurs, or better users and producers of value (as data, content, assessments, research, whatever). As Henry Giroux notes, we require open spaces for dissent and disobedience and remembering difference. We need an explicit academic activism that recaptures the idea of the public intellectual.

They embraced ideas critically and engaged them as a fundamental element of individual agency and social action. Such intellectuals addressed the totality of problems faced in the periods in which they lived, made their publications accessible, and spoke to multiple publics while never compromising the rigorous nature of their work. They worked hard to make knowledge, and what Foucault called, dangerous memories available to the public because they believed that the moral and cultural sensibilities that shaped society should be open to interrogation

[we need pedagogies for] educating students as informed and critical citizens by providing them with a language that will extend their sense of individual and social agency, deepen and enlarge their intellectual perspectives, and broaden their ability to think critically and engage with wider audiences. Instead, we educate them to be either low-paid workers who despise the social wage or to become a potential workforce for the Walmart-prison-industrial complex.

Public intellectuals must use whatever resources are available to question the vocabularies, institutions, ideologies and values of neoliberalism and other authoritarian forces of war, violence and privatization that are now threatening the planet. The new media offer a space and opportunity for intellectuals to engage in a new utopian discourse, one in which progressive social change becomes imaginable just as a future is viewed in terms that refuse to imitate the present. Public intellectuals must refuse all vestiges of sectarianism, political purity and moral absolutism. They must engage in modes of self-critique, tempered with an ability to listen to others and a willingness to display what Orwell called the rare moral and political beauty of the “offensiveness” of truth telling and the willingness to make power and authority accountable. Surely, this has to be the foundation for not just imagining a better world, but also collectively struggling for it. We live at a time when those who have the courage to hold authority accountable are treated like criminals and those who, under the authority of the state and mega corporations, commit horrendous crimes are treated as patriots and models of leadership.

And this reminds me that Sarah Amsler wrote for the fearless university. She noted the following.

When we look a little wider, we begin to see that many ways of organising academic labour, non-academic university labour, teaching, learning, research, student life and campus culture are standardising and globalising. Institutional discourses on scholarship, teaching, learning, research and education itself have been so honed and intellectually impoverished over decades, increasingly by people who have no primary interest in any of these things, that it can be difficult to imagine them as anything other than technical activities.

if we are to shape universities to be places in which we can actually teach and study and learn and be – and where we and our students and others who find their way in are excited to be doing so – we need to educate ourselves about the politics of higher education, advanced research, labour, intellectual culture, space and time. And we need to do this in a context in which thinking and speaking about the politics of any of these things is regarded as either a waste of time or a threat to economic productivity and institutional ‘reputation’, as it has become defined in neoliberal terms. And we need to do this in an environment where perhaps many academics, by dint of profession or proclivity, have either no experience of political participation or activism, or no interest in social and economic politics at all. And we need to do all of this in an environment where many academics and some students are exhausted and insecure and are therefore in need of considerable self and collective care. It is at least a fourfold project. This should not be daunting; life is complex.

And Sarah called for “a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice”. In the face of the creation of a higher education market, and in the face of the marketisation of our pedagogies, and the refusal of hope and of courage inside the University, we should be fucking incandescent perhaps this is the place to start. Even if we buy the rule of money; even if we buy the restructuring; even if we buy the data; we should be pushing-back against the subsumption of teaching to marketised outcomes and its reduction to liquid information.

As Modest Mouse would have it: “Hold on to what you need; We’ve got a knack for fucked up history.”

6 Responses to Some notes on the creation of a higher education market

  1. I have a slightly off-the-main-point comment, but one thing that I note about the increasing marketisation is the increasing tendency to infantilise students and appeal instead to their parents(c.f. “…to all students and parents“). I suppose because, in the elite (mental) model of marketised eduction, the parents are in fact the customer and pay the piper. Or at least are psychologically backing any loans even if the legal position is somewhat different.

    I am intrigued as to what you evisage as the “crises related to futures-trading” that will affect the academic labourer. Are you thinking of vulnerability to financial dice-throwing on the part of the institution, on future employment being based on speculative future academic production which may or may not be realised, or maybe something else – perhaps we can discuss sometime…

    You boldly highlight talk of education as an enrepreneurial good. Indeed that is the only context in which it seems to be raised in parliament these days – particularly post primary. This from yesterday’s Hansard (I happened to be listening to BBC parliament when it was said – sad, I know)

    Mr Hammond: Absolutely. I must say to my hon. Friend and for the record that there are huge opportunities available across the defence industry and in the defence establishment for young people with engineering skills. I am glad to say that all the evidence suggests that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education’s reforms are having the effect of reawakening the interest of young people in the STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects. Increasing numbers are taking them up and that is good news for the future of British industry.

    I wonder – do the “CEOs” of our institutions really believe this – many of them (maybe decreasingly many) having come from within the ranks of academic labour? Or have they become so inured to the new normal and benefited so much from the use of its rhetoric that it has become merely habit, with its meaning never questioned? More succinctly – have they lost the ability to critique that you describe in FOUR or was it never there to lose?

    I like the emboldened tone yesterday and today BTW. It is needed when we talk of enraging subjects.

    And excellent music to finish 🙂

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