On common educational ownership and refusing human capital

ONE. Resistance is futile.

In discussing the financialisation of higher education, and the marketisation that is immanent to it, Andrew McGettigan has argued that:

I am frequently asked, ‘what then should be done?’ My answer is that unless academics rouse themselves and contest the general democratic deficit from within their own institutions and unless we have more journalists taking up these themes locally and nationally, then very little can be done. We are on the cusp of something more profound than is indicated by debates around the headline fee level; institutions and sector could make moves that will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo, whether it is negotiated independence for the elite or shedding charitable status the better to access private finance.

McGettigan’s most recent piece on the unfolding political economy of higher education and variable human capital, develops the argument that we are on the cusp of something more profound. This is rooted in a new policy framework inside which the practices of teaching and learning can be disassembled, commodified and traded/exchanged. This new policy framework is enacted through a variety of secondary legislation rather than a specific act of parliament, and seeks to turn the culture of higher education towards entrepreneurialism and social mobility. This culture is grounded in the family acting as a capitalist firm, rather than in other social formations, such as those that are co-operative and collective. Here, performance measurement and management dominate University life, and bring the relationships that emerge in the classroom and within families into stark, asymmetrical relation to the market. As a result, life inside-and-outside the classroom is collapsed around the need to generate value and exchange and enterprise. What happens inside the classroom becomes a primary, societal concern beyond the governance and regulation of individual universities or the higher education sector.

The Coalition government has quietly put in place a series of measures designed to support a new performance metric: repayment of loans by course and institution. It could become the one metric to dominate all others and will be theorised under the rubric of ‘human capital investment’.

The Small Business, Enterprise and Employability Act received Royal Assent at the end of March 2015. Section Six of the bill is titled ‘Education Evaluation’… I quote [the Act]

[The measures] will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students.

Here, we have a clear flow between an enterprising policy framework and the imperative to generate learning gain. Thus, we witness the Higher Education Funding Council for England, working with partners like the RAND Corporation:

to develop better ways of capturing excellent educational outcomes, including new approaches to measuring students’ learning. Developing our understanding of student learning is integral to ongoing debates about the quality and impact of higher education, and how we evidence the value of investment in it.

This inter-relationship between teaching quality and outcomes is fore-grounded in the work of the UK Higher Education Academy, which argues that:

This [partnership] approach recognises that engaged student learning is positively linked with learning gain and achievement, and argues that partnership represents a sophisticated and effective approach to student engagement because it offers the potential for a more authentic engagement with the nature of learning itself and the possibility for genuinely transformative learning experiences for all involved. Hence we speak of engagement through partnership [emphasis added].

Whilst the focus on learning gain and achievement here is not specifically linked to performance management and financialisation, it provides a professionally-validated, evidential space for the overlay of financialised services onto the relationships between staff and students. This is a process of evidencing the value of education as a private and positional good.

TWO. Enterprise for everyone, all the time.

In this process of evidencing the value of investment in higher education, McGettigan notes the importance of Lord Young’s report for government, Enterprise for All, in which was “recommended that each course at each institution should have to publish a Future Earnings and Employment Record ‘so that students can assess the full costs and likely benefits of specific courses at specific institutions.’” And we should not be surprised to witness an opening-up and connecting of datasets around academic performance, retention and progression, the repayment of student fees, and future earnings profiles. Because in addressing the structural crises of the economy, new financial mechanisms are pivotal, as are new markets that enable exportable services that mitigate poor performance. And as a result, performance becomes a tradable commodity. And think of the opportunities for value creation if we can compare performance and earnings across programmes of study and institutions and cohorts. And think of the opportunities for value creation if we can re-engineer curriculum inputs so that we can reduce the risk of futures trading in educational outcomes and earnings.

And so the Enterprise for All recommendations included the creation of the Future Earnings and Employment Record (FEER).

In Higher Education we already have the Key Information Statistics, however, the passing of the Small Business Enterprise and Employment Bill, being discussed in the Houses of Parliament ahead of March 2015, will allow student records to be linked with HMRC tax records to provide a potentially richer pool of information. There will be added benefits for the Further Education sector such as improved access to self-employment data.

The linking up of datasets and preparation of relevant and reliable data will take many years, but the passing of the bill will be a positive leap forward. Only in time, as this information is worked through, will we understand the full extent of what can be achieved as a result of the bill and see the full potential of the FEER.

For McGettigan this policy space, framed by a cultural turn towards entrepreneurialism, underpins the co-option of teaching and learning for exchange.

In October 2013, David Willetts, then minister for science and universities, expressed his enthusiasm for a new research project funded by the Nuffield Foundation:

Professor Neil Shephard of Harvard University and Professor Anna Vignoles of Cambridge University are currently merging a wealth of data from the Student Loans Company and HM Revenue and Customs which should deliver a significant improvement in the current data on labour market outcomes of similar courses at different institutions.

…The project is titled ‘Estimating Human Capital of Graduates’ and seeks to assess how the future earnings of ‘similar students’ vary ‘by institution type and subject’:

If different degrees from different institutions result in very different levels of earnings for students with similar pre-university qualifications and from similar socio-economic backgrounds, then this might affect both student choice and policies designed to increase participation and improve social mobility.

Crucially then, undergraduate degrees are shaped and presented as the individual’s willingness to invest in her own human capital, in order to become productive and as a result socially-useful. One of the policy outcomes is the need to recalibrate HE around the logic of ensuring that the consumers of education have good enough data or information upon which to make their investment choices.

[Education is] a human capital investment that benefits the private individual insofar as it enables that individual to boost future earnings. Universities and colleges are then to be judged on how well they provide training that does indeed boost earnings profiles. Such ‘value add’ ’would displace current statistical concoctions based on prior attainment and final degree classification. The key device is loans: they go out into the world and the manner in which they are repaid generates information. Graduates then become the bearers of the units of account by which HE performance is set into a system of accountability: ‘What level of repayments is this graduate of this course likely to produce over the next 35 years?’

This restructures learning, teaching and scholarship. Structurally, academic work becomes a response to the realities of financiaisation, which re-purpose the design, delivery and assessment of the curriculum for exchange. What is the point of our flipped classroom or our social learning theory or our peer-assessment or our peer mentoring strategy, except as a means to measure learning gain? Our pedagogy is simply a means to produce/capture/use data to commoditise every curriculum asset (learning outcomes, curriculum delivery systems, progression data, content, assessments and grades and so on) to the benefit of finance capital, and the Government, through financial profits and rising asset values that correlate with bubbles and speculation. And given that so much of the UK’s economic growth is generated through services and consumption, this is unsurprising.

THREE. Historical anxiety and data.

McGettigan develops this point by situating it against its historical context, in the relationships between the government, education institutions, and both individuals and their families that were highlighted by Milton Friedman in The Role for Government in Education:

[Education is] a form of investment in human capital precisely analogous to investment in machinery, buildings, or other forms of non-human capital. Its function is to raise the economic productivity of the human being. If it does so, the individual is rewarded in a free enterprise society by receiving a higher return for his services.

The subsidisation of institutions rather than of people has led to an indiscriminate subsidization of whatever activities it is appropriate for such institutions to undertake, rather than of activities it is appropriate for the state to subsidise. The problem is not primarily that we are spending too little money … but that we are getting so little per dollar spent.

For McGettigan this is a critical point in re-structuring higher education.

And here is the rub. The growing and unexpectedly large subsidy built into the current iteration of fee-loan regime points to that same problem: the government is not getting the maximum from borrowers or from universities (which are using tuition fees to subsidise other activities like research). One might blame universities that set fees for classroom subjects at the same rate as lab-based subjects, that blanket £9 000 per annum, or loan funding offered for subjects that do nothing to boost graduate productivity. Either way, it points to the issue of mis-investment rather than underinvestment. Indeed, given the statistics on graduates filling posts that do not require graduate qualifications, from the human capital theory perspective, one might even use the language of overinvestment in HE. It is not clear to many whether the problems of the graduate labour market are recessionary, structural, secular or a combination of all three.

As David Willetts argued in Robbins Revisited “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.” And, of course, one of the critical outcomes of this behavioural change is that academic work becomes suffused with anxiety, because judgements are being made. Is this course creditworthy? Is this course meeting externally-imposed standards that are financialised? Does this course have benefit for individuals and the institution in the market? Is this course entrepreneurial enough? Is this course a private, positional good? And flowing from those questions are judgements about the design and delivery of the curriculum, its content and its assessments. And these judgements enable a feeding frenzy for any public/private partner or joint venture that can offer tradable services that are designed for learning gain. This is the background noise that drowns out everything else inside the need to crack new markets for new services.

The current vogue for the private sector to use evidence to drive an allegedly neutral cultural and political space for policy is amplified through analytics and big data. These tend to frame the expectations of the voiceless student as a cipher for a weakly-theorised view of impact, efficiencies, personalisation, scaling, and service-led innovation. There is no space to discuss structural inequalities that amplify issues of autonomy or agency, or the ways in which consent is addressed inside the classroom. In this process, openness or transparency or accountability is no substitute for political engagement. Thus, this article on Lies, Damned Lies and Open Data argues that

Now we must renew the much larger battle over the role of evidence in public policy. On the surface, the open data movement was about who could access and use government data. It rested on the idea that data was as much a public asset as a highway, bridge, or park and so should be made available to those who paid for its creation and curation: taxpayers. But contrary to the hopes of some advocates, improving public access to data—that is, access to the evidence upon which public policy is going to be constructed—does not magically cause governments’, and politicians’, desire for control to evaporate. Quite the opposite. Open data will not depoliticize debate. It will force citizens, and governments, to realize how politicized data is, and always has been.

In her essay on the anxieties of big data, Kate Crawford enables us to wonder whether such a politicisation might emerge from an analysis of anxiety.

Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us. Like a fluorescent light in a dark corridor, it can both show too much and not enough. Anxiety, as Sianne Ngai has written, has a temporality that is future oriented: it is an expectation emotion, and the expectation is generally of risk, exposure, and failure. British group Plan C in their blistering manifesto “We Are All Very Anxious” argue that anxiety is the dominant affect of our current phase of capitalism, engendering political hopelessness, insecurity, and social separation.

The current mythology of big data is that with more data comes greater accuracy and truth. This epistemological position is so seductive that many industries, from advertising to automobile manufacturing, are repositioning themselves for massive data gathering. The myth and the tools, as Donna Haraway once observed, mutually constitute each other, and the instruments of data gathering and analysis, too, act as agents that shape the social world. Bruno Latour put it this way: “Change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them.” The turn to big data is a political and cultural turn, and we are just beginning to see its scope.

FOUR. The academic bind: dismantling the curriculum.

McGettigan has connected issues of policy to the mechanics of financialisation through data, and highlights the bind that academics now find themselves in.

What I have outlined here, the coming wave of education evaluation’ threatens to supplant traditional understandings of universities as communities advancing public knowledge. Current regulations governing the awarding of degrees aver that standards are maintained and safeguarded only by the critical activity of the academic community within an institution. It will be harder and harder to recall that fact.

The risk is that academics seeking to resist this further privatisation of knowledge will be cast as vested interests seeking to protect an old, inadequate system lacking in transparency. We will end up on the wrong side of the argument. The difficulty: How to articulate what is threatened? How to defend forms of knowledge which are not subordinate to private returns? Academic freedom and autonomy now face a more pressing, insidious, financialised threat than the traditional bugbear of direct political interference. But all this may prove too abstract for effective resistance.

I have no glib solution to which you might sign up. But when hard times find us, criticism must strike for the root: the root is undergraduate study as a stratified, unequal, positional good dominating future opportunities and outcomes. What might find broader public support is a vision of higher education institutions that are civic and open to lifelong participation, instead of places beholden to the three-year, full-time degree leveraged on loans and aiming to cream off ‘talent’.

Striking at this root means working with students to question the reduction of our lives to economic value. What is certainly needed is a recognition that the forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring higher education as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people, whether that is in the curriculum or beyond. As Joss Winn has argued:

Students are more viscerally outspoken about the need for fundamental changes in the governance of their universities. In occupation – most recently at UCL, Goldsmiths, KCL, LSE, UAL, and in Amsterdam – they too demand democracy as a basic requisite for a free university.

Can academics support both critique and the development/nurturing of alternative forms of learning and teaching that in-turn push-back against the dominant political agenda that commodifies humanity? We see such possibilities inside alternative educational forms, and through the politics of occupations, as well as in the collective resistance to austerity in Europe. Somehow, this means taking Schumpeter’s point in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, that we need to reconnect our work against the dematerialised, defunctionalised and absentee domination of our lives, which is enacted through the market. There is a need to think through how the curriculum and its organising principles might be liberated as a form of open, co-operative, common property that is itself rooted in social struggle beyond the University.

Moreover, they force us to question how to dismantle the curriculum as it is co-opted of exchange, so that at the intersection of common goods, liberation and pedagogic practice, academics might question how to situate the financialisation of higher education, and the use of data and debt to drive control, inside collective action against the politics of austerity. As Winn goes on:

Critics of the ‘co-operative university’ have questioned our commitment to the idea of the ‘public university’. Indeed, co-operatives are anti-statist, but they also exceed the idea of ‘public ownership’ with that of ‘common ownership’, a social form of property that is the antithesis of the right of free alienability (which distinguishes capitalist private property). In short, co-operative higher education is entirely compatible with the idea of the ‘public’ if we reconceive it as an autonomous, open, democratically governed ‘commons’: An academic commons, democratically controlled by academic and support staff, students, cleaners and others.

However, in this move towards common ownership is the formation of a movement whose struggle is beyond the form of higher education, towards engaging with the concept of dismantling as it has been critically developed at UCL. The process of dismantling as it emerges from a critique of “racialised wrongs in our [academic] workplace and in the wider world” focuses upon:

  • unpacking the intellectual and moral arguments for Britain’s former Empire, [in order that] we can begin to challenge its legacies today;
  • analysing the dominance and subjugation which mark these racialised phenomena, we can begin to equip ourselves with the necessary tools to dismantle it; and
  • improving the way we engage with staff, students and the wider world, #DTMH seeks to contribute to a more equal and liberatory future in Britain and beyond.

The concept of dismantling emerges asymmetrically against the idea that the curriculum might be broken-up and commodified for exchange. We might, therefore, look at how this becomes a starting point for a wider questioning of issues of power and ideology inside the curriculum and its organising principles, so that we might offer a wider/societal critique of the co-option of the curriculum.

FIVE. On academic refusal.

As I argue elsewhere on the abolition of academic labour:

Here academics might usefully ask, what activities are we collectively willing to bear and how might they be determined, governed and regulated? This demands that the range of academic labourers, including full and assistant professors, adjunct and sessional instructors, teacher assistants and so on are able to consider points of solidarity rather than division. The work emerging around the new co-operativism, and the intellectual underpinnings of pedagogies like student-as-producer (Amsler and Neary 2012) and of organisations like the Social Science Centre (2014), offer a way of framing and reconceptualising the potential proto/rollback/rollout phases of a co-operative alternative to neoliberalism. This work is also a way of challenging the reality of the competitive restructuring of public higher education, and the idea that the university is for-profit and valorisation. Here it is the spread of ideas across transnational activist networks of co-operators that might enable a reconnection of academic labour as labour across society, in a form that enables it to support mass intellectuality rather than private accumulation (Virno 2001; Winn 2014). As the Social Science Centre (2014) states, hope lies in the “possibilities for associational networks” that critique higher education policy and practice…

This process demands the negation of the reified nature of academic labour, so that social values rather than value are at the core of how society is reproduced.

This demands that we re-engage with the ways in which the labour of academics and students is used by corporations, non-governmental advocacy organisations, and governments, in order to re-frame cultural and educational positions as entrepreneurial, in the name of exchange, the market and the rate of profit. Instead, might it be used co-operatively and in common for work beyond the classroom as it is marketised? Academic refusal to give consent cannot crystallise around silence. As teaching, learning and scholarship are co-opted by the market, in the form of value, money, learning gain or impact, other social or co-operative forms of value are marginalised.

By overcoming our unwillingness to discuss such marginalisation across both university governance and in the curriculum, and in learning from critiques centred on the idea of dismantling, academics might begin to address McGettigan’s point that “What might find broader public support is a vision of higher education institutions that are civic and open to lifelong participation, instead of places beholden to the three-year, full-time degree leveraged on loans and aiming to cream off ‘talent’.” This process of finding commonality and connection across a range of struggles is critical if we are to refuse

A system of educational production that is using learning gain and deliverology and data and performance anxiety to force us into new forms of cognitive dissonance rooted in narratives of labour-market readiness. Might we build something that is engaged and full of care, and where we no longer simply learn to internalise, monitor and manage our own alienation?

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