notes on educational ‘immiseration’

At 4.30am this morning I remembered that a while back I’d been asked to contribute to some work-in-progress on the idea of dangerous words. The three terms I selected were ‘immiseration’, ‘managerialism’, and ‘alternative education’. The work-in-progress hasn’t progressed so I’ve decided to publish what I wrote a year ago, starting with ‘immiseration’. The other two will follow.

The brief given was to:

  • explore the connections between a particular set of selected terms and their role in contemporary social relations, where these words function as one aspect of social relations and not as ‘empty signifiers’;
  • question the increasing use of some words in the public and private domains and to explore the effects of these words and the logic that underpins them, on meaning-making and on creating possibilities for improving life;
  • critique these terms as one aspect of social relations in education;
  • discuss acts of separation that are made possible through simultaneous processes of distinction, differentiation and stratification, whilst bearing the possibility for their representation.

The idea is to uncover tools to refuse the neoliberal/capitalist idea of education as a neutral and technical process, which in-turn imposes its ideology on us. This ideology uses a language that teachers, educators, researchers, students and parents are encouraged to co-opt. Occupying and refusing certain words, and finding alternative ways of doing, making, creating, sharing, pooling, gifting (against producing, services, productivity, entrepreneurialism and so on), are critical moments in resistance and refusal. Ultimately they are critical moments in a process of liberation.


Educational immiseration emerges from the processes through which the academic lives of students and academics are subsumed under the reproduction of capitalist social relations, and are thereby inexorably worsened (Hall and Bowles 2016; Marx 2004). It is underscored by social and economic impoverishment, and the on-going alienation of the academic and student: first from their own labour-power and the products of their own labour, which are disciplined through performance management and debt; second, from the university as a self-critical scholarly community, which is now on the search for competitive edge and surplus value; and third from other academics and students, with whom they must now compete, with such competition made explicit in league tables and performance indicators (Hall 2015a; Wendling 2009). Immiseration is then a function of the on-going privatisation and alienation of the conditions for social reproduction, alongside the demand for labour to be productive (i.e. to expand capital). It benefits a transnational capitalist class that is restructuring educational institutions, and which consists of academics and think-tanks, policy-makers and administrators, finance and venture capital and private equity, educational publishers, and philanthropists or philanthrocapitalists.

Innovations in pedagogy, such as student-as-partner, or in the delivery of the curriculum, for instance through open education, might fruitfully be analysed against these potential constrictions or barriers to the social reproduction of capital. Reproduction must maintain an increase in the rate of profit and leverage further investment, in order to avert crises of over-accumulation, overproduction or under-consumption. At the same time labour rights, time and costs are forced down, to increase the rate at which surplus value is produced and accumulated It is increasingly reinforced through: first, competition between institutions and disciplines, through league table metrics, and between people in terms of enterprise and employability; and, second, through new forms of financialisation, such as debt-driven study, bond-financed, university expansion, or the connection of datasets relating to student loans, educational outcomes and taxation (McGettigan 2015; Rolling Jubilee 2016). The increase in student or institutional debt, and the linking of that debt to performance data is a means to bring education into the reproduction cycles of capitalism, and to re-engineer it to meet the demands for economic growth.

These processes of re-engineering higher education inside the logics of capitalism, known as subsumption, also works to modify the processes of accumulation, which enable academic labour, in the form of student labour-power or staff teaching or shared research, to be immiserated through its proletarianisation (Newfield 2010). Such proletarianisation is global, and is influenced by national educational policy like indentured study and using HE as an export strategy. It is also amplified transnationally through institutional internationalisation strategies and innovations like MOOCs that commodify educational content and assessment across global markets (Hall 2015b). The technological and organisational innovations being implemented across higher education by a transnational capitalist class are an outcome of the logic of competition, which itself demands the development of the productive power of labour and attrition on its costs. This affects the labour of students and academics, and drives universities to compete and to remain productive through technological and organisational innovation, as a response to the need to increase financial surpluses (as a form of accumulation). This puts further pressure on the demand for labour, as investment in physical and virtual estates and services rises, and through the ability of universities to drive down the labour-time for assessing, teaching or publishing compared to competitor institutions. One tendency is to further the consumerisation of higher education, such that educational relationships become contractual or transactional.

Changes in the technical conditions of the process of academic production enable new accumulations of surplus academic products to become additional means of production. For instance, the increased use of technology to deliver curriculum content and assessment reduces the demand for teaching staff, while increasing the amount of digital content available for new markets. The end result of these changes is an increase in the number of precariously-employed academic labourers, in the form of postgraduates who teach, adjuncts, casual teachers, and even associate/full professors, and crucially students, who are struggling for some control over the means of production (CASA 2016; CUPE 2016; Morris 2015). Precarity means that students and adjuncts are forced to sell themselves piecemeal and are forced to contend and compete globally, including with private HE providers or alternative service providers. Immiserated labourers are forced to compete as self-exploiting entrepreneurs, beguiled by the promise of autonomy and ever-increasing standards of living, whilst in reality working longer and harder for lower rewards (Richmond 2014).

In each of these cases individual labourers survive by selling their labour-power in the market, including students selling their future labour-power (as their potential employability) for credit that is obtained through loans. The process of immiseration entails the dispossession of individual and collective autonomy and time. The educational autonomy that is dispossessed relates to what can be produced and the process of production. The educational time that is dispossessed is both the indentured present, which must be focused around becoming employable or entrepreneurial, and the future that is foreclosed because it must be described by the repayment of student loans (Postone 1996, 2012). This alienated labour-power is scrubbed clean of its usefulness beyond that dictated in the market by future employability, and research impact and student satisfaction metrics. What emerges is the substitution of that alienated labour-power for that which was previously locally-bargained, with control over the means of production residing transnationally rather than at a local level. This process of alienation is an echo of Marx and Engel’s (2002) argument that competition and the expansion of value, driven by space-time compression across an international market, would immiserate and proletarianise increasing amounts of work.

Policy statements also recalibrate higher education inside national export strategies, and strengthen immiserating tendencies, by re-focusing educational practice on high value-added, non-routine jobs (Australian Government 2015; Newfield 2010; Willetts 2013). Here, there is an acceptance that for vast swathes of the global population the reality is only immiseration and low-skilled, low value-added, routine jobs in a transnational market. Policy tends to accelerate competition and the incorporation of HE inside that logic, so that competition drives precarity and casualisation, and competition between entrepreneurs (Davies 2014; Mazzucato 2013).

Critically, the effects of such a policy mean that universities as businesses are restructured for the production of surplus value, through organisational development, knowledge transfer, research impact, technological innovation and so on. A central issue for academics and students as labourers then becomes the creation of circulation of commodity services that are compensated through institutional profits or surpluses (Marx 1993). Thus, those who labour to provide a service, alongside those who labour to produce surplus value, are faced by capital’s drive to expand and accumulate value, and to reduce costs in the face of maximising profit. Profit is key in disciplining and exploiting (productive) labour and in driving down labour costs.

As capital looks for new spaces in which to invest the surpluses it has accumulated (in the form of new technology, intellectual property, finance and so on), it drives labour-saving innovations or technologies in all sectors of the economy. Thus, the growth of technological and entrepreneurial activity inside and against the University forms a way for capital to leverage the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested. Educational innovation also enables a redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive. Therefore, it becomes important for educational activists to analyse the role of educational innovation in revolutionising the means of production and in generating social relations and modes of production that are immiserating. In the face of this assault on academic identity, enacted through time and performance, it is important for educators and students to ask whether it is possible to imagine a more general transformation of social relations for educational abundance? Such a reimagining must work for the abolition of academic labour, and of labour in general, as a way of overcoming immiseration.


Australian Government, Department of Education and Training (2015). Draft National Strategy for International Education. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

CASA (2014). A home online for casual, adjunct, sessional staff and their allies in Australian higher education. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

CUPE3903 (2015). Representing, Organizing and Activating the Contract Faculty, Teaching Assistants, Graduate Assistants, and Research Assistants @ York University, Toronto, Canada. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Davies, W. (2014). The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition. London: SAGE.

Hall, R., and Bowles, K. (2016). Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labour, 28.

Hall, R. (2015a). The University and the Secular Crisis. Open Library of the Humanities, 1(1). DOI:

Hall, R. (2015b). For a Political Economy of Massive Open Online Courses. Learning, Media and Technology, 40(3), 265-286.

McGettigan, A. (2015). The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. Political Economy Research Centre, Papers Series 6. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Marx, K. (1993). Grundrisse: Outline of the Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

Marx, K. (2004). Capital, Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2002). The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin

Mazzucato, M. (2013). The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. London: Anthem Press.

Morris, A. (2015). The Rise of ‘Quit Lit’: What It Is and Why It Matters [Opinion]. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Newfield, C. (2010). The structure and silence of Cognitariat. EduFactory webjournal, 0, 10-26. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Postone, M. (1996). Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, M. (2012). Exigency of Time: A Conversation with Harry Harootunian and Moishe Postone, Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, 38(2), 7-43.

Richmond, M. (2014). Unpaid Trials & Self-Exploiting Entrepreneurs. The Occupied Times. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Rolling Jubilee. (2016). Retrieved 5 July 2016 from

Wendling, A. E. (2009). Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Willetts, D. (2013). Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education. London: Social Market Foundation.

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