Against Commodification: The University, Cognitive Capitalism and Emergent Technologies

Two edited collections, “Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism” and “Marx and the Political Economy of the Media“, have just been published by Brill.

With Bernd Stahl, I have a chapter in the latter called: Against Commodification: The University, Cognitive Capitalism and Emergent Technologies.

This is an updated version of an article that was published in 2012 in Triple-C.

Under the licence agreement, authors are allowed to put the final pdf of their chapter on their own websites but not into institutional repositories. So if there is something you like, hit the author’s (s’) site(s).

NOTE: paperback editions of the 2 books will be published in a year by Haymarket Press.

The abstract for mine and Bernd Stahl’s chapter is as follows.

This paper investigates how four specific emergent technologies, namely affective computing, augmented reality, cloud-based systems, and human machine symbiosis, demonstrate how technological innovation nurtured inside the University is commodified and fetishised under cognitive capitalism or immaterial labour, and how it thereby further enables capital to reproduce itself across the social factory. Marx’s critique of technologies, through their connection to nature, production, social relations and mental conceptions, and in direct relation to the labour process, demonstrates how capital utilises emergent technologies to incorporate labour further into its self-valorisation process as labour-power. The University life-world that includes research and development is a critical domain in which to site Marx’s structural technological critique, and it is argued that this enables a critique of the public development and deployment of these technologies to reveal them as a fetishised force of production, in order to re-politicise activity between students, teachers and the public.

On the Open Library of Humanities

I’m really excited to have become a Trustee for the Open Library of Humanities. Martin Eve and Caroline Edwards have been working tirelessly on developing financial/governance, technological, academic and social models for the OLH as an alternative, open access publishing platform for peer-reviewed work.

In Opening the OLH, Martin and Caroline note that:

in the age of digital reproduction the circulation of our academic humanities journals is decreasing (because our libraries cannot afford to subscribe in the face of an increasing volume of published material and hyper-inflationary journal price increases), even while we have the technological capacity to disseminate and preserve our work online. Meanwhile, the benefits of open access to the humanities disciplines are clear. Unless we extend access to our work to broader publics, our claims to engender critical thinking in the demos are ill founded.

This raises critical points about the interface between academic labour and its commodities, and both the institutions inside which academics work and the publishers who control much of the terrain through which that work is distributed. In the face of a changing political economic landscape of higher education, overlain by new technological infrastructures, the idea of academic labour as a communal or public good and its relationship to the demos, becomes central. This is especially the case in the face of socio-environmental and political crises.

The OLH begins a process of engaging academics with alternative economic, governance and infrastructural possibilities for securing access to their research. This process is messy and conflicted, but it is focused upon making something that is rooted in our social wealth and our sociability.

As with most dreams of universal education, though, there has often been staunch resistance in the humanities to open access. One of the principle reasons for this is that the economic models that are being implemented by traditional publishers are uniquely unsuited to our disciplinary areas. Article processing charges (APCs), in which authors or their institutions are asked to bear the entire labour costs (and any profit/surplus) of a publisher, become unaffordable in the humanities disciplines, as opposed to in our counterpart fields in the natural sciences where the model may work. The diversion of scant humanities funding to compensate lost profits for journal publishers undermines the claimed meritocratic nature of academic publishing as well as damaging the career prospects of those without recourse to such funding… What we have so far is the seed of a scalable model for journal transition to open access in the humanities that does not rely on payment from authors or readers.

You can find out more about the OLH here.

So far 101 institutions have signed up to support the federated model that the OLH describes. There is a list here.

The current OLH cost model, with information on institutional sign-up, is here.

Seven journals are now hosted on the OLH, including the OLH megajournal. Check out 19, an interdisciplinary studies journal on the long nineteenth-century. If you are an author you can submit here.

There is an important reference point for research integrity here, and about the connection with the REF here.

This is an important moment because it is about generating alternatives that are publically- or communally-facing, and which begin to push-back against the outsourcing of the distribution of knowledge to for-profit entities. In this way it forces a re-engagement with, or a re-questioning of, the purpose of academic labour, including its governance and financing. It forces us to ask questions about how and where we engage, and about the ways in which academics might work co-operatively in order to take back power-over the things/relationships that they produce.

Perhaps this is also a moment to think again about the collective, social, common wealth of our labours, and their social uses rather than their exchange-values. Perhaps we might then question how, rather than being a different form of appearance (for-profit) of the wealth that is produced through academic labour, open access (or openness) might instead enable a discussion about a different, concrete (as opposed to abstract) reality.


Becoming a Trustee of the OLH is also a really important, therapeutic moment for me. In 2011 I gave up being a Trustee of Birmingham Christmas Shelter, and being Deputy Chair of Governors at Forest Lodge Primary School in Leicester. I gave these roles up because doing a job outside of my full-time work was debilitating. Also, I was en route to a second breakdown and the weight of extra responsibility was too much. Four years later, I received an email asking me to consider becoming a Trustee on the day I found out I was accepted as an Independent Visitor for a looked-after child. Serendipity is an amazing thing. These two new roles are fundamental to a process of healing, and to anchoring the new, concrete narrative (of a life beyond anxiety) that I am trying to internalise.

learning gain and kettling academic labour

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths

Banquo, Act 1, Scene III, Macbeth.

“Kettling is a police tactic to control crowds where officers surround a group of people on all sides. In some instances, police direct protesters toward a predetermined location. As the crowd grows, the police presence tightens around them. Police control access to the location and decide how to allow people to leave, perhaps through a predetermined spot.”

CBC News. 2012. Crowd control: What is kettling?

Academic kettling is a management/policy tactic to control academics and students where management surround a group of people on all sides. In some instances, protesters are directed toward a predetermined location. As the crowd grows, performance management tightens around them. Management control access to the location and decide how to allow people to leave, perhaps through a predetermined spot.

And so it goes.

We witness a barrage of new public management techniques for internalising control and producing value. A bureaucracy for impact, learning gain, teaching excellence. Strategies for internationalisation, enterprise, employability, community, quality assurance.

We are told that everything pivots around the student experience, to the extent that we forget ourselves. And we begin to internalise value-added.

We are led towards learning gain, and fail to notice the noose of financialisation that is being prepared. That our hopes for student outcomes form their means of hedging against future performance.

We let ourselves believe that student outcomes will be too messy to translate into measures of teaching quality, against the lessons of history and the messages of their corporate reports.

We forget the lessons of league tables and performance management in secondary education, and the relentless testing that eviscerates self-actualisation beyond the market.

We forget that their learning gain can never be defined by us, and that we will be co-opted by them in our attempts to use it for good. We refuse to believe that we might refuse.

We refuse to believe that learning gain and teaching excellence are two sides of the same process of hyper-financialising education.

We forget that this is about labour rights. The labour rights of students as well as staff. We risk losing ourselves.

And so it goes.

what defines learning gain? variable human capital and the rule of money

p. xi “such measures can be seen as important to the debates about the quality and impact of higher education, how we evidence the value of investment in it, and how we evidence students’ skills acquisition for employers.”

p. xi “the concept of ‘learning gain’ is defined as the ‘distance travelled’, or the difference between the skills, competencies, content knowledge and personal development demonstrated by students at two points in time. This allows for a comparison of academic abilities and how participation in higher education has contributed to such intellectual development.”

This allows for a comparison of academic abilities and how participation in higher education has contributed to such intellectual development. A comparison between individuals, courses, institutions on a national and global scale. Your pedagogy as their financialised data. The market will decide, once the market has the data. And who will facilitate that process?

p. x “the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), working in partnership with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), commissioned RAND Europe.

p. xii-xiii “Learning gain measures… can also be used to support accountability, promote transparency and enable comparability of the outcomes of higher education”

beyond learning and the student experience

p. 2 “The learning gain in England project is influenced by two principal drivers, as detailed below.

1.1.1. Higher education financing mechanisms: “The change in funding arrangements and diversification of provision has contributed to greater pressure to justify to students, employers and governments increased investment in higher education.”

1.1.2. Quality and accountability in English higher education: “Changes in financing of higher education have also served both to underline the importance of quality in higher education, and position student choice as a key concern for the sector. Students’ expectations in terms of their course and experience are increasingly becoming a concern of universities and policy makers, and institutions have sought to provide more information to prospective students on the value of degrees…”

learning gain as a disciplinary tool, rooted in performance management and accountability

p. 12 “Indicators and measures of learning gain could also be used to help increase accountability in higher education (as they have in secondary education, for example) and could help governments justify value for money of investments in higher education to both students and other stakeholders.”

p. 14 “Comparison between student performance, disciplines, institutions and countries are all potentially valid uses of a measure of learning gain.”

McGrath, C..H., Guerin, B., Harte, E., Frearson, M. and Manville, C. 2015. Learning Gain in Higher Education. Cambridge: Rand Corporation.

learner excellence and labour rights

Phil Race: A5 #lthechat Learning gain is perhaps more about learner excellence than teaching excellence. Much learning happens without teaching anyway

Simon Lancaster: the more one understand’s about the practicalities the less likely to think it suitable for building league tables #LTHEchat

because those with power think it’s about human capital which is in itself de-humanising

p. 16 “higher education represents a critical factor in innovation and human capital development and plays a central role in the success and sustainability of the knowledge economy”

and this has to play out internationally and competitively because of rising costs, the rising organic composition of capital, and a globally falling rate of profit.

p. 26 “The first phenomenon of rising costs is a direct consequence of the expansion of higher education systems and wider participation, which have increased the financial burden of higher education as most countries have tried to expand their systems while limiting the adverse impact on unit costs and expenditure to maintain quality. Indeed higher education provision offers limited scope for economies of scale”

p. 26 “a second phenomenon of fiscal pressure to curb costs has arisen in many countries. Indeed, economic growth over the past two decades has been insufficient to sustain the rising costs of higher education resulting from massification in most countries across the globe”

p. 26 “the allocation of public funding for tertiary education is increasingly characterised by greater targeting of resources, performance-based funding, and competitive procedures.”

p. 28 “Competition has also been advocated as a tool to improve teaching quality, as well as institutions’ responsiveness to the needs of society, the labour market and students”

it’s producing and circulating data to signal social mobility and the autonomy of the market.

p. 28 “Signalling is an integral aspect of these increasingly competitive markets. Indeed, higher education has many features of an experience good, i.e. a service whose characteristics such as quality are difficult to observe prior to consumption. With such information asymmetry, consumers struggle with their consumption choices and reward reputation in the absence of more transparent measures of quality. Accordingly, HEIs as well as systems use a range of signals and marketing tools to showcase their worth and build their reputation… The emergence of global rankings and their growing importance is illustrative of this compelling search for signals and recognition”

and so we are told that we need learning gain and teaching excellence, as productivity tools

p. 30 “Performance indicators and external quality evaluations are an integral aspect of the new model of distant steering”

p. 31 “drop-out and underachievement incur economic costs as a result of lower returns to non-degree higher education compared to full degrees, while costs per student are the same in both cases… This raises questions about the scope for improving the “productivity” of higher education through targeted policies to enhance the quality of service provision, and as a consequence, students’ retention and success.”

p. 33 “most notably for the learning outcomes of higher education, while it would appear to be among the most important pieces of information on higher education, available data remains scarce in many systems”

p. 34 “a growing need has emerged to develop direct measures of learning outcomes to overcome the limitations of current proxies for the quality of teaching and learning”

p. 36 in the Bucharest Communiqué of Bologna Ministers in 2012: “To consolidate the European Higher Education Area, meaningful implementation of learning outcomes is needed. The development, understanding and practical use of learning outcomes is crucial to the success of ECTS, the Diploma Supplement, recognition, qualifications frameworks and quality assurance – all of which are interdependent”

p. 41 “Students’ learning outcomes are a key factor of institutional performance, and hence of aggregate system performance. While some indirect evidence can be gained from graduate destination surveys and student engagement surveys, to date, there are no instruments for international measurement.”

Tremblay, K., Lalancette, D., and Roseveare, D. 2015. Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes Feasibility Study Report Volume 1 – Design and Implementation. OECD.

and this will ensure a new hyper-financialised architecture for higher education or higher learning or higher pedagogy

“So the reforms we will set out in the green paper will improve teaching quality, empower students, open up the higher education market and drive value for money. To deliver our ambitions, we also plan to reform the higher education and research system architecture.

“We are a deregulatory government, and much of the higher education system is ripe for simplification… Our regulatory regime is still based upon a system where government directly funds institutions rather than reflecting the fact that students are the purchasers, and needful of all the protections that consumers of complex high value products receive in other regulated markets… Students are the primary source of income for undergraduate study, but their interests are insufficiently represented in our structures and systems.”

Johnson, J. 2015. Higher education: fulfilling our potential. BIS.

and this hyper-financialised architecture, rooted in reductionist approaches to outcomes and value-added and learning gain and efficacy, is being lobbied for and evidenced

p. 2 “It is increasingly possible to determine what works and what doesn’t in education, just as in healthcare. The elements of learning can be mapped out, the variables isolated and a measurable impact on learning predicted and delivered. This can be done at every level – a single lesson, a single individual, a classroom, an institution or a whole system. It can also be done for a product or service that’s designed to help people learn. As a result, there has been progress and there is now a real sense that we are on the brink of a revolution.”

because learning is about value and consumers, rather than humane values

p. 3 “things which are important, and which command a high level of investment, should be approached in a systematic, evidence-based fashion”

p. 4 “The expansion of education models that deliver measurably better outcomes, combined with the growing transparency of results, is leading to increased consumer expectations and demand for quality, as well as access.”

Fallon, J. 2013. Preface to Barber, M. and Rizvi, S (2013) Asking More: The Path to Efficacy. Pearson.

p. 42 “we intend to embed efficacy into the heart of our organisation. The key is to consider how to ensure that every major decision delivers both financial and learner outcomes”

Barber, M. and Rizvi, S., 2013. The Incomplete Guide to Delivering Learning Outcomes. Pearson.

and this is an anti-vision of higher education

p. 2 “The focus of policy has been the transformation of higher education into the private good of training and the positional good of opportunity, where the returns on both are higher earnings. Initiation into the production and dissemination of public knowledge? It does not appear to be a concern of current policy. Such an anti-vision of higher education – let the market determine what should be offered – unfortunately meshes with a stratified higher education sector which mirrors an increasingly unequal society.”

an anti-vision rooted in a disciplinary architecture of data and performance management

pp. 2-3 “Potential applicants to colleges and universities will in future benefit from information on the ‘employability and earnings’ of each institution’s alumni and alumnae. I quote:

[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.”

because the rule of money will dominate your pedagogy

p. 3 “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.

That paragraph captures the two angles to this debate: it is not just applicants who want to know what their monetary return on further study might be. Moving beyond consumer choice, the government as lender is becoming increasingly concerned by the size of the subsidy built-in to the student loan scheme as the latter is buffeted by recession, low bank base rates, a troubling graduate labour market and earlier mistakes in the modelling of future repayments.”

your pedagogy reduced to human capital investment

p. 4 “The 2011 Higher Education White Paper presented undergraduate degrees as 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?’”

p. 5 “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”

p. 7 “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”

McGettigan, A. 2015. The Treasury View of HE: variable human capital investment. Goldsmiths: PERC.

and they need the data, so, you know, test everything

“The generic, non-subject-specific exams will be trialled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to evaluate whether they could be used to measure undergraduates’ “learning gain” – the improvement in skills and competencies made by students during their time at university.

“The results of any nationwide standardised test could also be used to compare institutional performance, and may form a key metric in the planned teaching excellence framework.”

Havergal, C. 2015. HEFCE to pilot standardised student tests. Times Higher Education.

This research shows there is a wide range of approaches to measuring learning among students in higher education. Understanding the methods and the results from these pilots will help assess teaching quality and excellence and ultimately provide better value for all students.

Johnson, J. 2015. In HEFCE, £4 million awarded to 12 projects to pilot measures of learning gain.

Learning gain, value for money, teaching excellence and quality assurance, as a regime of control. And architectures of control. Kettling academic labour.

p. 15 “A significant number of responses to the discussion document identified a need to undertake a major shift in quality assessment and assurance activity to focus more on student outcomes than institutional processes. The proposals in this consultation take such a shift in focus as essential if a quality assessment system is to be accountable to students and other stakeholders in the areas that matter to them.”

“this collection of student outcomes data will be important in two key areas:

  • its use within an individual provider at the heart of their mechanisms to drive continuous improvement in learning and teaching and in the student academic experience
  • its use by the relevant funding body to undertake routine monitoring of institutional performance as a way to identify signs of concern about that student academic experience.”

HEFCE. 2015. Quality Assurance Review.

‘Quality Assessment’ and Completing the Market in UK Higher Education

Over at The Disorder of Things, Lee Jones has posted a response made by 80 academics to HEFCE’s Review of Quality Assessment. I have added my name to this, and I am grateful to Lee for his leadership and energies on this response/refusal.

HEFCE proposes a radical shake-up of these arrangements. Its main ideas are as follows.

  • The funding bodies will shift from assessing quality directly to merely certifying HEIs’ own internal QA processes as meeting a ‘baseline quality’ threshold. This is described as a ‘light touch’ approach that would supposedly reduce the regulatory burden. The proposals are open-minded about whether any routine checks would ever be conducted once HEIs are certified with a proposed ‘kite mark’. HEIs’ governing bodies, which would assume overall responsibility for quality, would merely certify their ongoing compliance in annual reports. The QAA is apparently to be scrapped. But funders would ‘intervene’ rapidly if there is suspicion of a collapse in standards.
  • Internal QA would be guided by data on ‘student outcomes’, presented in an easy-to-follow format (though the proposals, for now, eschew ‘star ratings’ – that’s probably for the TEF). The proposed goal is ‘constant improvement’. This is presented alongside contradictory goals like curbing grade inflation. This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the proposals, as discussed further below.
  • The system of external examiners would be ‘professionalised’ (which assumes we are not already professionals). Externals would be trained and accredited by some additional body. While this is not quite an ‘OFSTED’ for HE, the tendency of the bureaucracy to expand to meet the growing needs of the bureaucracy means it could well evolve into an external inspectorate. At the very least it means external examiners are likely to become progressively divorced from the activities they are meant to be judging.
  • To help curb grade inflation, there are also calls for internal and external examiners to form (inter-)disciplinary groups to develop shared assessments of work – a sort of nationwide moderation process. The idea is to help police the pass/fail and 2(i)/2(ii) borderlines. Anyone who has ever marked assessments (i.e. virtually no one at HEFCE) will know that even expert judgements within a single department can vary substantially, but the notion here is that hundreds of academics working within very different traditions and environments with very different learning objectives can somehow agree definitively what constitutes a ‘59’ and what constitutes a ‘60’. At the very least, coupled with ‘professionalised’ external examination, this is likely to create pressures for curriculum standardisation.

Our response focuses upon the following.

  1. This is not a ‘light touch’ regime at all. The proposals would merely displace regulatory activity into HEIs themselves and into new regulative spaces such as the external examiner accreditation and macro-moderation bodies (which, of course, HEFCE does not wish even to fund).
  2. The proposals do not acknowledge that self-regulation in an era of markets always fuels over-compliance because of its inherent vagueness and because the reputational costs of non-compliance are potentially disastrous.
  3. These proposals seek to extend the marketisation of HE. Post-Browne, whilst the cap on fees was lifted to £9k, universities were expected to compete on price, driving ‘efficiency’. The provision of ‘Key Information Sets’ including earnings data for degree programmes would enable ‘consumers’ to make the ‘right’ choices about how to ‘invest’ in their ‘human capital’. The assumption was that students would only be willing to pay high prices for a high ‘return’ on their ‘investment’. Universities would accordingly be pressured into maximising the employability of graduates. Higher quality and institutions and subjects which offered more intellectual capital would expand, while lower-quality universities and ‘irrelevant’ subjects would contract.
  4. HEFCE’s QA proposals are an effort to disrupt this status quo by lowering barriers to ‘market entry’ for private providers and thereby trigger the price competition that has so far largely failed to materialise. HEFCE seeks to do this in two ways.
    • By relativising the notion of ‘quality’. HEFCE states that because there is growing ‘diversity of providers, provision, and students’, we should abandon a ‘one size fits all’ approach to quality. It suggests that ‘there are “student experiences” – and therefore different conceptions of “quality” – that could and should be determined by the mission of the provider, the type of provision, and the needs of the student.’
    • By making it easier for ‘new providers’ to attain and retain their accredited status. Rather than being exposed to ongoing inspections by the QAA, all they would need to do is demonstrate compliance with a low baseline and then self-certify thereafter (with or without a ‘probationary’ period included in the proposals).
    • NOTE: the rationale of all this is to deflate the notion of what constitutes ‘quality’ higher education in order to allow private providers who cannot meet current standards to enter the market. An example of what is presumably envisaged is Coventry University College Ltd (CUCL), a subsidiary of Coventry University. CUCL offers part-time degrees in vocational areas like law and accountancy. Its staff teach 40+ weeks per year and consequently are not engaged in research; most are not ‘academics’ but merely ‘deliver’ teaching. It students are denied access to facilities afforded to Coventry University students, like library borrowing rights or participation in the student union – justified explicitly on the grounds that such things are ‘added extras’ and not all students want the same ‘student experience’. As a result of shaving its provision and costs to the bone, CUCL charges fees below £6,000 per year.
  5. There is no reason to believe that price competition will benefit students or have any beneficial impact on quality. The whole logic of these proposals is to destroy an existing notion of ‘quality’ HE, defined by tough regulation and the historic culture of British universities, and introduce a variety of possible definitions of ‘quality’, some lower than the current definition. What is called a set of proposals on ‘quality assessment’ actually seeks to reduce average quality. This is a deliberate attempt to usher in a multiple-tier HE system with HEIs having ‘different missions’ and ‘different students’. The implication is clearly that it should be acceptable for some students to opt for cut-price, low-quality (sub-prime) HE if it meets a low baseline standard, and the low expectations of their particular ‘consumers’.
  6. We are concerned that private providers will specialise in cheap-to-provide vocational courses that are attractive to students seeking remunerative post-graduation employment. This will drain established HEIs of income that they currently use to cross-subsidise more expensive subjects. If universities are forced to compete on price, or lose market share, cross-subsidy may become impossible and render many departments financially unviable.
  7. Moreover, price competition can only be pursued by worsening the wages and conditions of staff.
  8. A final highly problematic element of the proposals is the use of data on ‘student outcomes’ as a proxy measure for teaching quality.

The reasons why using student outcomes data are wrong are outlined in an open letter on the Disorder of Things, which all academic colleagues are invited to sign.

notes on saying “no” to the TEF

educational value-in-motion

it is clear that universities must do more to demonstrate they add real and lasting value for all students.

Now that we are asking young people to meet more of the costs of their degrees once they are earning, we in turn must do more than ever to ensure they can make well-informed choices, and that the time and money they invest in higher education is well spent…

While there will be financial incentives behind the TEF, with those offering high quality teaching able to increase fees with inflation, the TEF will not just be about accessing additional funds – I want it to bring about a fundamental shift in how we think about and value teaching in our universities.

we need a simpler, less bureaucratic and less expensive system of regulation. A system that explicitly champions the student, employer and taxpayer interest in ensuring value for their investment in education and requires transparency from providers so that they can be held accountable for it.

Johnson, J. 2015. Higher education: fulfilling our potential.

[T]he creative power of [an individual’s] labour establishes itself as the power of capital, as an alien power confronting him… Thus all the progress of civilisation, or in other words every increase in the powers of social production… in the productive powers of labour itself – such as results from science, inventions, divisions and combinations of labour, improved means of communication, creation of the world market, machinery etc., enriches not the worker, but rather capital; hence only magnifies again the power dominating over labour… the objective power standing over labour.

Marx, K. 1993. Grundrisse. London: Penguin, pp. 307-8.

overwork for the love of teaching

Speaking to parents and students since taking on this job has confirmed for me the extent to which teaching is highly variable across higher education.

There are inspiring academics who go the extra mile, supporting struggling students, emailing feedback at weekends and giving much more of their time than duty demands.

These are the people who will change our children’s lives

Johnson, J. 2015. Higher education: fulfilling our potential.

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers — a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity — which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state.

Marx, K. 1990. Capital, Volume 3. London: Penguin. p. 927

There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.

If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia… The reward for answering this higher calling is an academic employment marketplace in which around 41 percent of American faculty are adjunct professors — contract instructors who usually receive low pay, no benefits, no office, no job security, and no long-term stake in the schools where they work.

Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.

Tokumitsu, M. (2014). In the Name of Love. Jacobin Magazine, Issue 13.

please drink your TEF data responsibly

Pace Wilsden et al. (2015), we might note the following.

There are powerful currents whipping up the metric tide.

Across the [teaching] community, the description, production and consumption of ‘metrics’ remains contested and open to misunderstandings.

Peer review, despite its flaws and limitations, continues to command widespread support across disciplines. Metrics should support, not supplant, expert judgement.

Inappropriate indicators create perverse incentives. There is legitimate concern that some quantitative indicators can be gamed, or can lead to unintended consequences… Linked to this, there is a need for greater transparency in the construction and use of indicators, particularly for university rankings and league tables. Those involved in [teaching] assessment and management should behave responsibly, considering and preempting negative consequences wherever possible, particularly in terms of equality and diversity.

Similarly, for the [excellence] component of the [TEF], it is not currently feasible to use quantitative indicators in place of narrative [excellence] case studies, or the [excellence] template. There is a danger that the concept of [excellence] might narrow and become too specifically defined by the ready availability of indicators for some types of [excellence] and not for others. For an exercise like the [TEF], where HEIs are competing for funds, defining [excellence] through quantitative indicators is likely to constrain thinking around which [excellence] stories have greatest currency and should be submitted, potentially constraining the diversity of the UK’s [teaching] base.

Wilsdon, J., et al. (2015). The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4929.1363, pp. viii-ix.

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.

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

I want to see much more data being made available for academics to analyse and potentially link with other data sets.

Johnson, J. 2015. Higher education: fulfilling our potential.

choice and the war on academic labour

To ensure students have real choice that reflects their diverse needs, we must continue to open up the higher education market and put in place a regulatory framework that reflects today’s challenges.

This government values competition. We want a diverse, competitive system that can offer different types of higher education so that students can choose freely between a wide range of providers.

Competition not for its own sake, but because it empowers students and creates a strong incentive for providers to innovate and improve the quality of the education they are offering. That’s why, back in July, we published our Productivity Plan, ‘Fixing the Foundations’.

It set out how we’re going to boost productivity in this country. Among other goals, it promised to remove barriers to new entrants and to establish a risk-based framework for higher education, reducing burdens on some so we can focus oversight where it is needed.

Johnson, J. 2015. Higher education: fulfilling our potential.

What are the characteristics of a quality assessment system that would incentivise, support and recognise outstanding learning and teaching? Should the scrutiny of institutional quality improvement activities be a component of a quality assessment system?

Quality Assessment Review Steering Group. 2015. The future of quality assessment in higher education. HEFCE, p. 6.

Another way of putting this is from the flip side: there will be real-term cuts to the funding of institutions that do not fare well under this system. Since assessment will presumably be relative from a single budgetary pot, this is a zero-sum game in which some universities are to be slowly de-funded.

It seems that the government wants to decouple fee increases from social mobility while at the same time controlling the expansion of private provision according to teaching metrics. The end point looks likely to be to cut all public support for teaching outside the fee loan system and to squeeze the loan system to drive up competition (while getting rid of social mobility regulators like OFFA). Lots of universities won’t survive that kind of move, but will be replaced by new teaching providers.

Eve, M. 2015. TEF, REF, QR, deregulation: thoughts on Jo Johnson’s HE talk

The difference between the individual value of the cheapened commodity and its social value vanishes. The law of the determination of value by labour time makes itself felt to the individual capitalist who applies the new method of production by compelling him to sell his goods under their social value; this same law, acting as a coercive law of competition, forces his competitors to adopt the same method.

Harvey, D. 2010. A Companion to Marx’s Capital. London: Verso, p. 168.

Modern industry never views or treats the existing form of a production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually transforming not only the technical basis of production but also the functions of the worker and the social combinations of the labour process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionizes the division of labour within society, and incessantly throws masses of capital and of workers from one branch of production to another. Thus large-scale industry, by its very nature, necessitates variation of labour, fluidity of functions, and mobility of the worker in all directions.

Marx, K. 2004. Capital, Volume 1, London: Penguin, p. 617.

With capital and labour thus released, new branches of business are constantly called into existence, and in these capital can again work on a small scale and again pass through the different developments outlined until these new branches of business are also conducted on a social scale. This is a constant process.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1864). Economic Works of Karl Marx 1861-1864. MECW Volume 34.

and the damage this does

Constant restructuring, constant changes in policy and procedures, and the constant increase in demands have created a state of acute anxiety and utter demoralisation for all staff at every level.

Shaw, C., & Ratcliffe, R. (2014). Struggle for top research grades fuels bullying among university staff. Guardian HE Network.

In the Darwinian world of pro-cycling at the end of the 1990s, racing teams learned that the only way to level out competitive opportunity was to meet the standards set by the most committed. To ride within the limits of your own ability became naive, disloyal to the team, and uncompetitive. Young riders waited to be invited to join the inner circle who were doping, and accepted pills handed to them on the basis that it would make them healthier; team management understood and allowed this to happen, because results had become the currency for economic survival, not just for individual riders, but for vast whirling enterprises of sponsorship, employment and profit… [Academics] overwork like cyclists dope: because everyone does it, because it’s what you do to get by, because in the moment we argue to ourselves that it feels like health and freedom.

Bowles, K. 2014. Beyond a Boundary.

Even radical faculty who seek to enact transformations outside the university find themselves performing within the university as managers not only of their own labor, but of that of their students and their colleagues, designing curriculum and imposing regulations that require students be physically present and adopt a certain performative attitude during class time through the coercive metrics of attendance and participation grades.

Meyerhoff, E., Johnson, E., & Braun, B. (2011). Time and the University. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 10(3), p. 493.

marketise everything

“we need to bust this system right open”

Jo Johnson in the Financial Times.

while taxpayers and students bear all the risk, there is little sign of the promised savings to the public purseor of the competitive and innovative education market that we were promised’… if Johnson really wants a better-functioning market in higher education, he should ponder new means of incentivising would-be students to assess the value of institutions and courses on offer – regardless of whether or not he reforms the requirements for validation.

One of these would be replacing the current system of tuition fees and loans with a commission system, in which graduates pay a commission to their university on their earnings for a fixed number of years, or up to a fixed total amount, or a mix of both. This would allow the market to do better what markets do well: empower the good to drive out the bad.

Goodman, P. 2015. Jo Johnson wants the higher education market to work better. Here’s a way of ensuring that it does. Conservative Home.

Such an anti-vision of higher education – let the market determine what should be offered – unfortunately meshes with a stratified higher education sector which mirrors an increasingly unequal society… the next phase of higher education policy [] will exacerbate the erosion of public knowledge from the institutions traditionally most associated with it.

McGettigan, A. (2015). The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. Political Economy Research Centre, Papers Series 6, p. 2.

what is to be done?

Pace Wilsden et al. (2015), we might note the following, replacing research with [teaching].

Responsible [TEF/learning gain] metrics

In recent years, the concept of ‘responsible [teaching] and innovation’ (RRI) has gained currency as a framework for [teaching] governance. Building on this, we propose the notion of responsible metrics as a way of framing appropriate uses of quantitative indicators in the governance, management and assessment of [teaching]. Responsible metrics can be understood in terms of the following dimensions:

Robustness: basing metrics on the best possible data in terms of accuracy and scope;

Humility: recognising that quantitative evaluation should support – but not supplant – qualitative, expert assessment;

Transparency: keeping data collection and analytical processes open and transparent, so that those being evaluated can test and verify the results;

Diversity: accounting for variation by field, and using a range of indicators to reflect and support a plurality of research and researcher career paths across the system;

Reflexivity: recognising and anticipating the systemic and potential effects of indicators, and updating them in response.

Wilsdon, J., et al. (2015). The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4929.1363, p. x.

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’.

McGettigan, A. (2015). The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. Political Economy Research Centre, Papers Series 6, p. 8.

But we might say “no”//refuse//exchange our “no”, as a starting point

The temporality of no is one of urgency. To think in terms of yeses suggests a different temporality, the patient construction of another world. This is important, but we are forced by the destructive dynamic of capital itself into giving priority to the urgency of no.

Those who command live in fear of the refusal of those whom they command and spend much of their time and a very large part of their resources trying to prevent it. Refusal is at the core of the struggle for another world: strike, mutiny, boycott, disobedience, desertion, subversion, refusal in a thousand different ways. In order to make another world, we must refuse to make capitalism. We make capitalism (as Marx insists in his labour theory of value). If capitalism exists today, it is not because it was created in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, but because it was created today, because we create it today. If we do not create it tomorrow, it will not exist tomorrow. The question of revolution is not “how do we destroy capitalism”, but “how do we stop creating capitalism”?

Holloway, J. 2011. No.

In solidarity with students: so what more might academics do?

A while back Andrew McGettigan ended a piece on Financialising the University with a call for action.

It goes without saying that this process [negotiated independence for the elite or shedding charitable status the better to access private finance] and that of the financialisation associated with a generalised loan scheme will feed off each other. Although the policy terrain is settled temporarily, the ball is very much in the court of individual institutions: there are few safeguards against the ambition of overweening vice-chancellors fuelled by new financial options.

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.

Yesterday McGettigan wrote that the UK Government confirms preference for retrospective price hike on undergraduate study. He noted that:

in order to put English undergraduate financing on ‘a sustainable footing’ [the Government] proposes as its ‘preferred option’ to go back to all those who have started since 2012 (and taken out loans) and demand that they repay more.

The proposed mechanism is that the repayment threshold of £21000 be frozen at that rate for 5 years after 2016. Borrowers were promised from 2010/11 onwards that the threshold would rise in line with average earnings after 2016.

That change – ‘Option 1′ – will affect around 2million borrowers. A freeze for five years may not sound dramatic but if you expect a graduate starting salary of £30,000 or less the government provides examples to show that you will be £6,000 worse off in net present value terms (using a discount rate of RPI plus 2.2%).

The government estimates that this retrospective price hike will raise £3.2billion from the four cohorts who have experienced the £9000 fee (those who started between 2012/13 and 2015/16 inclusive). And their examples show it will be middle and lower earners who take the hit. This is consistent with the recent analysis published by Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The consultation closes on 14 October 2015. I urge you to respond as an individual if you are affected.

It’s fundamentally unfair to impose such changes after individuals have signed up for loans. The silence of the universities on this matter is worse than their craven behaviour in 2010. They don’t have any excuse now that the government’s own figures show the likely impact of what is proposed.

Today in the Times Higher ran a piece entitled Proposal to force current students to pay more for loans ‘cynical and immoral’.

But Bahram Bekhradnia [president of the Higher Education Policy Institute] said it was “a disgrace and not worthy of any government” that the changes would be imposed on those who have already taken out loans, adding that it set a “shocking precedent” for government financial offerings, including public sector pensions.

The piece also noted that:

Universities UK is still yet to offer a public comment on the government’s plans. That is despite the student funding panel set up by UUK, and chaired by its president, Sir Christopher Snowden, recommending in its report last month that there should be a repayment threshold freeze if changes were needed to the student loans system.

This led McGettigan to highlight that “The silence of the universities on this matter is worse than their craven behaviour in 2010.”

So maybe it is time for academics to do a bit more because this is yet another example of social injustice in the name of austerity. And because it reframes the relationships between students, now locked-in as consumers, and institutions, and therefore potentially between students and staff. And because it reframes the curriculum as a pivot for value and efficiency. And because it recalibrates the very nature of academic labour as excellence.

This sets another front in the austerity-inspired assault on previously socialised value, co-opting the whole of the public space for private gain. It connects to wider injustices around the financialisation and marketisation of healthcare, the assault on public sector pensions, the pejorative language around welfare and the impact of policy on child poverty, and the reductionist logic of “aspiration”, and on, and on.

So what more might academics do?

  1. Send the consultation to your students and advise them of what it means. Consider sending the links to McGettigan’s analysis, and that of the IFS on the Government’s student finance proposals, which will raise debt for poorer students and repayments for most graduates (plus McGettigan’s take on that).
  2. Press your Vice Chancellor to do the same for your institution. You might consider doing this via your trade union, because solidarity is a weapon. You might also consider ways to enable UCU, Unison etc. to demonstrate on-campus and cross-campus solidarity on this issue. This includes solidarity with local branches of the Students Union.
  3. Press UniversitiesUK to reject the Government’s preferred option (1) in the consultation.
  4. Consider local/regional/national mechansisms and strategies for widening this campaign to other moments and places for opposition to the assault on the public. This might take the form of work with trades councils or social centres or trades unions in other sectors. Or work with other protest groups. Or work with students and alumni, because work with current and former students, their families, and communities is critical.


notes on a teaching-anxiety [excellence] framework

slower and more calculated/no chance of escape/now self-employed/concerned (but powerless)/an empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)/

calm/fitter, healthier and more productive/a pig/in a cage/on antibiotics

Radiohead. 1997. Fitter. Happier.

ONE. Endings

Endings are important.

Fucked-up endings remain. Corroding. With the loss and the grief.

Fucked-up endings and the bewilderment that coerces us to internalise the loss, and to incorporate the reasons for it. As if we caused it. As if we didn’t try hard enough.

Fucked-up endings that coerce us into complicity with the original act. That leads us to hope that we might be able to persuade. That this time it might be different. To hope that we might return to where we once were.

Fucked-up endings that leave us with no way out but lamentation.

Fucked-up endings that leave us bitter.

And what are we to do when the means to manage those endings are taken from us?


TWO. Walking to the end

And this matters because there are those of us who walked through London, and who spoke at teach-ins and occupations, and who wrote in defence of some idea of equality in education, and who were kettled for it. And there are those of us who protested the Browne Review and the increase in fees. There are those of us who knew what was coming.

And many of us did this because we had some formation of education as social justice or radical democracy or critical pedagogy at the heart of our work. And in these formations there are those of us who struggle to enrich the very relationships upon which our institutions are build. Who struggle for relationships that others have co-opted as excellence. Who struggle for relationships that others have co-opted in order to punish those who are “coasting”. Who struggle for relationships that others have co-opted as progression and retention and satisfaction.

Relationships co-opted as data and debt. Relationships abstracted as indentured study.

And what is worse, is that the co-option of our work for self-actualisation or care or relationships has been laid bare. It has been laid out in-front of us, not just in the teaching excellence framework but also in the Treasury view of higher education. What is worse is that we fought for relationships that were not rooted in the rule of money, and so we fought for ideas of students-as-producers or partners or co-creators, and for education as courage and faith and justice. And our struggle was rooted in a refusal of the logic of Browne and nine thousand pounds. A corrosive logic implanted in the very heart of our pedagogical souls.

On fees, Mr Osborne announced the lifting of the £9,000 fee cap when he said that “we’ll link the student fee cap to inflation for those institutions that can show they offer high-quality teaching”. That appears to be a reference to the government’s recently announced plans for a teaching excellence framework, aimed at driving up teaching quality, which has been widely seen as offering a possible mechanism for the government to allow fees to rise.

John Morgan. 2015. Budget 2015: fees can rise for universities with ‘high-quality teaching’. Times Higher Education.

The other major measure affecting higher education was the announcement that universities in England will be allowed to upgrade their tuition fees above £9,000 in line with inflation from 2017-18, so long as they can demonstrate high-quality teaching. Universities UK has recently pointed out the inflationary pressures affecting universities and their ability to provide the highest quality education, so the fact that the Chancellor has listened to this is welcome. The government’s focus on ensuring a high quality of teaching alongside any increases is understandable.

I think it’s safe to say that the government  is at least looking into whether the  Teaching Excellence Framework announced last week by Jo Johnson should be used as the metric as to whether institutions should be able to increase tuition fees, and Universities UK will certainly be taking part in the consultation process for this.

Alex Leonhardt. 2015. Big announcements for universities in the Budget. UniversitiesUK Blog.

Above all, to meet students’ high expectations of their university years and to deliver the skills our economy needs, we need a renewed focus on teaching.

This is vital unfinished business from the reforms of the last Parliament.

As David Willetts himself acknowledged in a recent interview with the Times Higher Education; “teaching has been by far the weakest aspect of English higher education”.

This must change.

There must be recognition of excellent teaching – and clear incentives to make ‘good’ teaching even better.

Some rebalancing of the pull between teaching and research is undoubtedly required.

Jo Johnson. 2015. Teaching at the heart of the system. Gov.UK

Performance measurement and management dominate our lives in-and-against higher education, 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.

Andrew McGettigan. 2015. The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. PERC Paper 6.

And now this logic is really subsuming our academic labour. Because we know that our work in care and self-actualisation and relationships will now underpin new metrics. A new teaching excellence framework. A set of metrics to dominate our pedagogical souls. And what is worse, for those of us who protested the iniquity of this, our work will now be co-opted and repurposed so that our excellence enables our providers of higher education to raise fees. The very spaces that we sought to defend now alienated from us, and turned against us. The very spaces we sought to defend used to amplify and accelerate the very thing we were protesting against.

So that the very acts we sought to protect are reproduced for value.

And what does this do to our souls?

THREE. We are all anxious entrepreneurs now

And we remember that the financialisation and marketization of the sector has enabled the social relations of production, which are rooted in the production and accumulation of surplus labour and surplus value, to enter the academic labour process. This entry alone is not enough for the real subsumption of the sector inside the law of value. But this process has been accelerating. With outsourcing and technologizing and performance management and zero hours contracts and open data and debt and knowledge transfer and whatever. The sector and the academic labour that shapes it being compelled to reproduce capitalist social relations. Being compelled to open up for the reproduction and circulation and accumulation of value.

For others.

And the landscape of higher education is restructured perceptibly so that its labour processes are transformed. Subsumed. Really. We have seen the creation of an infrastructure and a technocracy that monitors and measures higher education’s current means of production, in readiness for its recalibration. An infrastructure that hints at markets and surpluses and enterprise and data. An infrastructure that is predicated upon opening-up the sector and its labour processes and its data. An infrastructure that internalises in each of us performativity.

And this is a site of anxiety, because we can remember what went before. And we can feel its loss. And we are powerless. Because we see that capital cannot tolerate a space inside which the social forces of production are developed in a limited way. And we feel the acceleration of performativity and the loss of autonomy and agency. And we feel the recalibration of higher education through a real capitalist labour process. And so it goes: this recalibration changes the social relations of production and the modes of academic labour, so that they produce and reproduce the nature of capital.

And this incorporation corrodes. And it generates anxiety. So that as we internalise the University’s entrepreneurial turn, we in-turn become our own seats of anxiety. Our own generators and circulators and accumulators of anxiety.

As a result academic labour is really subsumed. Subsumed for value, not for humane values. It is performance managed or measured and made efficient, or it is disciplined by outsourcing or technology or zero-hours contracts. It is governed by codes of conduct and workload management. The governance, regulation and funding of higher education, together with the organising principles for the public University and its curricula, are transformed through financialisation and marketisation. Academics work under the structural domination of finance capital, disciplined by the idea of student-as-consumer, partner or entrepreneur, their labour enclosed by institutions driven by competitive positioning in increasingly volatile markets for educational services.

So that effective teaching practice can be reproduced as teaching excellence. So that teaching excellence can be converted into data. So that data can drive excellence-as-a-service. So that excellence-as-a-service can be sold back to us. Our souls commodified and repackaged and sold back to us. Because if only we internalised excellence-as-a-service we would be better teachers, professors, whatever.

And this process is anxiety-inducing. And the refusal of this process is anxiety-inducing.

So that the real subsumption of academic labour under the law of value has forced an emotional recomposition of the practices of the University itself, and thus of the experience of labouring inside it. The accelerated transition towards real subsumption has both restructured institutions and reduced the points of potential solidarity for academic labour. Just as points of solidarity have weakened, the competitive dynamics of commodity capitalism have catalysed new systems of production, organisational development and technological innovation, which are in turn further constraining academic autonomy and agency. As the compulsion is always towards productivity measured by the law of value, academics are forced to perform in ways that can be considered to be culturally-acceptable self-harming activities and which amplify trauma, anxiety and alienation.

Alienating. Corroding. Toxic.

FOUR. The University, corroded by excellence

And so a generalised state of anxiety has emerged in the governance and experience of work in global higher education systems, showing up as both perverse incentive and outcome. To understand anxiety in higher education and the idea that the university is a machine that feeds off the production, circulation and accumulation of anxiety, we need to accept that it is no longer a sign that higher education is not functioning as it should, but that anxiety has become the proper functioning state of all sectors within the global, neoliberal economy.

And this anxiety is rooted in academic performativity, uncovered through the mechanics of managerialism, systemic signalisation, marketisation, and the commodification of academic life, so that the ways in which we strive for care or self-actualisation or relationships can be co-opted as excellence and turned against us. So that in order for the University to maintain itself as a node in a transnational network nominally interested in the production of value, it has to become grounded in the production, consumption and distribution of anxiety itself. In part this anxiety is incorporated from an external environment that is responding to the systemic crisis and the politics of austerity; in part it is a projection of anxiety from inside the University across both its internal structures and external associations.

Because anxiety about inputs and outputs, about metrics and learning gain, about excellence and entrepreneurship, are the normalised and reproduced pedagogical moments of the university now. The University that collapses the future into the present, so that current productivity is not enough. We must internalise the management of risk so that the risks that exist in our pedagogical futures can be shorted or hedged. We are made to internalise anxiety about the future risks of failure of our curriculum or our students’ success or our own performance, in our ability to recruit or to progress or to repay our debts. To internalise that anxiety and to reproduce it, as a permanent state of exception.

Anxiety as a permanent, pedagogical state of exception.

FIVE. Points of [most excellent] solidarity

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the [University] from its social environment: it attributes to the [University] an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.

Pace John Holloway. 2002. How to Change the World Without Taking Power. London: Pluto Press.

Is it possible for academics and students to refuse both the valorisation of competitive success and the therapeutic recuperations currently servicing the sustainability of profit? Given that we are witnessing the annihilation of pedagogical space by work time. Given that we are witnessing ways in which our teaching as care and relationships and self-actualisation led us to fight fees, only to find that those principles upon which we fought have now been really subsumed so that fees can be raised further on the basis of our excellence.

As Marx notes:

The social productive powers of labour, or the productive powers of directly social, socialised (common) labour, are developed through cooperation, through the division of labour within the workshop, the employment of machinery, and in general through the transformation of the production process into a conscious application of the natural sciences, mechanics, chemistry, etc., for particular purposes, technology, etc., as well as by working on a large scale, which corresponds to all these advances, etc.

And we witness academic labour subsumed as a social force of production that is lost to us.

This development of the productive power of socialised labour, as opposed to the more or less isolated labour of the individual, etc., and, alongside it, the application of science, that general product of social development, to the direct production process, has the appearance of a productive power of capital, not of labour, or it only appears as a productive power of labour in so far as the latter is identical with capital, and in any case it does not appear as the productive power either of the individual worker or of the workers combined together in the production process.

And we witness the social productive powers of labour recalibrated for the production of relative surplus value, and as a precursor to competition rooted in finance capital, data and new markets.

The mystification which lies in the capital-relation in general is now much more developed than it was, or could be, in the case of the merely formal subsumption of labour under capital. On the other hand, the historical significance of capitalist production first emerges here in striking fashion (and specifically), precisely through the transformation of the direct production process itself, and the development of the social productive powers of labour.

And we have descriptions of the impact of this on our humanity. As our humanity is subsumed and our souls are corroded, in this annihilation of pedagogical space by work time.

Within all of this as an academic subject I am made uncomfortable again, out of place once more; my home in the ivory tower is being flattened by neoliberal bulldozers to make way for a fast-fact higher education franchise in which all knowledge has is price and which, as Ansgar Allen puts it, ‘is distinguished not by its greyness and economic subjugation, but by a gaudy proliferation of colour. It has become the rampant breeding ground of jobbing academics in search of the next “big” idea’. I began with both memories of and a critique of welfare education and end with a critique of neoliberal education, and have inhabited and struggled with the discomforts of both. I am left with a sense of process rather than destination, unease and refusal rather than affirmation, in a space in which I am (im)possible and in which sociology as a vocation, as something I do, is being re-inscribed as a resource for the management of the population, which is how it started.

Stephen J. Ball (2015): Accounting for a sociological life: influences and experiences on the road from welfarism to neoliberalism, British Journal of Sociology of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2015.1050087

The title of ‘professor’ contains within itself a statement that what they do is more than a job: they profess a set of beliefs or values which transcend their formal terms of employment… All this goes out of the window once the professor is left wondering whether the next phone call is to had her the price of a good holiday or summon her to an exit interview. Who will challenge (constructively or not) anything that happens when their are [sic.] such serious consequences? You’d have to be hard as nails to resist the tide in this way or – like me – resigned to finding fulfilment in my small but steady academic niche rather than in the warm glow of management’s regard. It’s not good enough… This morning I sat next to a dignified and professional man as he begged for his job, his livelihood and his personal and professional pride, watched across the table by a man in a suit who kept saying that he didn’t have time for this. For all the abstract points I’ve outlined above, this is what it comes down too: sleek bonus-seeking sharks forcing honest people to justify their existence in the most reductive terms.

Plashing Vole. 2015. You’re fired. Enjoy your summer.

In one university, as well as undergoing six-monthly performance reviews (as frequently as newly appointed probationers), professors must now meet exacting criteria for ‘quality’ of publications. Progression to the next professorial level must be achieved within five years, and this depends on meeting certain ‘drivers’, which include securing a research grant as PI every two years, producing REF 3* and 4* ‘outputs’, supervising graduate students, producing a significant impact case study, leading high-prestige international collaborations, and of course, continuing to teach. Failure to meet these expectations will result in the public humiliation of the Improving Performance Procedure, and possible demotion. No accrual of reputation can be permitted; the criteria must be met every year, not just over the course of a distinguished career. In this way, any prestige associated with the rank of professor must be considered temporary, as is its tenure. Professors, then, have been made to join the expanding precariat of the academy. Ben Knights (2013) cites Sennett (1998), who recognizes that “a regime which instills insecurity, in which you are… ‘always starting over’ is inimical to the longer term processes of memory and imagination.

It is common in the performance management documents I have collected, for reference to be made to ‘stretching objectives’ which are purported to sit in between an individual’s ‘comfort zone’ and the  ‘panic zone’. ‘Stretching objectives’ are presented as desirable, but objectives which place individuals in their comfort or panic zones are not. There is a disturbing presupposition in this discourse of comfort zones. To be asked to go beyond it makes the patronizing assumption that one’s life is normally comfortable.

Liz morrish. 2015. The paradox of the ‘under-performing professor’

Some of the most precious qualities of academic culture resist simple quantification, and individual indicators can struggle to do justice to the richness and plurality of our research. Too often, poorly designed evaluation criteria are “dominating minds, distorting behaviour and determining careers.” 1 At their worst, metrics can contribute to what Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, calls a “new barbarity” in our universities.2 The tragic case of Stefan Grimm, whose suicide in September 2014 led Imperial College to launch a review of its use of performance metrics, is a jolting reminder that what’s at stake in these debates is more than just the design of effective management systems. 3 Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods.

James Wilsden et al. 2015. The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management.

Endings are important.

#educationalrepair: what is to be done?

I was asked two questions at Bishop Grosseteste University after I spoke on crisis and educational repair earlier today, which made me reflect on “what is to be done?” I interpreted these questions as follows.

  1. Given the crises of sociability that I described, what decisions do I make on a daily basis to do/be/create something different?
  2. Given the crises of sociability that I described, what decisions might educators make to do/be/create something different?

In processing these questions, I realised two things.

If I had my time today again, I would have tried to situate my argument (reprised here) against the room’s position on the pressures that are defining and redefining higher education. Uncovering those pressures and our interpretation of them, might then have more usefully formed the centre-point of how I might address the two questions given above.

I would then have centred my talking against those themes, but with a focus on “what is to be done?” from my own perspective. Increasingly my thinking is about voice, including mine, and in listening/finding voice, my practice is about moving from a critique of the dominant and alienating system, to a sense of how it might be resisted/refused/pushed back against.

Note to self: next time, before the session develop the slides as themes; then blog/publish the argument with the structure of what would have been said if this were a lecture; then in the session ask/listen to the room for their themes; then look for how those themes align/contract with the proposed argument; then develop the themes that matter to the room; then point to the other stuff that has been produced; then ask the room for comment; then go home to write some more reflections. After all, a keynote should be a dialogue between presenter and source material, then presenter and audience, then audience and source material, then presenter and her/his reflective self.

So in answering these two questions, I am reminded of one of the key connections I have been considering between the socio-environmental, adaptation work of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, and the critical/political, social justice agenda of those students calling for #educationalrepair, #rhodesmustfall, #whyismycurriculumwhite, #dtmh. This connection is that the hegemonic thinking that catalysed these crises of sociability isn’t the kind of practice that will help us to alleviate them. Educators need to be able to theorise positions and social relationships, and to create possibilities for concrete action, and to recognise context, and to be attuned to a diversity of voices, and to be willing to work against re-producing structures of domination and power. Moreover they need to see this work as not simply rooted in the University and its curriculum, but located inside the social factory.

However, engaging with that is problematic, when there are mortgages to be paid and food to be put on the table, and when our labour-power is under threat and made precarious, and when we are asked to implement more and more tactics to militate against attrition rates. This is the moment when rage must be transformed into courage and faith in ourselves and our ability to work collectively to do/be/create something different. I think that this is why the work of those students working on Dismantling the Master’s House is so important. It extends this idea of courage and faith into the realm of justice, and in finding forms of justice that are pedagogically and epistemologically grounded in voice and negotiation and contribution and difference.

Therefore, if I collapse the two questions I was asked into a sense of what is to be done, then I need to consider this in terms of courage, faith and justice at a range of levels (individual, curriculum design, curriculum delivery team, school/department, institution, civil society). This is not prescriptive. It is not a prescription. It is an emergent set of things that I might do.

Association and solidarity: looking for spaces inside which I might associate, not for commercialisation or impact or excellence, but for solidarity is critical. This is not just between curriculum delivery team members, but is between staff and students, staff across institutions, staff in different sectors of education, and between educators and others who are organising for a different world. It also emerges, where labour-power and labour relations are concerned, inside an alliance of trade unions, which includes those unions that represent academics, professional services and students. It is in this way that the tenured can support those who are casualised, precarious and indentured, in order to push-back against the marketization and financialisation of our educational existences.

Theory and practice: enabling people who are attempting to come to terms with precarity or privatisation or commercialisation or social justice, demands that I work to help people to theorise those processes that are dismantling their existence through marketization and financialisation. Those processes might be an extension of individual and institutional debt, or the development of a future earning and employability record, or the framing of pedagogy as entrepreneurialism. In this view, liberation emerges is situated against the ability to move from critique to concrete action. How do we generate a flow of alternative ideas, which might be classed as the public good or commoning or citizen engagement or research-engaged practice? Here one of the issues is the way in which curricula can be constructed to support alternatives, and the ways in which teacher education scaffolds the ability to challenge dominant narratives/structures.

The curriculum: the curriculum is a critical commodity, through which we can develop collective (staff, students, civil society, the market) ideas about how the world is constructed and interpreted, and who is marginalised/heard. It serves as a pivot for rethinking how we address the world, and the issues of crisis that currently plague us. Finding ways to liberate the production, circulation and consumption of the curriculum from the market are key.

Crisis and sociability: I need to find ways in which I might use interpretations of the crises of sociability which I outlined (catastrophic climate change, liquid fuel availability, the politics of austerity) in my scholarship, administration and teaching. In part this is framing discussions about educational technology or employability or learning and teaching or internationalisation, in terms of these crises and who has power in defining new narratives and solutions. In part this is re-focusing those conversations on issues of voice. Who is heard? Who is ignored? What do indigenous or marginalised or racialized or gendered or othered voices offer us in education or social repair? It strikes me that in those narratives lies a focus on social justice, which helps us to break hegemonic positions that have brought societies to the verge of socio-environmental catastrophe, chronically indentured study and life, and in which solutions are increasingly outsourced to corporations or transnational groups vested in the political economy that brought us to this place. Part of this is about speaking truth-to-power, which is why solidarity and association are so important.

Co-operation: so much of this work is about the long and painful and joyful process of co-operation. How do I learn to co-operate? How do I co-operate to learn? How do I co-operate to teach? I don’t ask myself these questions enough in my daily work. However, we have examples of projects where educators and students are working co-operatively with civil society organisations and the private sector, and are doing so from the bottom-up. Supporting co-operation as a political and pedagogical process is a way of re-framing regulation and governance. That goes as much for the production of the curriculum as it does for the governance and daily life of research centres or institutions.

Occupation: how do I help people to go into occupation of terms like impact or of innovations like learning gain? How do we move beyond the commodification of our everyday academic experiences, through the obsession with producing and circulating data from which new services or financialised metrics can be generated? In this a revelation and critical discussion of the technologies and techniques that we deploy is central. Who benefits from their implementation? Is this a social good or a furthering of private goods? How might we define an approach to data and the creation of socio-technical systems, which support the relationships we wish to nurture? This is important if we are to wrest back pedagogic and epistemological agency from those who would reduce the academic project to inputs and outputs or outsourced, technological systems. If we are to resist new public management inside higher education, then we need a set of conversations with civil society and our publics/communities about what our curricula and institutions are for. We might then use the socio-technical systems that pivot around higher education for something different. For something that lies beyond the arbitration of the market.

Care: how do I act in ways that are true, necessary and kind? How do I work to amplify humane values rather than the labour theory of value? In this, much of my work has to be rooted in activities that are social and associational, rather than simply amplifying joint venturing or entrepreneurialism or outsourcing. This focus on care is situated inside a view of our metabolism as academics and students with nature, through our use and re-use of nature, and also in our approach to diverse and marginalised knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs. Only then might we rethink and redefine how our social relations, in a way that encourage hope and peace. Hope that we might adapt to or avoid the worst excesses of our crises of sociability; peace in producing and re-producing humanity, rather than specific ways of imaging the world.

NOTE: much of the above is about values and practices. However, I might think about these in terms of the following concrete actions, which are simply a set of possibilities.

I work and live in Leicester, and engagement with local social justice/diversity projects/charities is critical in my liberating knowledge and practice from higher education into civil society. These include work in schools and agencies working with vulnerable groups. It also includes work with charities that have an educational agenda. This work is deeply co-operative and pedagogical, and it is rooted in care.

I am engaged beyond the university in projects like the Social Science Centre in Lincoln (rooted in co-operative organisation, governance, scholarship and pedagogy), and the Open Library of the Humanities (which is creating a new, co-operative model for associational and federated access to knowledge as a communal good).

I am working on academic writing projects rooted in the idea of mass intellectuality, or socially-useful knowledge, practices and literacies. These projects are co-operative in the way that they produce and write, and in the decision-making process around editing. They are about trying to develop and sustain alternative ways of producing academic knowledge.

I have been working with Leicester City Council on a knowledge exchange, digital literacy project that is grounded in and governed by educator-led narratives. The project produced a self-evaluation framework with educators, which is grounded in actual curriculum practices and the idea of radical collegiality in defining CPD strategies. It also developed a framework for open licensing across a City.

With my friend Owen Williams, I implemented an Academic Commons at DMU grounded in an open-source technology (WordPress) and an open source methodology, as a means of involving the academic community in reclaiming power over the technologies that define its work. In this way the academic community can be engaged in the production of the institutional, socio-technical systems.

With an organising committee, I have worked to frame a Centre for Pedagogic Research as a deliberately co-operative, self-critical scholarly community. This includes a focus on developing an open-form of publishing through open peer review, pivoting around an in-house journal.

I wonder if these form a kind of joint-venture of the soul?

on dismantling the curriculum in higher education

I’m presenting at the Bishop Grosseteste University learning and teaching conference on Monday 22 June.

There is a separate blog-post on my topic of dismantling the curriculum in higher education here.

The abstract and some references are linked here.

The slides for my presentation are here.

I’ve appended some notes below. [NOTE: I wrote them whilst listening to this set by Everything Everything at Glastonbury in 2013.]

ONE. A framing of sorts [slide 2]

We are subsumed inside a crisis of sociability. The politics of austerity, global socio-environmental crises, and the emotional crises of anxiety and self-harm internalised and reproduced through over-work, dominate and make our lives increasingly abstract. Inside higher education the curriculum reinforces this abstraction, so that we fetishise educational innovation as emancipatory, rather than working on abolishing the relations of production that drive us to ignore concrete, social emergencies. I wonder, therefore, whether listening to and interacting with voices that have been marginalised in the definition, regulation and governance of the curriculum might in-turn enable us to enact forms of educational repair. Might these forms of educational repair, situated as pedagogical projects, enable us to dismantle the dominant structures that abstract from us the ability to engage with global emergencies? Might we thereby catalyse new forms of sociability?

TWO. The curriculum as a technology [slides 5-9]

David Harvey reminds us of the importance of Marx’s method in revealing what lies beneath everyday abstractions like technology. In an important footnote to chapter 15 of Volume 1 of Capital, Marx highlights how an analysis of technology enables us to reveal:

  • the forms of production, exchange and consumption prevalent in any context (which may be rooted in joint venturing or entrepreneurialism);
  • how we relate to nature and the environment (for instance in our use and re-use of raw materials, or in the carbon locked into our internationalisation strategies);
  • the social relations between people (for instance, inside social centres or co-operatives, or managerial/technocratic settings);
  • our mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs (for instance our approach to indigenous cultures or immigration or digital literacy);
  • labour processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services or affects (for instance cloud hosting services or outsourcing, or zero-hours, precarious work, or emotional labour);
  • the institutional, legal and governmental arrangements that frame life (for instance national quality assurance and regulatory frameworks, or data protection and copyright law, or transnational trade partnerships); and
  • the conduct of daily life that underpins social reproduction (for example, the ways in which curricula are designed and delivered, or through which assessments are produced).

We might usefully substitute curriculum for technology in this analysis, in order to focus upon how lived pedagogical practices, incorporating design, delivery and assessment for/of learning, each reproduce certain ways of defining the world. Here the labour theory of value is important, particularly as we recognise that in the marketization and financialisation of higher education, the curriculum is being valorised. Thus, we might critique how our pedagogical work is subsumed under the circuits of money (indentured study through fees, organisational debt/surpluses), of production (rooted increasingly in data, the quantified self, learning gain), and of commodities (like content or assessments that can be hived off and financialised, or commodified services created from them).

The sociability that we once understood as emerging from the fluidity of the classroom is increasingly lost to us, as value (the determining purpose) drives sociability. This is the world of funding changes and austerity, which strip us of our autonomy. And this loss of fluidity and autonomy is a bereavement, because rather than the concrete relationships that we had to our curriculum, to our students, to our peers, to our learning, and to ourselves, our educational lives are restructured as accumulated value or impact or excellence or student satisfaction or whatever. And what does this do to us?

And what does this do to us?

And increasingly we have no time to think about what this does to us, as our future timelines are collapsed into a present, which demands that we focus on innovation overload: personal tutoring; peer mentoring; internationalisation/MOOCs; learning analytics; teaching excellence; learning gain/the HEAR; NSS, and assessment and feedback; responses to the removal of the DSA; employability/the FEER; scholarship/REF; and on; and on; and on; and on; and on. When what we would like to do is consider pedagogical design and delivery rooted in: communities of practice; social learning theory; assessment for/of learning; autonomous learning; student-as-producer; constructivism or connectivism; or whatever it is that tickles us.

But those days are gone.

THREE. The graduate with no future [slides 10-19]

Our reality is increasingly a series of abstracted, tactical exchanges, rooted in student fees/debt. However, that reality is framed by the on-going, systemic and global failure to re-enable stable forms of accumulation. And so in the United States (a bell-weather for English higher education reforms) we witness student debt driving short-term growth, with concerns being raised about the medium-term costs of loan repayments and defaults or delinquencies. Folded on top of indenture is the collapse in wages, with data suggesting that real incomes for those without a (professional) Masters Degree or Doctorate have collapsed. Moreover, there are increasing levels of precarity, not just amongst those looking for work, but also for those in work, who are working longer for lower wages and with lower levels of productivity. Significantly this also impacts families, some of whom feel helpless in the search for savings for their children’s college education.

And in the face of quantitative easing for those with power, we wonder about the legitimacy of the higher education system that we are reproducing. As we crave instead quantitative pleasing.

FOUR. Our curricula and us: more efficiently unsustainable? [Slides 20-27]

And the legitimacy of the social relations between people that we are perpetuating and reinforcing, are rooted in employability and entrepreneurialism and internationalisation and shorting the future. The jobs that we are told to prepare students for are steeped in services that are grounded in fossil fuels and commodities trading. Yet we know that this construction of the global economy is precarious, in the face of access to liquid fuels and the macroeconomic effects of binding resource constraints. And we also know that there is an increasing recognition that the global economy has to become electrified rather than dependent upon oil, and that this demands a new transformation of production and consumption and labour processes, as well as the knowledges and cultures that we produce and share and value.

And even more pressingly, we know that climate change is a global commons problem, forcing us to engage with the concrete realities of adaptation rather than mitigation. A transformation that is educational if it is anything.

And in the face of these realities how do our international curricula, or our curricula for enterprise or employability, or our digital strategies, or our [whatever] strategy, help us to adapt as a piece of collective work? As collective educational repair?

Or do they simply help us to mitigate the effects of placing our labour-power for sale in the market? Do our curricula simply help us to become more efficiently unsustainable?

FIVE. The curriculum and power [Slides 28-40]

And do we have any agency in framing what adaptation means and for whom? Because we know that education is being marketised and financialised, and that this process is being managed trans-nationally in order to catalyse a world market in educational commodities. As Stephen Ball argues we witness shifting assemblages or joint ventures of academics and think tanks, policy makers, finance capital, publishers, technology firms, philanthrocapitalists and so on, working together to reinforce and reproduce their power over the world. This power is immanent to the production, circulation and accumulation of value, but it emerges in their power-over our labour. As a result, the academic work of staff and students is recalibrated around its potential (as data or learning outcomes or accreditation or content) for exchange, rather than for public good or communal use.

And this is a structural adjustment policy grounded in formal scheduled teaching and pedagogical practice and curriculum design. A structural adjustment policy framed by commitments to roll-out a teaching excellence framework or enterprise for all, or by partnerships committed to learning gain. A structural adjustment policy underpinned by a “Small Business, Enterprise and Employability Act” that determines “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.”

Because there is no alternative.

And this is a rich terrain for corporations that wish to monetise educational inputs and outcomes. Corporations that wish to create educational ecosystems as forms of cybernetic control, where risk inside the curriculum can be reduced, repurposed and valorised. This is the new normal: the quantified-self situated inside the quantified-curriculum, as previously marginal sectors of the economy are made explicitly productive.

This is no longer the formal subsumption of higher education under capitalist social relations, with the selling and renting of services and technologies and content to us, and the rise of indentured study, and simple questions of debt, profit and supluses. This is no longer a simple partnership between higher education and service providers.

  • This is the explicit repurposing of the labour-power of academics and students, rooted in the production of value for assemblages of universities and technology forms and private equity and publishers and whomever, acting transnationally as an association of capitals.
  • This is the reshaping of the social relations between academics and managers and students, rooted in a new mental conception of higher education as financialised, competing business.
  • This is new labour processes, and the production and circulation of specific, educational commodities.
  • This is new forms of academic labour being managed inside new institutional, legal and governmental arrangements, and the outcome is a new set of relationships that frame the conduct of daily, educational life.

This is the quantified-curriculum as the real subsumption of higher education under capitalist social relations.

SIX. The curriculum and anxiety [Slides 41-46]

And through the process of subsumption our souls are colonised. We find ourselves collaborating in our own alienation, because we have to in order to survive. And we find ourselves labelling self or other, as lacking entrepreneurial drive or being uncreative, or as a luddite, or poorly performing, or failing, or coasting, or disruptive, or troubled, or whatever we cannot bear to imagine we may become.

And the system’s determining force scrubs our souls.

In this moment do we see those other voices emerging, discussing inequality and the risks of dissociating the self as an abstraction from the everyday realities of those inequalities? And as our commitment to helping students to build mental [entrepreneurial] muscle for the marketplace is questioned, do we ignore those increasing narratives of anxiety and precarity?

And does our work become a culturally-acceptable self-harming activity? Has a sense of anxiety become a permanent state of exception amplified inside and against the currriculum?

SEVEN. #educationalrepair: another world is possible [slides 48-60]

In overcoming this cognitive dissonance, I am drawn to listen to those marginalised voices attempting to define safe spaces inside which the collective work of dismantling can begin. This work of dismantling is rooted in revealing power structures and ways of building the world that are alienating, in that they strip our work, our cultures, our relationships and ourselves from us, in order to valorise them or to silence them. This work of dismantling operates at the level of the institution and the classroom.

So I listen to the ways in which the students who are “Dismantling the Masters House”, are asking “Why isn’t my professor black?” or “Why is the curriculum white?” And I listen to those who are working for #educationalrepair. And this leads us to question whether a canonical curriculum, rooted in a specific, abstracted cultural view of the world, can be anything other than “monstrous”? Indeed, can it enable us to confront global emergencies that have emerged from the dominance of that very cultural view of the world? This is a critical, pedagogical project rooted in the production, consumption and circulation of the curriculum.

Is it possible to refuse the quantified-curriculum, which amplifies certain agendas and forms of power, in order to transform education as a participatory, communal good in the face of crises of sociability? And we remember that this maps across to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”. It called for strategies that are place and context specific, with complementary actions across levels, from individuals to governments. It positions this as contingent on, and sensitive to, societal values, objectives, and risk perceptions, with a recognition of diverse interests, circumstances, social-cultural contexts, and expectations.

And isn’t this a pedagogical project? Doesn’t this emerge immanent to a curriculum that needs to be dismantled if we are to engage with global emergencies?

And don’t we already have actually-existing examples of academics and activists and communities engaging with this work of dismantling our abstract experiences, and their concrete impacts?

And is it possible to draw on these examples, in order to associate #educationalrepair with wider societal repair? As a result might we build a curriculum that is engaged and full of care, and where we no longer simply learn to internalise, monitor and manage our own alienation?

And remembering bell hooks we know that this is a rejection of the quantified-curriculum, and a re-focusing upon self-actualisation as dynamic and fluid, and rooted in a different conception of what is to be done.

Critically questioning educational innovation in economics and business: Human interaction in a virtualising world

I’m speaking at the Educational Innovation in Economics and Business (EdinEB) conference next Wednesday (3 June), in Brighton. The conference is focused on the interplay between theory and practice, with the focus on “Critically questioning educational innovation in economics and business: Human interaction in a virtualising world”. The abstract is here. The slides are below, followed by some key points.

ONE. A framing of sorts [slides 2-4]

The idea of educational innovation is subsumed under the circuits of commodity production and money. We are sold the idea that such innovation is emancipatory for learners, freeing them as competitive and entrepreneurial in selling their labour-power and themselves. In the face of the politics of austerity, global socio-environmental crises, and the emotional crisis of sociability and anxiety, are the market and a financialised existence the only way?

TWO. Innovation as fetish [slides 5-11]

The global North is awash in educational innovation that is being driven by the law of value, and the motive desire to make previously socialised contexts like higher education productive. In particular, we see: the focus on families operating as private capitals, investing in their own, permanent re-skilling so that they are competitive; the disciplinary focus on the educator’s professional development and productivity, especially related to digital literacy; and an obsession with data as a means of prediction rooted in financialisation.

THREE. Innovation and the secular crisis [slides 12-21]

Educational innovation needs to be analysed in relation to hyper-financialisation, which itself sits inside the secular crisis of capitalism. Here the work of Marx is enlightening in enabling us to analyse our social forces of production and the relations of production that dominate our lives and our environment. The issue then is one of power and the mode of production of our everyday lives. Moreover, this is situated against the self-expansion of value, which then marginalises or co-opts our very humanity. The failure of self-expansion has catalysed what is called the secular crisis as a failure of monetary policy, or a failure of profitability, and has resulted increasingly in the delegitimisation of capitalism, and the very education innovations that are being forced upon us. Overwork, anxiety, depression, bewilderment are functions of this delegitimisation. Have we failed, or does the mode of production fail us? How therefore do we enable the self-expansion of quantitative pleasing rather than projecting our neuroses which are themselves forms of false consciousness?

FOUR. Innovation and the sociability of academic work [slides 22-40]

Higher educational innovation alters the sociability of academic work, as it drives exchange rather than use and performance management. In this way it becomes a fundamental element in a structural adjustment policy that reshapes the relationships between academics and students. There is a range of policy pronouncements [Willetts and Byrne via the Social Market Foundation, and Rizvi et al via the IPPR], policy tools [like the Future Earnings and Employability Record, and the Teaching Excellence Framework], and funding streams that drive innovation [like learning gain], which enable transnational associations of capitals to drive variable human capital investment, financialisation and marketization. Here we see the work of Pearson driving the joy of data, venture capital investment in MOOCs, and Bain and Company’s response to “a world awash in money”. Educational innovations are sold to higher education as personalisation, or retention, or employability, or whatever. However, they are developed: in response to the development of a world market; in order to make previously marginal sectors of the economy explicitly productive; as a way of leveraging the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested; and to revolutionise the means of production.

FIVE. What is to be done?

SIX. Innovation and the colonisation of the soul [slides 41-44]

This is just a note on who has power in a world where environmental and production costs have been outsourced to the global South, and where the compulsion for innovation is driven by specific groups of men. What is the relationship between hegemony and counter-hegemony, as revealed through educational innovation?

SEVEN. Abolishing educational innovation [slides 45-56]

The general intellect offers us a way of reframing educational innovation for alternative purposes beyond the market, at the level of society. The key here is how to define a different form of sociability, so that we are able to address global crises more appropriately. In this model there is a need to abolish the distinction between the University-as-factory and society, so that concrete collective work as a social force of production enables different ways of addressing problems. Here we have examples of innovative thinking and modelling from inside the University that focus upon the struggle for alternatives. These include The University of Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society and the Women’s Budget Group. We also have examples of innovative thinking and modelling from outside the University that focus upon the struggle for alternatives. These include People’s Political Economy and the Social Science Centre. We also have examples of the innovative thinking and modelling from inside-and-outside the University that focus upon the struggle for alternatives. These include the Manchester Open Data Project, the Telekommunist Manifesto, and the FLOK Society. The examples demonstrate that the process of innovation might be repurposed for outcomes that lie beyond the market, and which are shaped through critical pedagogy and co-operative practice.

EIGHT. Is it possible to innovate against the rule of money? Is it possible to innovate so that learning and teaching enable self-actualisation in a world that is framed by emergencies?