BLTC17, The really open university: working together as open academic commons

On Wednesday I’m speaking at the Brookes Learning Teaching Conference 2017. I love this kind of invite, which enables a testing of ideas and a lot of listening to the practices, activities and hopes of others. My abstract is detailed below, with the slides posted after that. The talk enables me to return to that practical work I was engaged with in 2010-12, around the idea of/re-imagining the university. It also enables me to reflect on my recent work inside the University, on commons and co-operative practices.


This talk questions the role of pedagogic scholarship and innovation in addressing global crises of social reproduction. It argues that working together has both possibilities and impossibilities, which need a richer discussion inside the University.

In the past decade, fall-out from the Browne Review has given birth to a number of alternative education projects. These alternatives focused on creating spaces and curricula that prefigure more democratic ways of doing higher education, in which the boundaries between student and teacher are dissolved and where co-operation and peer-projects between scholars become fundamental. Examples include the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and the Really Open University in Leeds. These projects developed grounded, co-participatory scholarly communities, which acted as incubators for pedagogies like Student-as-Producer (Neary and Winn 2011; Pusey 2016).

However, they also share characteristics with transnational platforms like #RhodesMustFall and#Whyismycurriculumwhite, in attempting to push back against the structuring logics represented by the curriculum (Hall and Smyth 2016). These platforms also connect to co-operative forms of higher education like Mondragon University in the Basque country, the Little Schools of the Zapatista Movement, and the education sector of the Brazilian Landless Movement.

Reflecting on these alternative forms is helpful in analysing our responses to the crisis of higher education, in order to locate spaces for truly progressive pedagogies inside the university. If such spaces do exist, on what are they based and what is their relationship to the curriculum? How do they enable academics and students to respond to issues of inclusivity and diversity, collaboration and peer production? Three responses may be considered:

  • open, academic commons supporting a sharing economy inside and across a porous interdisciplinary curriculum;
  • safe, scholarly communities of practice, perhaps forming solidarity economies that refuse enclosure; and
  • positioning the university and curriculum within (and against?) the development of ‘mass intellectuality’, or socially-useful knowledge produced outside the university.

References

Hall, R., & Smyth, K. (2016). Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities, 2(1), p.e11. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.66

Neary, M., & Winn, J. (2011). The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. In M. Neary & J. Winn (Eds.), The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience (pp. 192–210). Continuum. Retrieved from http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/1675/

Pusey, A. (2016). Pusey, A. (2016). Strike, occupy, transform! Students, subjectivity and struggle. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 26(2), 214-32. Retrieved from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08841241.2016.1240133


notes for ‘alternative education’

On Wednesday I wrote that a while back I’d been asked to contribute to some work-in-progress on the idea of dangerous words. The three terms I selected were ‘immiseration’, ‘managerialism’, and ‘alternative education’. The work-in-progress hasn’t progressed so I’ve decided to publish what I wrote a year ago, starting with ‘immiseration’ and ‘managerialism’, and finally with ‘alternative education’ today.

The brief given was to:

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

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

Alternative Education

Alternative education raises questions about whether another world is possible. Alternatives ask educators and students to question the governance, regulation and resourcing of hegemonic, institutionalised forms of education, alongside their curricula, through both negative critique and prefigurative practices. The idea of an alternative questions the legitimacy of formalised spaces, often standing against both their forms and content, and as a result defining an educational undercommons (Harney and Moten 2013). Such an undercommons is a space for solidarity and resistance, from where resources and relations can be drawn. It might exist inside formal education, as a sector of the economy or in its institutional forms. An undercommons forms an underground that enables subversion and new forms of organisation, and which problematises dominant narratives about education (for entrepreneurship, growth, sustainable development and so on).

In this being inside-and-against the school or the university, alternative education takes the perspective of voices that are marginalised because they are racialised, gendered or rendered economically-valueless or indebted, in order to re-imagine and re-produce new forms of educational life or sociability. The idea of an alternative also emerges beyond formalised spaces, in autonomous communities that exist beyond the school or university as it is re-purposed as a factory (Cleaver 2002; The University of Utopia n.d.).

This idea of alternatives being in, against and beyond recognises that hegemonic educational institutions have been subsumed within the circuits of capital. This means that the governance and forms of such institutions, and the work of academics, professional service staff and students, have been re-engineered by capital on a global terrain. Moreover, the labour that takes place inside these institutions is repurposed and re-produced in its relation to money capital, productive capital and commodity capital, in order to generate surplus value, surpluses, profits and so on. The domination of capitalist social relations over academic labour is driven by the abstracted power of money and the generation of surplus value. This opens up the possibility for alternative forms of education, both inside formal spaces and beyond the boundary of the formal, to become new sites of struggle in response to the on-going crisis of sociability. This crisis is signalled by the co-option of socially-useful knowledge, or the general intellect, so that it can be valorised (Hall 2014; Virno 2004). Educational relationships have been productively intensified in order to facilitate the expansion of capital, rather than for the solution of global, socio-economic and socio-environmental crises. Inside the school or the university, educational innovations are fetishised as emancipatory, whereas in working against and beyond these spaces, scholars in alternative educational spaces are working to abolish the relations of production that drive societies to ignore concrete emergencies (Hall and Smyth 2016).

From inside-and-against the hegemonic institution, alternatives articulate the limits of formal education, including its problematic nature as a public or private good (Marginson 2012). Here, the idea of the school or university as a form of enclosure of knowledge and practice is refused through public intellectualism or educational activity that is conducted in public. Such activities widen debates over ideas and fields of study beyond the academy to the public, in that they refuse both the colonisation of disciplinary spaces by academics and the delegitimation of certain voices. This public activity contains the germ of militancy (Neary 2012; Thorburn 2011) because it aims to do and then to be counter-hegemomic. As a form of workers’ enquiry, militancy in research or pedagogic practice points towards projects that produce knowledge useful for activist ends. This may take the form of open education or scholarship that refuses neoliberal recuperation (Eve 2015) for the production of marketised outcomes like performance data, or new spaces for the generation of surpluses or profits. Such refusals question the societal value of business-as-usual models for public, higher education (Open Library of Humanities 2016).

However, experiments that are against hegemonic practices also offer the potential for radical experiment, alongside the re-imagining of education as a distributed, co-operative, democratic activity. Such experiments question education’s relationship to society. Prefigurative responses then emerge in the pedagogic practices of social movements rooted in pedagogy (Caldart and the Movement of Landless Workers 2011), and through forms of resistance inside the university grounded in community and environmental justice (Pearce 2013), resistance to gender-based violence, and trades union educational activity (Scandrett 2014). This work situates the experience of the educator and student against that which emerges from within social movements, in order to address the possibilities for alternative forms of knowing and being. Here traditions of critical pedagogy are central to the ways in which critical knowing and being emerge to challenge the dominant framing of learning, teaching and scholarship as separate from society and everyday life (Amsler 2015; Motta 2016).

Work that emerges beyond formal educational contexts is situated in practical, alternative initiatives that point towards alternative, societal re-imaginings of education. Such re-imaginings are forms of autoethnogaphy, framed by the idea of the student or educator as co-operative activist, and as such operating collectively through organic intellectualism (the Social Science Centre 2016; People’s Political Economy 2013). Such alternatives offer a means of using critical sociology and critical pedagogy to analyse concrete moments of crisis of specific communities, such as the politics of austerity and climate justice (Buxton and Hayes 2015; Lockyer and Veteto 2013).

In particular, these alternatives are infused by comparative analyses with the pedagogic practices of indigenous communities and people of colour (Motta 2016; Zibechi 2012), for whom the crisis of sociability imposed by capitalism is on-going, historical and material. These analyses specifically relate co-operative, inclusive educational practices of creating and legitimising communities, and challenge the on-going colonisation of knowing and being. They offer ways to refuse the dominant power relations of knowledge production inside contemporary capitalism, and instead speak of decolonisation by feminised and racialised subjects on the margins. This enables those projects to establish unique analyses of educational possibility from within new, emancipatory horizons. These analyses recognise the desire for progressive and democratic forms of education: first, in terms of its governance and politics, and the social relations that circulate inside educational spaces; and second, in terms of enacting radical pedagogies grounded in the abolition of power relations in the classroom.

From this complex educational ecosystem, alternatives sit against the neoliberal enclosure of existing structures and forms, like the school and university. They stress: first, democratic activity, based upon a radical politics; second, militant research strategies, which see research as a tool for political action and for widening the field of struggle against the re-production of alienating forms of education; third, the re-definition of scholarship undertaken in public, as a revolutionary activity. In a politics of community engagement and cross-disciplinary activity, and in radical education collectives, these strategies form cycles of struggle that point towards possibilities for: detonating the school or university (Amsler and Neary 2012); using prefigurative pedagogical practices that enable labour to become the crisis of capital, so that it might become for itself rather than being for capitalisation or valorisation (Occupied California 2010; Holloway 2002); and describing what society might become (The School or Designing a Society 2016).

Alternative education is a reminder of how the sociability that was once understood as emerging from the fluidity of the classroom is increasingly lost to educators and students, as value (the determining purpose) now drives sociability. This is the world of financialisation and marketisation, which strip academics, professional services staff and students of their autonomy. Thus, educational lives are restructured as accumulated value, impact, excellence, student satisfaction and employability. It is here that alternative education offers a way of disengaging from these normalised behaviours, in order to re-engage with problems of the global commons. The alternative is a form of collective, educational repair, rather than our response to crisis focusing upon becoming more efficiently unsustainable.

By engaging with marginalised voices inside, against and beyond educational contexts, alternatives attempt to define safe spaces through 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, because they 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, but it also operates at the level of society (Hall and Smyth 2016; Motta 2016; Rhodes Must Fall 2016). Thus alternative education establishes sociability as the critical, pedagogical project, grounded in actually-existing examples of academics, activists and communities engaging with the work of dismantling our abstract experiences, and addressing their concrete impacts. As a result, it is possible to associate educational repair with wider societal repair, where it is framed by a re-focusing of life upon self-actualisation as dynamic and fluid, and rooted in a different conception of what is to be done (bell hooks 1994).

References

Amsler, S., and Neary, M.. (2012). Occupy: a new pedagogy of space and time? The Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 10, no. 2: 106-38.

Buxton, N. and Hayes, B (eds. 2015). The Secure and the Dispossessed. London: Pluto.

Caldart, R.S. and the Movement of Landless Workers (2011). ‘Pedagogy of the landless, Brazil’, in Wrigley, T., Thomson, P., and Lingard, B. (eds), Changing schools: Alternative ways to make a world of difference, pp. 71-84, Routledge: London and New York.

Cleaver, H. (2002). Reading Capital Politically. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Eve, M. 2014. Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hall, R. (2014). On the abolition of academic labour: the relationship between intellectual workers and mass intellectuality. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, 12 (2), 822-37. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/597/638

Hall, R., and Smyth, K. (2016). Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of the Humanities, 2(1), p.e11. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.66

Harney, S., and Moten, F. (2011). The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.

Holloway, J. 2002. Change the World Without Taking Power. London: Pluto Press.

hooks, bell (1994). Teaching to Transgress. London: Routledge.

Lockyer, J., and Veteto, J. (eds. 2013). Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Permaculture, Ecovillages and Bioregionalism. Oxford: Berghahn.

Marginson, S. (2012). The Problem of Public Good(s) in Higher Education. 41st Australian Conference of Economists. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/people/marginson_docs/ACE2012_8-12%20July2012.pdf

Motta, S.,and Cole, M. (2016). Constructing 21st Century Socialism in Latin America: the Role of Radical Education. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Neary, M. (2012). Teaching Politically: Policy, Pedagogy and the New European University. The Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 10, no. 2: 233-57.

Occupied California (2010). After the Fall: Communiqués from Occupied California. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://libcom.org/files/afterthefall_communiques.pdf

Open Library of Humanities (2016). Retrieved 5 July 2016 from https://olh.openlibhums.org/

Pearce, J. (2012). Power in Community: A Research and Social Action Scoping Review. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www/ahrc.ac.uk/Funding-Opportunities/Pages/Connecte-Communities-Scoping-Studies-and-Research Reviews.aspx

People’s Political Economy (2013). 2013 Inaugural Report: from foundations to future. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from https://agentofhistory.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/ppe-report-2013.pdf

Rhodes Must Fall. (2016) Rhodes Must Fall. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://rhodesmustfall.co.za/

Scandrett, E. (2014). Popular Education methodology, activist academics and emergent social movements: Agents for Environmental Justice, Interface: a Journal for and about Social Movements, 6 (1): 327-334.

School or Designing a Society, The (2016). Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.designingasociety.net/

Social Science Centre, The (2016). Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk

Thorburn, E. (2012). Actually Existing Autonomy and the Brave New World of Higher Education. Occupied Studies. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://bit.ly/xzcPRO

University of Utopia, The (n.d.). Anti-Curricula: A Course of Action. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.universityofutopia.org/sharing

Virno, P. 2004. A Grammar of the Multitude. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).

Zibechi, R. (2012). Territories In Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements. Oakland, CA: AK Press.


the porous university

There’s a call out for participation (in person, online or via a provocation) at a symposium to be held on Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th May 2017 University of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness Campus.  The symposium is called The Porous University – A critical exploration of openness, space and place in Higher Education.

The question that interests me most is: what is the role of open academics in dealing with problems ‘in the world’?

My response will draw upon Foucault’s idea (in La société punitive, p. 33) that:

The daily exercise of power must be considered a civil war: to exercise power is, in a certain way, to wage civil war and all the instruments, the tactics, one can identify, the alliances, must be made analysable in terms of civil war.

It will also draw upon Guattari’s analysis (in de la production de subjectivité) of capitalist deterritorialisation, which:

[involves] the continuous disruption of production, the ceaseless dismantling of social categories, insecurity and eternal movement… all the while referring to universalizing perspectives, has, historically, never been able to achieve anything but withdrawal into itself, nationalist, classist, corporatist, racist, or paternalist, reterritorializations.


The really open university: working together as open academic commons

I have been asked to speak at the Brookes Learning Teaching Conference 2017. I love this kind of invite, which enables a testing of ideas and a lot of listening to the practices, activities and hopes of others. My abstract is detailed below. The talk enables me to return to that practical work I was engaged with in 2010-12, around the idea of/re-imagining the university. It also enables me to reflect on my recent work inside the University, on commons and co-operative practices.


This talk questions the role of pedagogic scholarship and innovation in addressing global crises of social reproduction. It argues that working together has both possibilities and impossibilities, which need a richer discussion inside the University.

In the past decade, fall-out from the Browne Review has given birth to a number of alternative education projects. These alternatives focused on creating spaces and curricula that prefigure more democratic ways of doing higher education, in which the boundaries between student and teacher are dissolved and where co-operation and peer-projects between scholars become fundamental. Examples include the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and the Really Open University in Leeds. These projects developed grounded, co-participatory scholarly communities, which acted as incubators for pedagogies like Student-as-Producer (Neary and Winn 2011; Pusey 2016).

However, they also share characteristics with transnational platforms like #RhodesMustFall and#Whyismycurriculumwhite, in attempting to push back against the structuring logics represented by the curriculum (Hall and Smyth 2016). These platforms also connect to co-operative forms of higher education like Mondragon University in the Basque country, the Little Schools of the Zapatista Movement, and the education sector of the Brazilian Landless Movement.

Reflecting on these alternative forms is helpful in analysing our responses to the crisis of higher education, in order to locate spaces for truly progressive pedagogies inside the university. If such spaces do exist, on what are they based and what is their relationship to the curriculum? How do they enable academics and students to respond to issues of inclusivity and diversity, collaboration and peer production? Three responses may be considered:

  • open, academic commons supporting a sharing economy inside and across a porous interdisciplinary curriculum;
  • safe, scholarly communities of practice, perhaps forming solidarity economies that refuse enclosure; and
  • positioning the university and curriculum within (and against?) the development of ‘mass intellectuality’, or socially-useful knowledge produced outside the university.

References

Hall, R., & Smyth, K. (2016). Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities, 2(1), p.e11. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.66

Neary, M., & Winn, J. (2011). The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. In M. Neary & J. Winn (Eds.), The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience (pp. 192–210). Continuum. Retrieved from http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/1675/

Pusey, A. (2016). Pusey, A. (2016). Strike, occupy, transform! Students, subjectivity and struggle. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 26(2), 214-32. Retrieved from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08841241.2016.1240133


writing about academic labour

I have three things recently published or forthcoming that are about academic labour and its relationship to society. These pick-up on two themes that have been increasingly important to me: first, academic alienation and anxiety, or the idea that the University is an anxiety machine; and second, the potential for mass intellectuality as a form of liberatory praxis.

The first piece focuses on the processes of subsumption that are reshaping academic labour, and the resultant impact on individual’s subjectivity and health. Co-written with Kate Bowles, this takes the idea of the University as an anxiety machine, and is called Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety. The abstract is as follows:

This article analyses the political economy of higher education, in terms of Marx and Engels’ conception of subsumption. It addresses the twin processes of formal and real subsumption, in terms of the re-engineering of the governance of higher education and the re-production of academic labour in the name of value. It argues that through the imposition of architectures of subsumption, academic labour becomes a source of both overwork and anxiety. The article employs Marx and Engels’ categorizations of formal and real subsumption, in order to work towards a fuller understanding of abstract academic labour, alongside its psychological impacts. The article closes by examining whether narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse and then move beyond their alienated labour.

The article is published in a special issue of Workplace: A journal for Academic Labor, edited by Karen Gregory and Joss Winn, on Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor.

The second is a book chapter in a collection entitled The Philosophy of Open Learning: Peer Learning and the Intellectual Commons, edited by Markus Deimann and Michael A. Peters. My chapter is called Another World is Possible: The Relationship between Open Education and Mass Intellectuality.

This piece critiques the promise of open education through the concept of mass intellectuality that I have discussed elsewhere, and which is becoming increasingly important to me as a way of analysing the idea of higher education in an age of crises. In the chapter I connect open education to the proletarianisation of higher education, and go on to ask the following.

  1. How is it possible to re-imagine open education, in order to overcome proletarianisation through technologised, self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity?
  2. How might open education broaden the horizon of political possibility inside-and-beyond HE, as a pedagogic project?

My response is rooted in sharing and grounding collective practices for open and co-operative education through democratic pedagogy and organising principles.

The third is the book Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education, which I have co-edited with Joss Winn. The summary, description and chapter/author list is given here. It’s good to see this work moving towards fruition, precisely because it’s a discussion of the potential for actually existing liberation.

Central to Marx’s conception of the overcoming of capitalism is his notion of people’s reappropriation of the socially general knowledge and capacities that had been constituted historically as capital. We have seen that, according to Marx, such knowledge and capacities, as capital, dominate people; such re-appropriation, then, entails overcoming the mode of domination characteristic of capitalist society, which ultimately is grounded in labor’s historically specific role as a socially mediating activity. Thus, at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people might begin to control what they create rather than being controlled by it.

(Postone, M. 1996. Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 373)


openness and power

I have an article published on SpringerLink, as part of the Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, edited by Michael Peters. The article is on openness and power. The full article is available here. I’ve appended the introduction below.

Openness as a set of practices has received less attention from practitioners and researchers than the specifics of producing and distributing open educational resources (OERs) or engaging in open education through innovations like massive online open courses (MOOCs). As a result, openness as a philosophical position and its relationships to power inside and outside formal educational contexts has also remained relatively undeveloped to date. However, it is possible to identify key arguments that enable the relationship between openness and power to be framed.

  1. Who defines openness, and what remains open or closed, inside and outside formal educational contexts? This includes the relations of power between transnational bodies, state agencies, education providers, corporations, and individuals.
  2. How does the political economics of openness reveal relations of production that are themselves rooted in power? This includes work on ideas like the commons, the public university, MOOCs, open data, information justice, and free culture.
  3. These associations also map onto discussions of openness, in terms of scholarship, authentication, publishing and access, data, and so on. How do these commodities of openness relate to social relations of power?
  4. The associations between openness and power map onto a number of terrains grounded in the self, including: the rich history of open education in community, cooperative, adult, and workers’ education; pedagogic research focused upon personalization, collaboration, and networks; critical or radical pedagogy around emancipation and self-actualization; Marxist critiques of education as it is restructured through processes of commodification and valorization. Can these terrains be brought into relation?
  5. Is it possible to scope a future for openness as it relates to power? In particular, how does current research and practice enable thinking about openness in terms of utopias or dystopias?

This entry will pick up on each of these areas in turn, in order to frame the social nature of openness in educational contexts. As a result, its relationship to concerns of democracy, social justice, and freedom, through processes for knowledge consumption, production, and distribution, will be developed.


notes on academic overwork and surplus value

I

In a presentation at DMU today Bahram Bekhradnia of the Higher Education Policy Institute argued that research inside universities was being conducted at the expense of teaching. His evidence for this was not academic staff workload data, but student study time. The latter emerges from his reading of HEFCE’s REFLEX project on flexible working plus the HEPI/Which? Student Academic Experience Survey from 2013. Student study time is lowering, therefore the value of degrees was lowering (as less labour was embedded in them), and therefore staff could refocus on research.

I remain unconvinced by this apparent correlation between variability in the average student study time and reallocation of time by academics between research and teaching. In particular, I do not think that it adequately reflects issues of workload stress and overwork in the sector, which have been highlighted by UCU, and in countless narratives about quitting higher education, and to which I referenced in my recent post about overwork. A counter-narrative is that the amount of surplus-labour being undertaken by both academics and students, and accumulated as surplus-value by institutions is growing. This is not a zero-sum game between research and teaching. Rather it is on-going and constant expansion of the research/teaching system, rooted in the search for absolute and relative surplus-value. It is the incorporation of everyday life as working time, so that academics extend their working day/days, so that they can increase their research and teaching and administrative outputs.

II

It is important to see this work of teaching and of research in terms of absolute and relative surplus-value.

The goal of capitalist production is not value, but the constant expansion of surplus value – the amount of value produced per unit time above and beyond that required for the workers’ reproduction. The category of surplus value not only reveals that the social surplus is indeed created by the workers, but also that the temporal determination of the surplus implies a particular logic of growth, as well as a particular form of the process of production.”

Barbara Brick and Moishe Postone (1982). Critical Pessimism and the Limits of Traditional Marxism,Theory and Society, 11(5) 636.

Inside all sectors of the economy, and now revealed inside higher education, growth is connected to ongoing processes of proletarianisation. These processes are catalysed technologically to promote consumption, production gains or to increase the rate of profit. The logic of innovation is for productivity gains, or for workplace monitoring and surveillance and management and stratification, or to catalyse the creation of value by opening up/harnessing new markets, or by stimulating innovations that further valorise capital. Thus, Christopher Newfield highlights three different types of knowledge or skill, which we might usefully relate to the expansion of capitalism through the generation of surplus-value (through the disciplining of labour and the utilisation of labour-power as a commodity).

Type C is ‘commodity skills’, which are ‘readily obtained’ and whose possessors are interchangeable. This category includes most ‘pink collar’ work that involves skills like ‘typing and a cheerful phone manner’.

Type B is ‘leveraged skills’, which require advanced education and which offer clear added value to the firm that hires such skill, and yet which are possessed by many firms. Computer programmers or network administrators are examples of essential employees who worked long and hard to acquire their knowledge, and yet who are relatively numerous. Ironically, they may have entered the field because it was large: its size may have signalled to them when they were picked a major in college–and to their stability-minded parents–something like ‘the high-tech economy will always need computer support specialists’. Yes, but not any particular computer support specialist, and not at a very high wage.

Type A consists of ‘proprietary skills’, defined as ‘the company-specific talents around which an organization builds a business’. The knowledge manager must nurture and cultivate only the skills that directly contribute to the firm’s propriety knowledge, and stamp out (or radically cheapen) the first kind of knowledge worker, whose skills are interchangeable commodities. Only the star producers–those who create proprietary knowledge–enable the firm to seek rents, and only they are to be retained, supported, cultivated, and lavishly paid.

In an indentured world focused on economic growth above all else, not everyone will enjoy the life-styles of those who produce proprietary knowledge. Through global labour arbitrage, businesses including universities ensure that commodity and leverage skills are outsourced/mechanised and that their costs are driven down. Conversely the hunt is always on for new knowledge to be valorised through exchange or transfer or through entrepreneurial activity, spill-overs and incubation.

In terms of teaching and research this bears some further analysis, especially related to the strands of teaching that enable proprietary skills to develop. These might emerge from the use of a teaching excellence framework as a gateway to drive data around teaching quality, learning environment and student outcomes/learning gain, which can be commodified so that new services can be exchanged. A side benefit is that these data then enable a medium-term justification for raising fees rooted in the competitive edge that can be generated from innovations in the production and circulation of education-as-a-service. This echoes the research terrain shaped around impact, which generates forms of proprietary knowledge.

III

Crucially, the distinctions between absolute and relative surplus value are important in engaging with the forms and content of academic labour, and an understanding of overwork (and its health-related impacts). A starting point here is a recognition that the academic working-day forms: first, the necessary labour required to enable the academic-as-labourer to re-produce her costs as wages: and second, the surplus-labour that can be materialised as profit (surpluses). In more under-developed capitalist production processes, like nascent teaching excellence processes or fee-driven contexts like that in English higher eduction, the search by universities is primarily to increase the absolute, social amounts of surplus-value that can be produced and accumulated. This happens by extending the working day, or by locating new international or lifelong markets from which to accumulate. Here the more limited returns available, plus the underdeveloped market/financial mechanisms, mean that there is less innovation that can reduce socially necessary labour time. A teaching excellence framework is situated against that, in order to generate productivity gains (and overwork).

However, competitive advantage can be gained by those universities that can innovate their academic production, so that they teach/assess/research in less labour time than that which is generally socially necessary. These universities have the possibility to produce more surplus-value relative to those with which they compete, in part because of the new capability and in part through increased capacity (generated by efficiency savings). As a result, these universities can then revolutionise the relations of production through new labour relations and working conditions. Thus, we see new management methods, workload agreements, absence/attendance management policies, and so on.

In terms of teaching, which has been weakly marketised and financialised, potential crises of underconsumption and weak profit/surpluses are offset by extending the working day, so that just-in-time teaching can take place or assessment turnaround times can be met, or so that new teaching technologies can be deployed. This process of searching for absolute surplus-value generates overwork, but it also reaches limits, in terms of the length of the working day or limited academic skillsets. As a result, universities see the application of more productive technologies or techniques that restore competitive advantage and relative surplus value. The search for relative surplus value attempts to make superfluous any academic labour (teaching, assessment, scholarship, administration, research) that is unproductive.

There are clearly contradictions between the commodity, leverage and proprietary skills of academic labour for teaching and those for research, and their relation to the generation of profit/surpluses, and as a response to sector-wide competition. The result is not research at the expense of teaching. It is the movement of absolute and relative surplus-value across the terrains of teaching and research, as a response to crisis. A further contradiction is revealed between, first the university’s need to reduce the costs of the academic labour-power that drives commodity production and exchange value (the socially-necessary labour time), and second the university’s need for new, entrepreneurial and creative concrete labour of academics in teaching and research. This underpins the constant revolutionising of the forces and relations of production, and the demand for constant reskilling and overwork. As Meyerhoff et al. Note, these contradictions flow throughout the university.

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), 493.

The ramifications of these contradictions for universities, and the compulsion to generate both absolute and relative surplus-value, emerge from David Kernohan’s Summary of HE-related implications of 2016 Budget.

The digital revolution is transforming the world of work. As working lives lengthen and jobs change, adults will need more opportunities to retrain and up-skill. This Budget announces that, for the first time, direct government support will be available to adults wishing to study at any qualification level, from basic skills right the way up to PhD. During this parliament, loans will be introduced for level 3 to level 6 training in further education, part-time second degrees in STEM, and postgraduate taught master’s courses.

To promote retraining and prepare people for the future labour market, the government will review the gaps in support for lifetime learning, including for flexible and part-time study. The government will bring together information about the wages of graduates of different courses and the financial support available across further and higher education to ensure that people can make informed decisions about the right courses for them.

The government will continue to free up student number controls for alternative providers predominantly offering degree level courses for the 2017-18 academic year. The best providers can also grow their student places further through the performance pool.

Here is the investment in human capital that drives personal, debt-fuelled investment in education, connected to data-driven marketisation and financialisation, and further privatisation. This is education as the lifelong search for absolute and then relative surplus-value, through individual and institutional competition, grounded in the market and finance.

IV

At issue is what is to be done? One route for the generation of alternatives is to analyse the content and forms of academic labour in terms of social labour. This seeks to abolish the fetishised role of the academic whilst retaining the intellectual content of its labour at the level of society. Thus, intellectuality/intellectual activity would become a communal good, and its social development would stand against overwork.

Now if this assumption is made, the general character of labour would not be given to it only by exchange; its assumed communal character would determine participation in the products. The communal character of production would from the outset make the product into a communal, general one. The exchange initially occurring in production, which would not be an exchange of exchange values but of activities determined by communal needs and communal purposes, would include from the beginning the individual’s participation in the communal world of products… labour would be posited as general labour prior to exchange, i.e., the exchange of products would not in any way be the medium mediating the participation of the individual in general production. Mediation of course has to take place.

Karl Marx. 1986. Grundrisse. London: Penguin, p. 108.

Joss Winn quotes Peter Hudis in his analysis of this passage, with ramifications for this discussion of absolute/relative surplus-value, and individualised overwork, in the context of alternative, communal activity that is defined socially rather than abstractly.

First, Marx acknowledges that labour would have a ‘general’ character in a new society. However, its generality would be radically different from what exists in capitalism, where discrete acts of individual labour become connected to one another (or are made general) through the act of commodity-exchange. In contrast, labour becomes general in the new society prior to the exchange of products, on the basis of the ‘the communal character of production’ itself. The community distributes the elements of production according to the individuals’ needs, instead of being governed by social forms that operate independently of their deliberation. Labour is general insofar as the community directly decides the manner and form of production. Marx is not referring here to the existence of small, isolated communities that operate in a world dominated by value-production. As noted above, Marx never adhered to the notion that socialism was possible in one country, let alone in one locale. He is pointing, instead, to a communal network of associations in which value-production has been superseded on a systemic level. Labour is therefore directly social, not indirectly social.

Second, Marx acknowledges that exchange of some sort would exist in a new society. However, exchange would be radically different from what prevails in capitalism, which is governed by the exchange of commodities. Instead of being based on exchange-values, prices, or markets, distribution would be governed by an exchange of activities that are ‘determined by communal needs and communal purposes’. The latter determines the exchange of activities, instead of being determined by the exchange of products that operate independently of it.

Third, Marx acknowledges that social mediation would exist in a new society. However, mediation would be radically different from that under capitalism, where it has an abstract character, since ‘mediation takes place through the exchange of commodities, through exchange value’ and money. In socialism, in contrast, ‘the presupposition is itself mediated, i.e., communal production, community as the basis of production, is assumed. The labour of the individual is from the outset taken as [directly] social labour’.

See Joss Winn. 2015. Communism In Practice: Directly Social Labour.

(Hudis, P. (2013) Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, Leiden: Brill. pp. 110-113.)

In overcoming overwork revealing the processes for the generation of absolute and relative surplus-value through academic labour are central. This is not a trade-off between research and teaching. This is addressing a culture of overwork and illness that is being structurally imposed as teaching intensity, learning gain, teaching excellence, and which is manifested as anxiety and illness. Only in this way can a discussion of meaningful, communal alternatives situate intellectual work at the level of society, rather than fetishised and exploited academic labour at the level of the market.


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.

Addendum

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.


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.


On common educational ownership and refusing human capital

ONE. Resistance is futile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO. Enterprise for everyone, all the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE. Historical anxiety and data.

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

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

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

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

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

As David Willetts argued in Robbins Revisited “Without radical changes to how universities were financed however it was going to be difficult to change their behaviour. Now there is an opportunity to use our funding changes to push a real cultural change back towards teaching.” And, of course, one of the critical outcomes of this behavioural change is that academic work becomes suffused with anxiety, because judgements are being made. Is this course creditworthy? Is this course meeting externally-imposed standards that are financialised? Does this course have benefit for individuals and the institution in the market? Is this course entrepreneurial enough? Is this course a private, positional good? And flowing from those questions are judgements about the design and delivery of the curriculum, its content and its assessments. And these judgements enable a feeding frenzy for any public/private partner or joint venture that can offer tradable services that are designed for learning gain. This is the background noise that drowns out everything else inside the need to crack new markets for new services.

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

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

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

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

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

FOUR. The academic bind: dismantling the curriculum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE. On academic refusal.

As I argue elsewhere on the abolition of academic labour:

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

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

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

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

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