Notes on the University and the association of capitals

ONE. Elsewhere on this blog I recently wrote about the domination of merchants in higher education:

The links between commercial educational providers and universities, educators and students as producers and consumers of educational services, data and products, demonstrate power and dependency. This complex interdependency is not reducible to fetishized ideas of money via cost-savings or emancipation based on learning for a life of capitalist work. It links to ideas of the reproduction of capital within limits or barriers, and the current condition inside-and-against education demonstrates how crises re-establish the limits and conditions existing in the system as a totality and in the circuits of productive, money and commodity capital. Moreover, we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.

What is becoming more clear is the formation of associated capitals, in the form of public/private education providers, finance capital, brokers of educational services, technology firms, venture capitalists and so on, engaging in a public policy space designed to leverage accumulation and growth. These associated capitals might form transnational activist networks; they might be working in competition. The key is opening-up new markets.

TWO. The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education is hosting a conference Moocs: What we have learned, emerging themes and what next? The conference states that it “will take a critical look at how online and open access learning has evolved during the last year, with a particular consideration of the development of Moocs in both the US, India and Europe.” The speakers at the event are from MOOC providers or are champions of MOOCs as mechanisms for creating a market for educational services and commodities from the global North, for driving down academic labour costs, and for identifying and extracting surplus intellectual capital both inside and beyond the University. The conference is about problem-solving, rather than developing a critique of the idea of “open” or “open learning” or the MOOC phenomenon in light of critical pedagogic practice. Its aims and the biographies of those who are speaking reinforce both hegemonic educational power and the idea that “open” must be used to colonise and monetise higher education. Its aims are to:

  • Evaluate critically case studies in the rapidly unfolding landscape of Moocs and open access learning;
  • Participate in discussions with practitioners of Moocs and new models of open access learning;
  • Consider how these transformations are already affecting higher education provision in the US, UK, India and elsewhere, and to examine institutional and student;
  • Further evaluate the potential for integrating Moocs into university degrees;
  • Consider existing and new revenue models for Moocs.

Recent analyses of the impact of venture capital, higher education bubbles and return on investment, related to Coursera and Udacity do little to assuage the overarching momentum to use “open” or MOOC or whatever as a lever in the struggle between social forces. In any case, the role of new markets like the Chinese in those spaces is still unclear. Any educational technology failures are less to do with pedagogic failings and more closely tied to the political economic realities of a restructuring of higher education for the market. Organisational change and technology are key levers in this process, and their transformational appeal was highlighted by Gartner’s statement that Worldwide IT spending is projected to total $3.7 trillion in 2013. One might also reflect on Gartner’s note that we are witnessing increasing “innovation in personal and competitive business ecosystems” that impact “the labor content of services and products.”

Ecosystems; associated capital; entrepreneurialism; competition; growth; new markets; labour arbitrage; higher education.

THREE. Andrew McGettigan has recently argued that we are witnessing market creation out of control in UK higher education. He notes

The government exploited the existing ‘designation’ process to allow students at over one hundred private higher education providers to access student support on terms equivalent to those enjoyed by students at established universities, with the exception that since 2012/13 those students have been only able to borrow up to £6,000 per year towards tuition fees (up from £3,375 in 2011/12).

The cost to the Government “has been £80m over budget. With 30 000 students registered that year for the HNC and HND qualifications offered by Pearson-Edexcel through private colleges (the equivalent of one or two years of undergraduate study), that represents an 150 per cent increase in such students on the previous year.”

McGettigan asks “why does this matter” and argues:

Private providers can currently recruit how they like and, once designated, their Home and EU students have the right to access the publicly backed student loans (EU students can apply for tuition fee loans only).

The loan scheme is subsidised – only 65p in the pound is expected back. Public money is therefore involved.

Many private HE providers are commercial, for-profit operations – some like, Greenwich School of Management or University of Law are owned by private equity – so public money subsidises private fees and potentially profits.

As we saw in the USA, the private sector expands rapidly when backed by public money. Where will this money end up?

Further, we have no understanding of the performance of graduates from private institutions – they may end up paying back much less and so be subsidised to a greater degree

It also transpires that in order to introduce some control to the budget, the public teaching budget will have to be reduced by £20m – this is likely to come out of the budgets of widening participation initiatives. And £25m goes from the Access to Learning hardship fund. That is, students at established universities will suffer as a result.

In education, the public and the private dance out of time. The private is used to speed-up change, and acts as a disciplinary lever on public goods and issues of equality. In this, the State demonstrates its commitment to profit through competition above all else.

THREE. A recent Ernst & Young Global Limited report on China’s productivity imperative noted that there is increasing doubt that China will provide the sanctuary for long-term growth in higher education from the global North. It reports as follows.

A gloomy global macroeconomic outlook, particularly for Europe and the United States. That has already had considerable impact on the Chinese economy as export growth to key markets in Asia, Europe, and North America has slowed significantly since 2010. The worst is Europe, where exports have recently started falling, causing revenues flowing to China’s industrial sector to slow. China’s productivity growth has also fallen. Growth in total factor productivity has dropped from an annual average of 4.7 percent in 2001-07 to 2.8 percent in 2008-10. Earlier rounds of market liberalization and privatization have largely run their course, and the mass reallocation of labor from low productivity agriculture to higher productivity manufacturing is coming to an end.

The report notes that “Raising productivity is critical for China’s economic future as the experience of other East Asian economies shows that capital-driven growth is not sustainable.” Thus, it argues that:

By harnessing the following sources of productivity, we believe that companies can maximize efficiency and drive a new round of profitable growth across the economy:

Take advantage of structural changes such as reforms to lower market barriers and the opening up of new industries to investment.

Maximize the benefits of information technology by making better use of data, improving communication, and enhancing speed and flexibility.

Exploit technological catch-up by combining different existing technologies and adapting them for China’s needs.

Increase the pace of talent development, deploy talent to the highest-value opportunities, and improve the way workers engage with each other.

Meanwhile, Phoenix Capital Research recently focused on The China Crisis You Haven’t Heard About, and stated

In the near-term, China will engage in capital investment (the substitution of capital, technology and information for labor) to drive economic growth. This means the Chinese Government throwing money at the manufacturing, information technology and healthcare sectors in its economy.

The global North’s increasing obsession with on-line learning as a lever for growth has to be seen in light of the use of organisational development and technology to drive labour efficiencies and to lower market barriers. Capital investment, the creation of a reserve army of labour with interchangeable and low-waged commodity and leverage skills, the extraction of rents, and the creation of an entrepreneurial class form a conjuncture with this need to create a global market for higher education goods and services.

FOUR. In Volume 2 (Chapter 16) of Capital, Marx discusses the turnover of variable capital including the impact of working class consumption on that process. He argues that capital advanced as wages ceases to be capital and instead forms the means of subsistence or social reproduction. The mass of commodities that is “annihilated” is consumed unproductively – it maintains labour power but does not produce surplus value. However, Marx argues that speculation both in the creation of a skilled labour force that is able to be thrown into the production process, and in the accumulation and valorisation of capital, tends to push consumption and wages up, and this in-turn tends to be followed by a crash. This restructuring of the flows of capital then reveal a deeper and more permanent problem or contradiction, namely how can capitalists sell their products when the mass of the population is impoverished?

In terms of higher education, we witness the mechanisms through which policy and practice becomes entangled with relationships to distant/new markets through on-line education, and to the idea of the student as an entrepreneur. Marx argues that credit markets, witnessed in the form of indebted study are critical in enabling the expansion of markets into social or public goods like education, and across new geographical terrains. In Chapter 16 of Volume 2 he points up the:

Contradiction in the capitalist mode of production. The workers are important for the market as buyers of commodities. But as sellers of their commodity – labour-power – capitalist society has the tendency to restrict them to their minimum price.

Further contradiction: the periods in which capitalist production exerts all its forces regularly show themselves to be periods of over-production; because the limit to the application of the productive powers is not simply the production of value, but also its realisation.

However, the sale of commodities, the realisation of commodity capital, and thus of surplus-value as well, is restricted not by the consumer needs of society in general, but by the consumer needs of a society in which the great majority are always poor and must always remain poor.

At issue is the relationship between credit markets and individuated debt, the student’s needs to prove she has the entrepreneurial skills to survive and reproduce herself in a global and stratified labour market, the collapse in real wages and graduate earnings, and the idea of the University as a competitive space scored through with a need to extract surplus value and generate profits. How is the indebted individual defined and conditioned socially through a marketised education? What might be our collective response?

In addressing this issue, just as Capital develops its productive power through association, co-operative forms mights also point towards labour’s self-actualisation. William Thompson’s, Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth, (p. 453) argued that socially significant wealth is not that which is accumulated either as real assets or appropriated as claims on future labour, in the form of legal titles, interest rates. Thompson (p. 443) argued that:

In almost all other systems, the productive forces have been considered with reference and in subordination to accumulation and to the perpetuation of existing mode of distribution. Compared with the conservation of this existing mode of distribution, the ever recurring suffering or welfare of the entire human race is not considered worthy of a glance. To perpetuate the results of force, of fraud, and of accident, this has been called security, and for conservation of this lying security, all the forces of production of the human race have been mercilessly sacrificed.

He stated that it was “the forces of production and their free development in the future” that offered hope for co-operative forms of distribution and for co-operative labour. Thus, the recent piece by the Social Science Centre in Lincoln offers a different perspective on what is co-operatively possible at a different, local scale.

FIVE. Technological and organisation changes focus upon reducing the amount of capital needed to produce surplus value. Thus, capitalists adopt techniques that keep labour and capital fully employed, and as a result we witness a history of innovations related to reducing production time or working time. However, in Volume 2 of Capital, Marx also looks at the ways in which capitalists attempt to use innovations in spatial organisation, transport and communications, to reduce circulation time and to increase the geography of capital accumulation.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that the need to create and enable capital flows, accumulation and spaces for further valorisation, results in “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products [which in turn] chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.” One result is that bourgeois, transnational and cosmopolitan consumption triumphs over local, national cultures, and industries that are defined by productivity and intensity dislodge indigenous cultures.

One example of this process is the subsumption and enclosure of intellectual property produced commonly and embedded in technologies and processes as what Marx called “mass intellect”. Thus, Wikileaks recently leaked a secret draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement between twelve markets representing 40 per cent of the global economy. The leaked chapter on intellectual property rules demonstrates that the United States is pushing to make its Intellectual Property regime the standard for these markets. This focuses upon the adoption of existing US laws, to protect commodities like patents for pharmaceuticals or digital artefacts like movies or educational content. The Electronic Frontier Foundation fears that the IP section will limit on-line freedom.

In the Communist Manifesto it is argued that the Bourgeoisie, though its new powers of production and its commodities and its restructuring of laws, inscribes new, global markets into the circuits of production, and creates a world in its own image. This echoes Marx’s argument in the Grundrisse that the hegemony of the bourgeois mode of production rests on the expansion of a global system of valorisation, which in turn demands that commodities are not simply used but exchanged. This process of exchange demands the spatial transformation of productive forces, including transport and modes of communication. Thus, Capital drives beyond its spatial barriers and we see the “annihilation of space by time”, as circulation time and labour time are revolutionised to give quicker access to new markets.

In this process, the deployment of open, on-line tools are critical and pedagogical. They enable capital to reduce the friction of distance and speed that exists across educational and social spaces They also reduce the costs of educational service and commodity production by collapsing the relative locations of places and infrastructures. For instance, MOOCs enable concentrations of both cognitive labour and associated capital that then lead to efficiencies. Thus, universities working with private educational providers and technology companies form an example of agglomeration economies that enable the relocation of higher education in the global North to new markets. Public policy, in creating a local and global higher education market, draws in further educational functions. Moreover, flattened costs and precarious employment underwrite a more competitive landscape for all higher education providers, reinforced by the agencies like the World Bank and World Trade Organisation.

SIX. Thus, we might analyse the idea of the University, inside-and-against the organisational and technological innovations that drive the speed-up or acceleration of turnover time of educational services and commodities in a global market. These innovations include the subsumption of the University inside associations of public/private capitals, in order to secure their competitive place. These innovations also tend to reduce the friction caused by distance and localised working practices. We might then ask what is the popular response to this process? Does the Social Science Centre offer one such popular response? It states that:

while there are fewer existing networks of solidarity than might exist in larger cities, there is also an intimacy and a proximity that provide possibilities for associational networks that might be diffused in larger cities. Most of us work full-time and cannot give the time to the SSC that we would like to. Without the material basis on which to work and study full-time at the SSC, we have to think creatively about the form and nature of education practised within the SSC.

As a response, educators might question how we work through association or co-operation with the geographical and spatial-temporal implications of a critique of higher education policy and practice. We might highlight the dynamics of accumulation and the need to expand markets in established economies and to create new markets as a new form of imperialism (with privileged rights to sell goods via intellectual property laws). We might ask, how does higher education policy and practice demonstrate the flows of capital between the global North and “emerging markets”, in an attempt to allow production in the former to grow, whilst supporting the creation of competitor-economies? We might ask, where is it possible to find the courage to push-back?

On the domination of merchants in higher education

Merchants dominate producers now. Commercial capital and money-dealing capital dominate productive capital. The expropriation of surplus value from producers by merchant capital is a primary source of profit. In educational production, in the production of curriculum resources, in the funding of research centres, in the building of physical and technological infrastructures, in the deployment of learning analytics, in the management of the student loan book, do educators and/or students have hegemony? Do educators and/or students dominate the agenda? In the idea of open education or of the MOOC, who has power? When we are told that education must become effective or efficient or innovate, who is heard? In the deployment of organisational development or of lean systems thinking or of zero-hours contracts or of £9,000 fees, who has a voice and who is marginalised? 

It is worth re-thinking how merchant, credit and finance capital affect the inner workings of education, in particular as universities are being reconstructed as businesses. As they are being reconstructed as competing capitals, subject to the coercive logic of competition. And it is coercive. The coercive role of money as it is insinuated inside educational practice reinforces its own reification and more importantly fetishizes, for example, the student, or the entrepreneur or technology. As Pilling noted, Marx identified this idea of fetishisation as it flows through the bourgeois political economics of the kind that serves as analysis of the current crisis. He wrote:

under commodity production relations between men take the form of relations between ‘things’. The social relations are indirect relations, relations mediated through these things, and men simply ‘represent’ or ‘personify’ these things in the market place. Now Marx chastised the political economists for taking these forms ‘as given’ (by Nature) and not as social forms arising under definite historical conditions, forms which would therefore disappear under new social conditions. Those who accept the social relations of capital ‘uncritically’ in effect attribute to things in their immediate manifestation properties which, in point of fact, have nothing in common with this immediate material manifestation as such. The attention of Ricardo was directed almost exclusively to discovering the material base of definite social forms. These forms of social being were taken as read and therefore lying outside the scope of further analysis. It was Marx’s aim to discover the origin and development of these social forms assumed by the material-technical production process at a definite stage in the development of the productive forces.

In the current recalibration of education, we witness a media that denigrates public education and celebrates charter schools or academies, we witness a higher education for employment rather than for being, we witness a fetishisation of the student at the heart of the system, we witness think tanks related to global consultancies like McKinsey or PA or Pearson or to institutes like the IPPR calling for public/private partnerships and marketised open education. In each of these witnessings, we are unable to step away from the specificity of “broken education” (see, for example, this PA Consulting Delivering Education Reform paper), in order to critique the structures of domination, and who has power, and why. In pushing back against charter or free schools alone, or in pushing back against student-as-entrepreneur, or in pushing back against credit ratings for universities, we cannot possibly make sense of these individual aspects unless we develop a critique of how they relate to the generality of the reproduction of capital.

What we are witnessing for instance in the open education movement is its fetishisation as an open threshold of access, as low-cost of entry, as emancipatory, as freeing-up resources for “developing nations”. What we do not see is its co-option by commercial capital, in the form of global educational merchants like Coursera or EdX or FutureLearn, for the extraction of surplus value and for labour arbitrage and for commodity-dumping. Coursera states that it:

is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds. We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

Coursera then mediates flows of educational products that it does not produce, in terms of the content or pedagogies of its partners or the data that is harvested from its students. One interesting point here is that for-profit educational merchant capital drives the specific development of capitalist, educational production that is separated from the sphere of production. It is not based on direct exchange between producers and consumers, but on mediated and just-in-time provision. So it is subject to the same drives to maximise the extraction of surplus value from producers and products without contributing to the circuit of production, except in forms that enable speed-up or mobility.

In the case of FutureLearn this means developing an organisation structure that is exclusive and excluding of certain providers or producers, based on maximising profits. Thus, David Willetts argued:

FutureLearn is not accessible for all of our universities. They have taken a view about the universities that they are going to allow into FutureLearn, so the other universities are going to need another route if FutureLearn won’t have them and there are other providers around and of course, part of what they will offer is help in some of the analytics as well. I think this is coming up the agenda, because clearly other universities outside the Russell will want to go down the MOOC route as well, and I completely understand that, and if I were in their shoes I would want them to do it. So there are other platforms that you may want to join, where including, and I am sure included in their terms, will be assistance in the analytics that you need to get your courses online. 

In response Tim O’Shea noted that:

I think you were correctly cautious about the idea that the Government would intervene to support a particular platform provider, because there is a diversity of platform providers in the US, there is actually three in Silicon Valley, there is FutureLearn here, and then there are some free platforms, like Course Builder, that is provided by Google, so I think for the government to intervene would be messy.

In facilitating corporate power, intervention may be denied but in creating an education market through secondary legislation, state intervention is critical. Thus, open education or the MOOC or whatever technological or organisational innovation has to be critiqued, not in terms of student costs or empowerment or democratising of learning, but inside-and-against the flows of capital and the attempt to reassert stable forms of accumulation. Thus Sarah Grossman in the Chronicle relates the profusion of commercial MOOCs to international competition, the needs of venture capital for spaces in which to invest surpluses, and to the extraction of surplus value through education at work:

Japan’s answer to Coursera and edX, Schoo, announced this week that is had raised $1.5-million from venture-capital firms, including Itochu Technology Ventures, the Anri Fund, and the Incubate Fund. Offering more than 130 courses, Schoo is aimed at a Japanese audience of mainly office workers in their late 20s and early 30s.

The market, defined by corporates operating as commercial capitalists, is divorced from the realities of educational production as a social activity, and is recalibrated around the individual production and consumption of educational services and products. Thus, students are recalibrated not as social learners but as individual entrpreneurs able to access educational services and products in a global market.

However, what is also clear in this process of commercialising education is Marx’s view in Volume 3 of Capital that where merchant capital is hegemonic, then limits emerge in the spaces for productive or industrial capital. Marx argued that:

Within capitalist production merchant’s capital is reduced from its former independent existence to a special phase in the investment of capital, and the levelling of profits reduces its rate of profit to the general average. It functions only as an agent of productive capital. The special social conditions that take shape with the development of merchant’s capital, are here no longer paramount. On the contrary, wherever merchant’s capital still predominates we find backward conditions. This is true even within one and the same country, in which, for instance, the specifically merchant towns present far more striking analogies with past conditions than industrial towns.

The independent and predominant development of capital as merchant’s capital is tantamount to the non-subjection of production to capital, and hence to capital developing on the basis of an alien social mode of production which is also independent of it. The independent development of merchant’s capital, therefore, stands in inverse proportion to the general economic development of society.

Independent mercantile wealth as a predominant form of capital represents the separation of the circulation process from its extremes, and these extremes are the exchanging producers themselves. They remain independent of the circulation process, just as the latter remains independent of them

So Marx argued that where commercial capital and money capital dissolve previous forms of production and destroy the communities on which they were based, then they in-turn they become the community. So the public University is declared to be beyond hope and is under global pressure to reform, or become revolutionised as an organisational form for the accumulation of capital, be that social, cultural or commercial/financial. David Harvey refers to this as the “solvent effect” that is also conjunctural with the development of a world market, alongside flows of commodities, virtual trade, new colonialism, and the increasing subordination in this current phase of capitalism of production to trade and commerce. The domination of commercial capital over production is witnessed in: working conditions of outsourced employees, generally in the global South, in call centres and factories that produce consumer goods; the labour rights of those mining the raw materials that go into the same consumer goods; and the proliferation of zero-hour contracts, precarious employment and the generaton of a surplus population (witness the growing number of Ph.D.s with no chance of tenure or the UK’s free schools that can require no teaching qualifications). Witness Apple’s sub-contracting of labour to Pegatron and Foxconn and the recent claims made about labour costs and labour rights related to Taskrabbit, or the claims about labour arbitrage related to teachers, the use of adjunct labour and MOOCs.

However, as Marx writes in Volume 3, this also re-focuses us on the act of production, rather than on the circuits of money or commercial capital, as the truly revolutionary social activity. Thus, David Wiley’s call at #opened13for open education to save students a billion dollars cannot be seen as revolutionary or democratising. It needs to be critiqued as fetishistic. What does it tell us about who has power in the open education movement? What does it tell us about the roles of merchants, in the form of commercial and money-dealing capital, in the open education movement? What does it tell us about open education as a discourse of power where money drives the agenda? What does this tell us about our social relationships and the production of a pedagogy that is truly critical?

The problem with reducing open education to a discourse related to money is that far from enhancing democratisation, it reinforces the impact of proletarianisation noted above. So when Willetts argues for MOOCs as opening-up new markets for UK business, or when educators give keynotes that focus upon saving student money, or where educators celebrate conferences with partners in the petrochemical industry, transnational finance capital, the Rand Corporation and Pearson (as well as organisations more acceptable to left-leaning academics), it is important to ask about the role of power in the relationships that frame that educational space. Where does power lie between finance, merchant and productive capital, and the individual producers and consumers of educational products? The domination of commercial or finance capital drives low prices in the sphere of production, and that restructures organisational forms through efficiency drives or technological innovation. Where educational corporations control most of the surplus value that is produced they can define production (processes, labour rights, shifting indemnities, who manages risk). One of the outcomes of this is labour arbitrage and a refusal to negotiate with labour, or an attack on trades unions. As employment is made precarious amongst individuated and separated educational producers, collectivisation is negated and ultra-exploitation or proletarianisation emerges.

So we need to move away from fetishizing the MOOC or the student or the money savings that can be made or the democratising of educational life, to examine how merchants dominate over our educational experiences, inside a new world market that has been opened-up by both the nation State and transnational organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We need to examine how our modern condition as labourers inside higher education is being revolutionised by technology and new organisational forms like MOOCs, as a result of the evolutionary processes that enable capitalism to overcome the limits imposed by crisis. These limits are socio-economic (fossil fuel depletion, climate change and so on) and are recalibrated as sustainable business or green growth, and they are economic in the current depression.

At issue for educators is how do we read this evolution? Is it to be fetishized as a specific and superficial function of the present? So do we really think that it is technology that is opening-up emancipatory or democratic educational possibilities? Or are those technologies and organisational forms a result of capital attempting to overcome the limits imposed by a falling rate of profit and labour relations? Is open education, in fact, to be analysed in terms of the general rules of motion of capitalism? Where money and commercial capital hold sway, as they do in the current condition, overcoming spatial and temporal barriers through mobility enable Capital to dominate over production and consumption. How should educators react?

However, there is a moment of hope. As Harvey (pace Marx) notes, merchant capital is predatory but it is subordinate to the production of surplus value, even if it controls those who produce it. Therefore, that merchant class and its financial co-operators have to make an ideology, media etc. in its corporate image, in order to underpin its power. This connects to Britt’s 14 points on the rise of the fascist state. As Jehu notes:

The present crisis arises from the fact that there is a mass of superfluous capital that cannot, under any circumstances, become real capital — that is, cannot produce surplus value and, therefore, profit. This mass of superfluous capital poses the constant threat to the mode of production of a general devaluation of the existing capital as a whole. If a general crisis of devaluation is to be avoided, the state must run deficits, i.e., it must spend more than it takes in in tax revenue. State deficit spending is, therefore, not determined by the needs of society (and, in particular, by the needs of the social producers), but by the needs of the owners of capital, who, if they are to avoid a nominal devaluation of this superfluous capital, must hand it over to the state to be consumed unproductively in return for interest payments.

The question is how to reveal and critique the material conditions of the working class, including those of teachers, educators and students, as they are subordinate to autonomous commercial and/or finance capital. How is it possible to recuperate the autonomy of educational producers in a way that pushes back against the hegemony of venture capital or MOOC providers acting as commercial capitalists? Is it possible to develop forms and stories of co-operative production and consumption that are beyond the money-form or cost savings? Is it possible to critique the idea of public rather than open education, and as a result to liberate skills, knowledges and practices against their marketization, and where they do not act to drive down wages through speed-up, or labour mobility, or the creation of proprietary skills that can be commodified? Is it possible to push-back against the use of open education to create a reserve army, or surplus population, of skilled workers as a disciplinary tool on wages?

The links between commercial educational providers and universities, educators and students as producers and consumers of educational services, data and products, demonstrate power and dependency. This complex interdependency is not reducible to fetishized ideas of money via cost-savings or emancipation based on learning for a life of capitalist work. It links to ideas of the reproduction of capital within limits or barriers, and the current condition inside-and-against education demonstrates how crises re-establish the limits and conditions existing in the system as a totality and in the circuits of productive, money and commodity capital. Moreover, we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.

At issue is whether we can help students to develop the analytical tools that enable them to understand the interdependencies of this world and thereby to critique power. Can we help them to change the world in the face of capital as the automatic subject, and against the dominance of our educational lives by finance and commercial capital?

Some notes on environmental crisis and the internationalisation of higher education

ONE. Educational truth: there is no alternative to economic growth

David Willetts’ speaking at the UK Quality Assurance Agency, We need to talk about Quality: MOOCs:

when Goldman Sachs are investing and Stamford say it is significant and big players are coming in, my view is, this is a significant moment in the spread of education, notably, but not only higher education. So yes, I do think this is significant. Its significance comes in different ways; I think it is significant for the brick [sic.] countries and developing countries which have extraordinary ambitions to grow the number of their young people with education qualifications and when you try to think how a country like India or Indonesia or Mexico or Colombia is going to achieve some of their remarkable ambitions for growth it is hard to see how they can do that without using a lot of online learning as one of the delivery mechanisms.

Pearson CEO John Fallon writing about African Outcomes on the Pearson Africa blog:

The universal power of education to transform lives for the better feels more urgent in Africa, too. Better education, of which literacy and numeracy are the bedrock, will be fundamental to sustaining growth and prosperity across the continent over the next decade, just as it surely will be throughout the rest of the world. For example, despite high unemployment rates on the continent, employers often struggle to fill vacancies. In a PWC survey of 1,330 global CEOs, over half report concerns about finding the right talent to reach business targets. Vast skills gaps are holding back job creation and growth in many African economies; there is a disconnect between what is being taught in schools and the knowledge and skills young people need to become engaged and productive citizens.

Just as countries as diverse as the US and China are shifting from measuring progress in education by inputs – such as teacher/pupil ratios, textbooks or laptops per child or total spending levels – to focusing on learning outcomes, so Africa needs to do the same.

The McKinsey Center for Government’s report on (global) Education to Employment:

Around the world, governments and businesses face a conundrum: high levels of youth unemployment and a shortage of job seekers with critical skills. How can a country successfully move its young people from education to employment? What are the problems? Which interventions work? How can these be scaled up? These are the crucial questions.

Education-to-employment solutions need to scale up. There are three challenges to achieving scale: first, constraints on the resources of education providers, such as finding qualified faculty and investing in expansion; second, insufficient opportunities to provide youth with hands-on learning; and third, the hesitancy of employers to invest in training unless it involves specialized skills.

The NUS Charter for becoming a global University:

Embedding internationalisation across all departments in the institution is key to enhancing the global competitiveness of all UK universities. Each university should have an international strategy which addresses the entire institution to create a global culture among all students and staff and to develop globally employable and mobile students and staff. Students’ unions should be actively involved in forming these strategies.

Because there is no alternative.

TWO. Growth, hegemony and power

In an article on the Network of Global Corporate Control, Vitali, Glattfelder, and Battiston highlight the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations. They reveal

a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy… a core of 1318 companies [representing] 20 per cent of global operating revenues and… the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms… representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues’… a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies … controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth … Most were financial institutions.

The B-20 sponsored Global Business Coalition for Education

brings the business community together to accelerate progress in delivering quality education for all of the world’s children and youth.  We believe that education is the birthright of every child and the key to expanded opportunity and future employment.  For companies, investing in education promotes economic growth, leads to more stable societies, fosters healthy communities and makes it easier to do business. Education spurs innovation and increases the skills of employees, the income potential of consumers and the prosperity of communities where business operates.

The B20 (check out the network of CEOs of Global Corporations, OECD, World Economic Forum, the International Chamber of Commerce, and McKinsey & Company), 2012 Task Force Recommendations:

The b20 believes that business has an important role to play in rebuilding trust and helping to address key global issues. Today’s challenges are too large, too complex and too interrelated to be solved by governments – even by those belonging to the g20 alone. We all have to play our part.

Through the b20, business leaders have engaged as corporate global citizens, working closely with other stakeholders to address seven of the most pressing global challenges. Business leaders are impatient with theoretical discussion and long reports, and want practical solutions with concrete actions. It is with this spirit that we have approached the b20.

ceos have developed action plans this year in these seven areas – starting with “What should business do?” before looking at what governments should do, as well as what governments, businesses and other stakeholders can do together.

These action plans provide the basis for a new global growth agenda in that they propose a set of structural improvements to economies that would have the combined effect of increasing both the quantity (rate) and quality (inclusiveness and resilience) of global economic growth. They are intended as a serious contribution to the g20’s fundamental mission, articulated at its 2009 Pittsburgh Summit, of promoting “strong, sustainable and balanced” growth.

More effectively and efficiently unsustainable.

THREE. Hedging the planet

Monsanto Buys Climate Corp For $930 Million

Monsanto broke the news this morning that it was buying Climate for approximately $930 million. The idea is to sell more data and services to the farmers who already buy Monsanto’s seed and chemicals.

In his piece on Why food riots are likely to become the new normal, Nafeez Ahmed writes:

Whether or not those prices materialise this year, food price volatility is only a symptom of deeper systemic problems – namely, that the global industrial food system is increasingly unsustainable.

climate is not the only problem. Industrial farming methods are breaching the biophysical limits of the soil.

High oil prices will continue to debilitate the global economy, particularly in Europe – but they will also continue to feed into the oil-dependent industrial food system. Currently, every major point in industrial food production is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. To make matters worse, predatory speculation on food and other commodities by banks drives prices higher, increasing profits at the expense of millions of the world’s poor.

The link between intensifying inequality, debt, climate change, fossil fuel dependency and the global food crisis is now undeniable. As population and industrial growth continue, the food crisis will only get worse. If we don’t do something about it, according to an astounding new Royal Society paper, we may face the prospect of civilisational collapse within this century.

The OPEC World Oil Outlook for 2012 noted:

OPEC’s focus remains on bringing stability to the market, given that oil is expected to satisfy the largest share of the world’s energy needs for the foreseeable future. In this spirit, the WOO 2012 – the publication’s sixth edition – consistently provides a detailed breakdown and analysis of the key issues that might shape the global energy future, particularly in relation to the oil market. From a supply perspective, the world has more than enough oil resources to satisfy consumer demand for many decades. The US Geological Survey estimate of ultimately recoverable oil resources continues to be revised upward. It is now approaching four trillion barrels. Technological advances have improved the recovery from producing fields and extended the reach of the industry to explore and produce from frontier areas and new plays. Moreover, there remain many areas, both OPEC and non-OPEC, that still have not been explored.

In an HSBC Climate Change Global report, Scoring Climate Change Risk: Which countries are most vulnerable?

Uncertainty surrounding the scale and speed of future impacts mean that climate, food, energy and water risks need to be factored into investment strategies. In this note, we assess the climate vulnerability of the G-20 countries in terms of their exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. We find that India, Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia and Brazil are the most vulnerable. Currently, these five economies account for 15% of global output. By 2050, HSBC’s economists estimate that these countries will contribute almost 37%. We believe the time for integrating the climate factor has arrived.

This makes an assessment of how climate factor is fusing with underlying resource stress critical for long-term investment strategy. In our view, evaluating country vulnerabilities to the climate factor is a critical tool for risk management, informing both asset allocation and the understanding of pressures along global value chains.

Because it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

FOUR. Reality bites

A leaked draft of the IPCC’sglobal review of future impacts from global warming predicts system break-downs across the board

Differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic stressors and multidimensional inequalities, which shape differential risks from climate change (very high confidence).

Impacts from recent extreme climatic events, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, and wildfires, demonstrate significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to climate variability (very high confidence).

These experiences are consistent with a significant adaptation deficit in developing and developed countries for some sectors and regions. Climate-related hazards constitute an additional burden to people living in poverty, acting as a threat multiplier often with negative outcomes for livelihoods (high confidence).

Climate-related hazards affect poor people’s lives directly through impacts on livelihoods, such as reductions in crop yields or destruction of homes, and indirectly through increased food prices and food insecurity. Limited positive observed impacts on poor people include isolated cases of social asset accumulation, agricultural diversification, disaster preparedness, and collective action. Violent conflict strongly influences vulnerability to climate change impacts for people living in affected places (medium evidence, high agreement).

Large-scale violent conflict harms assets that facilitate adaptation, including infrastructure, institutions, natural capital, social capital, and livelihood opportunities.

The Royal Society’s People and Planet reportfrom 2012 argued that there is an urgent need to address issues of climate change and resource availability across the globe. The report argued:

in the most developed and the emerging economies unsustainable consumption must be urgently reduced. This will entail scaling back or radical transformation of damaging material consumption and emissions and the adoption of sustainable technologies. At present, consumption is closely linked to economic models based on growth. Decoupling economic activity from material and environmental throughputs is needed urgently. Changes to the current socio-economic model and institutions are needed to allow both people and the planet to flourish by collaboration as well as competition during this and subsequent centuries. This requires farsighted political leadership concentrating on long term goals

Is there really no alternative?

FIVE. What is to be done?

Naomi Klein in the New Statesman argues that climate scientists are beginning to align their scientific approach and analyses of data to direct action.

what [University of California’s Brad] Werner is doing with his modelling is different. He isn’t saying that his research drove him to take action to stop a particular policy; he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.

That’s heavy stuff. But he’s not alone. Werner is part of a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems – particularly the climate system – is leading them to similarly transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions. And for any closet revolutionary who has ever dreamed of overthrowing the present economic order in favour of one a little less likely to cause Italian pensioners to hang themselves in their homes, this work should be of particular interest. Because it makes the ditching of that cruel system in favour of something new (and perhaps, with lots of work, better) no longer a matter of mere ideological preference but rather one of species-wide existential necessity.

Only in the immediate aftermath of the great market crash of 1929 did the United States, for instance, see emissions drop for several consecutive years by more than 10 per cent annually, according to historical data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre. But that was the worst economic crisis of modern times.

If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what [the Tyndall Centre’s] Anderson and Bows describe as “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations”. Which is fine, except that we happen to have an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, and in which the neoliberal political class has utterly abdicated its responsibility to manage anything (since the market is the invisible genius to which everything must be entrusted).

So what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.

In a 2012, Anderson and Bows argue:

in developing emission scenarios scientists repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses. When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise, “impossible” is translated into “difficult but doable”, whereas “urgent and radical” emerge as “challenging” – all to appease the god of economics (or, more precisely, finance). For example, to avoid exceeding the maximum rate of emission reduction dictated by economists, “impossibly” early peaks in emissions are assumed, together with naive notions about “big” engineering and the deployment rates of low-carbon infrastructure. More disturbingly, as emissions budgets dwindle, so geoengineering is increasingly proposed to ensure that the diktat of economists remains unquestioned.

In a Royal Society paper, Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?, Ehrlich and Ehrlich note that:

Besides focusing their research on ways to avoid collapse, there is a need for natural scientists to collaborate with social scientists, especially those who study the dynamics of social movements. Such collaborations could develop ways to stimulate a significant increase in popular support for decisive and immediate action on the predicament. Unfortunately, awareness among scientists that humanity is in deep trouble has not been accompanied by popular awareness and pressure to counter the political and economic influences implicated in the current crisis. Without significant pressure from the public demanding action, we fear there is little chance of changing course fast enough to forestall disaster.

The needed pressure, however, might be generated by a popular movement based in academia and civil society to help guide humanity towards developing a new multiple intelligence, ‘foresight intelligence’ to provide the long-term analysis and planning that markets cannot supply.

While rapid policy change to head off collapse is essential, fundamental institutional change to keep things on track is necessary as well. This is especially true of educational systems, which today fail to inform most people of how the world works and thus perpetuate a vast culture gap.

In The Republic of Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living 2009-2013: Building a Plurinational and Intercultural State, the Government argues for five interconnected revolutions: democratic; ethical; economic; social; and Latin American dignity; in order to build a fraternal and co-operative coexistence. The aim is:

The combination of ancestral forms of knowledge with state-of-the-art technology can reverse the current development model and contribute to the transition towards a model of accumulation based on bio-knowledge.

This is a world of disjuncture, disunity, discontinuity, where our lives inside capitalism become riskier as the repetitive, precarious nature of its alienation and dehumanisation is revealed. What is the role of the academic in denying capital’s power-over our lives? What is the role of the academic in the revolt against Capital’s subsumption of our lives to the profit motive and the rule of money? What is the academic’s role in our recovering of our subjectivity? As Marx argued in the Collected Works (Volume 3):

Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting their nature men create, produce, the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth… The community of men, or the manifestation of the nature of men, their mutual complementing the result of which is species-life…

The University remains a symbol of places where mass intellectuality, or knowledge as our main socially-productive force, can be consumed/produced and contributed to by all. The University remains a symbol of the possibility that we can create sites of dissent, opposition and critique, or where we can renew histories of denial and revolt, and where new stories can be told, against states of exception that enclose how and marketwise our assemblies, associations and organisations.

There is no alternative.

SIX. Courage.

Stephanie Dowrick reminds us of the importance of courage in the face of crisis.

Courage is a way of living in the world. It arises out of the cultivation of an attitude that you can then bring to any situation, even when you feel at your worst. It is courage that is needed when a crisis has long ceased to be exciting and has become instead a new version of your old life to which you must adjust. It is courage you need when life has become “impossible”, bleak, scary or perhaps dangerously flat.

Courage is what allows you to experience that even when life has apparently betrayed you, or you have come to see how you have betrayed yourself, life itself is still present. In the presence of life, or maybe in the presence of your own consciousness of the life that is within you, it is impossible to be totally diminished by events that are outside you, or are outside your control, no matter how deeply and permanently they affect you.

Courage can be admired from any distance, but you can discover it only through lived experience. Sometimes this has to be achieved in the midst of hardship. Sometimes it is found through an experience of intense physical achievement that brings supreme joy as intention and action unite.  Often though, courage takes on meaning through an experience of profound suffering when what had seemed eternal or essential dissolves or disappears, and your faith in life, in yourself, or in God, hits the line.

You face the truth of that suffering within yourself. You face the truth of it, and the truth that it will not be adequately met with facile solutions or other people’s platitudes, but only with your own version of strength and compassion.

On money, labour and academic co-operation

As David Kernohan has argued over at Followers of the Apocalypse, the Coalition is busy re-writing history in the name of its cultural revolution. This is usefully applied to David Willetts’ recent pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation, Robbins Revisited. The pamphlet made me think of three things.

ONE. This is a clear manifestation of the subsumption of academic research, in particular about progression into higher education and about pedagogic practice, for policy that is based on re-engineering society for market principles. Whilst networks exist (here from policy maker to think-tank) to promote those privatised principles in spaces that were/are publically-regulated, funded and governed, a critical question is whether it is possible to nurture networks that push-back against this hegemonic position? Whether this will happen in think-tanks whose policy advisory boards represent the structural hegemonic power of the media, politicians and academia is questionable. Are we able to create activist literacies through co-operation that connect academics and disaffection in society?

TWO. Willetts’ pamphlet pivots around money, productivity and data-informed choice. Notably, he writes the following.

The expansion in higher education has had little impact on the considerable positive graduate earnings premium, which today stands at comfortably over £100,000 (p. 18)

a one per cent increase in the share of the workforce with a university degree raises long-run productivity by between 0.2 per cent and 0.5 per cent, which implies that at least one-third of the increase in UK labour productivity between 1994 and 2005 was due to the growing number of people with a university degree (p. 19)

One reason for this exceptional performance [in research] is that over the past twenty years the academic community and governments have created very strong competitive funding… However there was no matching incentive to focus on teaching. Universities had a fixed allocation of student places which most could fill almost regardless of the offer they made to students. The student experience suffered… The introduction of higher fees covered by income-contingent loans has stopped this decline (p. 36)

Students aren’t merely buying a degree, as they might a holiday. They are engaging in something inherently worthwhile and also investing in their future. The paradox is that unleashing the forces of consumerism with more information for prospective students and funding following their choices is the best way of bringing back traditional academic focus on high-quality teaching (p. 36)

The clear breakdown of work commitments for each course now provided to all students and parents – including the percentage of time spent on independent study – gives them a realistic idea of what to expect, as well as an important basis for judging institutions (p. 37)

Institutions can lay on extra lectures – but this is unlikely to result in more satisfied students with a better grasp of their subject. This brings us back to Robbins, and his analysis not just of teaching time, but of the time spent in discussion periods (p. 40)

This is a very useful pointer for us as we review how we might extend the Key Information Set data in the future. Asking institutions to provide a breakdown of the average number of discussion classes for each course – broken down as Robbins suggests into tutorials, small seminars and large seminars – would allow students and parents to judge courses by the sort of teaching they value (p. 44)

One option would be for the Key Information Set data to mirror what was available to Robbins fifty years ago, with a requirement for institutions to specify how many essays or how much work students can expect to have marked on each course – and whether feedback will be written or discussed (p. 46)

Without radical changes to how universities were financed however it was going to be difficult to change their behaviour. Now there is an opportunity to use our funding changes to push a real cultural change back towards teaching (p. 47)

It is not for ministers to dictate what subjects universities offer – nor the subjects that students choose to study. Yet given that going to university can change your life, it is quite right that students and parents should think hard about which institution and course is right for them. That is why we are requiring universities to provide more information than ever. Students now have easy access to comparable information on everything from employment outcomes for particular courses to how satisfied students are with course assessment or feedback (p. 55)

Yet a report from 8th October by technology consultancy Gartner made some startling predictions for IT Organizations and Users for 2014 and Beyond, which materially affect Willetts’ assumptions and assertions. These include:

  • The organising principles that underpin how academic/student data is regulated and used;
  • The labour relations that underpin employment in the increasingly digitised and stratified economies of the global North;
  • Predictions about the economic utility of higher education as a positional good that is based solely on income.

In particular Gartner focused upon the impact on labour and labour-relations of technological changes linked to the digital economy, smart machines and consumerisation. It noted the need to engage with “disruptive shifts [] coming at an accelerated pace and at a global level of impact.” This impact is predicted to be deeply political and based on economic disenfranchisement. The report goes on as follows.

Gartner’s digital business predictions focus on the effect digital business will have on labor reductions, on consumer goods revenue, and on use of personal data [emphasis added]… Engineers, scientists, IT professionals and marketers at consumer goods companies are engaging crowds much more aggressively and with increasing frequency using digital channels to reach a larger and more anonymous pool of intellect and opinion. Gartner sees a massive shift toward applications of crowdsourcing, enabled by technology, such as: advertising, online communities, scientific problem solving, internal new product ideas, and consumer-created products.

By 2020, the labor reduction effect of digitization will cause social unrest and a quest for new economic models in several mature economies. Near Term Flag: A larger scale version of an “Occupy Wall Street”-type movement will begin by the end of 2014, indicating that social unrest will start to foster political debate.

Digitization is reducing labor content of services and products in an unprecedented way, thus fundamentally changing the way remuneration is allocated across labor and capital [emphasis added]. Long term, this makes it impossible for increasingly large groups to participate in the traditional economic system — even at lower prices — leading them to look for alternatives such as a bartering-based (sub)society, urging a return to protectionism or resurrecting initiatives like Occupy Wall Street, but on a much larger scale. Mature economies will suffer most as they don’t have the population growth to increase autonomous demand nor powerful enough labor unions or political parties to (re-)allocate gains in what continues to be a global economy.

The escalation of consumer awareness of data collection practices has set the stage for offering consumers more control over the disposition of personal data — collected both online and offline. As increasing demand and scarcity drives up the value of such data, incentives grow to entice consumers to share it voluntarily.

Smart Machines The emergence of smart machines adds opportunity and fear as “cognizant and cognitive systems” and can enhance processes and decision making, but could also remove the need for humans in the process and decision effort. CIOs will see this as a means of delivering greater efficiency, but will have to balance between the active human workforce and the cold efficiency of machines that can learn [emphasis added].

Gartner forecasts that smart machines will upend a majority of knowledge workers’ career paths by 2020 [emphasis added]. Smart machines exploit machine learning and deep-learning algorithms. They behave autonomously, adapting to their environment.

In her outstanding Ph.D. thesis onThe State Machine : politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973”, Jessica Miller Medina highlighted how the Allende Government in Chile attempted to utilize technology and data (through cybernetics) to create a new representation of society beyond the market, using different, co-operative organizing principles. The key for Miller Medina was to describe

not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management (p. 17).

Moreover, her work reminds us to see the technological and technocratic ideas of Gartner and Willetts as means to “solidify a particular articulation of the state that was supported by new claims to legitimate power” (p. 96). Thus, she quotes Allende (p. 252) arguing for democratic renewal:

We set out courageously to build our own [cybernetic] system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.

This is increasingly critical in the world described by Gartner, where large proportions of society are subsumed under a system in which they cannot participate, and against which they demand to push-back. It also makes it critical that the academic world described by Willetts, which is reduced to money and data, is refused. Clearly this refusal needs to reflect the fact that Willetts’ argument for debt-driven study and choice risks the creation of indentured lives. Debt-driven study is in-part based on the demand for entrepreneurial education that delivers economic impact inside a society organised around the market. But what is the value of that inside economies in the global North that are de-developing, or in the face of risks to the US economy of attacks on the dollar as the global reserve currency (especially from China and Russia), or where capital intensity and reduced productivity/wages become the norm, or where jobs are leveraged or outsourced, or where commodity skills are in short supply?

One response might be to open-up a discussion about the link between the production of a higher education that is against-and-beyond indenture, and that is described by alternative, co-operative organising principles. In this way, Willetts (p. 47) might do well to understand the ramifications of the University of Lincoln’s curriculum that driven by the idea of student-as-producer, not just through banal connections between teaching-and-research for new inventions or productivity or entrepreneurialism, but in its democratic intentions and organising principles.

THREE. We need to discuss Ecuador and the environment, not just because of the IPCC’s recent report on climate change or the Royal Society’s People and Planet Report, but because addressing global problems demands more than the poverty of the market. Willetts cannot see beyond this space:

Many developing countries have extraordinary ambitions to expand the number of people entering higher education, and at a great pace. British institutions are well-placed to help, and it is fortuitous that we now have MOOCs to help achieve these ambitions. The jury is still out on whether there will be one or two dominant platforms or whether there will be several diverse names (p. 68).

In The Republic of Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living 2009-2013: Building a Plurinational and Intercultural State, the Government argues for five interconnected revolutions: democratic; ethical; economic; social; and Latin American dignity; in order to build a fraternal and co-operative coexistence. In part, this is based on “The transformation of higher education and the transfer of knowledge in science, technology and innovation.” The plan explicitly critiques neoliberal market-driven solutions to problems, and attempts to tie education to co-operative, democratic renewal that will in turn overcome inequalities. The aim is:

The combination of ancestral forms of knowledge with state-of-the-art technology can reverse the current development model and contribute to the transition towards a model of accumulation based on bio-knowledge.

This aim of linking environmental to historical and cultural knowledge through a democratic agenda based on equality not the liberal sop of equality of opportunity, is further realised in Ecuador’s recent announcement that Michael Bauwens of the Peer-to -Peer Foundation will join “a major strategic research project to “fundamentally re-imagine Ecuador” based on the principles of open networks, peer production and commoning… The project seeks to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.”

What remains for academics in the global North is to resist and push-back against the tyranny of the rule of money and the marketisation of everyday life, in order to explore whether another, co-operative way is possible. This means an activist stance in-and-beyond capitalist work that strives for the common. Refusing the Coalition’s agenda for higher education, through alternative projects like the Social Science Centre or critiques/negation/occupation of the REF or of open pedagogy or whatever, is a start. However, the realisation that technology consultants like Gartner are focused on the political and economic marginalisation of large swaths of the global population, and concomitant social unrest, ought to sharpen our thinking about the lived, transnational realities of capitalism and the need to describe and reveal alternatives. We have access to alternatives based on different organising principles, and these historically and geographically distinct examples need to be rehabilitated and discussed. The question is whether collectively we have the courage.

Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education

I have a new paper published over at the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies (JCEPS). The Journal is non-profit making and open, and is a space for Marxist and other Left analysis of education.

My article picks up some of the themes I have been playing around with here, and is titled: Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education. The abstract is appended below.

Across higher education in the United Kingdom, the procurement and deployment of educational technology increasingly impacts the practices of academic labour, in terms of administration, teaching and research. Moreover the relationships between academic labour and educational technology are increasingly framed inside the practices of neoliberal, transnational activist networks, which are re-defining UK higher education as a new model public service. This paper highlights the mechanisms through which educational technologies are used to control, enclose and commodify academic labour. At issue is whether academics and academic staff developers have a critical or ethical lens through which to critique the nature of the technologies that they use and re-purpose inside the University, and whether such a critique might enable technologies to be deployed for the production of socially-useful knowledge, or knowing, beyond monetization in the knowledge economy.

Some notes on austerity, higher education and the crisis of *human capital*

NOTE: Joss Winn reminds me that “Human capital is a flagrantly despicable term to reduce people to”. He is, of course, correct. Joss adds: “people = abstract labour = value = capital, the automatic Subject.” See for example Bowles and Gintis, and Marx on The Emancipation Question.

In a post on the University and the secular crisis I noted that:

It is the secular crisis outlined by Elliott and Atkinson, the IFS and the IMF, and revealed inside-and-against the political economy of austerity, that is reshaping the very idea of the University. If we are to develop a meaningful, socially-constructed and democratic set of alternatives, they need to be placed against-and-beyond the secular crisis that is restricting and re-inscribing the very idea of the University.

This morning I read this from Andy Westwood on Austerity, the Spending Review and a crisis in human capital:

We thought the last Spending Review in 2010 was bad enough. But this one – covering 2015-16 and then 2016-2018 is beginning to look a whole lot worse. Departments across Whitehall are now deep into negotiations with the Treasury. And it’s looked pretty bloody for some time. The Budget confirmed the worst – it showed that it was highly likely that BIS as a non ring-fenced department would be looking at a cut of approximately £1bn (possibly as high as £1.6b) in 2015-16 and more in the years that immediately follow. Science and research may just get a reprieve but that will only magnify the cuts elsewhere in BIS spending.

The potential cuts to come are eye watering. As the FT showed in their data [], the total reductions between 2010 and 2018 are staggering. Local Government, Culture, Defence – even Health and Education are going to have to make really tough decisions and looking at each in turn it is also easy to see why they might look at universities and see them ‘awash with cash’…

If we think adult and part time demand is in crisis now, just wait until these changes start to take effect.

All in all we might describe this as a major human capital crisis – and so much for winning the global race. But perhaps as worrying in the short and longer term is a different aspect of this crisis that is gathering pace amongst academics, media and voters – the belief that investment in human capital, skills, FE and HE may not be worth it after all.

Little wonder that Willetts among others is pressing the technology agenda, stating that:

The UK must be at the forefront of developments in education technology. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) present an opportunity for us to widen access to, and meet the global demand for, higher education. This is growing rapidly in emerging economies like Brazil, India and China.

Futurelearn has the potential to put the UK at the heart of the technology for learning agenda by revolutionising conventional models of formal education. New online delivery tools will also create incredible opportunities for UK entrepreneurs to reach world markets by harnessing technology and innovation in the field of education.”

However, we might also wish to bear in-mind this report on youth unemployment in Europe from Zerohedge:

Overall, Europe’s youth unemployment rate continues to march higher (to 24.4%) having not fallen for 24 months, but it is Spain that is the ‘winner’ with 41 consecutive months without a drop in youth unemployment. With welfare benefits running dry, and Sweden and Switzerland already running hot, we fear this summer may bring the much-feared unrest so many have been concerned about.

Check out the charts in the original link and then consider what value or price your higher education, in particular in light of statements from across Europe like this one from Italian Labour Minister Enrico Giovannini that:

We have to rescue an entire generation of young people who are scared. We have the best-educated generation and we are putting them on hold. This is not acceptable.

We already have protests across the Eurozone including bloccupy Frankfurt.

Then we have to consider the role that credit and the financialisation of a University experience plays in that mix:

what most analysts either miss or dare not mention because it threatens their own privileged spot at the feeding trough is financialization, the process of financially commoditizing every asset to the benefit of the financial sector and the state (government), which also benefits from skyrocketing financial profits, bubbles and rising asset values.

Then we have the attrition in real wages, the increasing tendency towards stock market bubbles fuelled by QE and a rentier economy, increasing worries about the Chinese economy as the motor of growth, and weak demand in the US economy.

So I am left wondering about the range of increasingly disenfranchised social forces and the impact of an increasingly commodified higher education on the hopes and expectations of our young people. Andy Westwood notes:

If we are going to emerge from this current spending round and future spending reviews in the shape we’d all like, then we need to confront both the difficult spending numbers of 2015-16 and also the rather more difficult crisis in human capital that sits uneasily and rather threateningly, alongside it.

Perhaps the key is in refusing to see those social forces as human capital or means of production. Perhaps what is needed is a critique of the forms of political economy/political debate/politics of austerity that force us to view human lives and society as restricted by the idea of 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. The question for academics is how to support both critique and the development/nurturing of alternative forms of society that in-turn push-back against the neoliberal agenda that commodifies humanity.

for the social content of academic labour

I: on social domination

In his Critical Social Theory and the Contemporary World, Moishe Postone argues that:

history, grasped as the unfolding of an immanent necessity, should be understood as delineating a form of unfreedom. That form of unfreedom is the object of Marx’s critical theory of capitalism, which is centrally concerned with the imperatives and constraints that underlie the historical dynamics and structural changes of the modern world. That is, rather than deny the existence of such unfreedom by focusing on contingency, the Marxian critique seeks to uncover its basis and the possibility of its overcoming.’

Postone reminds us that our everyday reality is shaped by labour-power. This shapes the commodities and capital relations that emerge as the concrete products of labour and the objectified forms of social mediation. At the heart of capitalism lies a structure of social mediation that is alienated from us as consumers and producers of the world because our everyday world is shaped by the objective, material reality of capitalist accumulation. The subsumption of labour for the accumulation of wealth means that inside capitalism there is no possibility that the individual, however, entrepreneurial, can be realised as a being for herself. Emancipation inside capitalism is impossible for the person whose very existence depends upon her ability to sell her labour-power as a commodity in the marketplace. The processes and techniques that structure life inside-and-against capitalist work only serve as forms of social domination. Thus, Postone argues:

Although there is a growing shift away from manual labor, the development of technologically sophisticated production does not liberate most people from fragmented and repetitive labor. Similarly, labor time is not reduced on a socially general level, but is distributed unequally, even increasing for many. The actual structure of labor and organization of production, then, cannot be understood adequately in technological terms alone; the development of production in capitalism must be understood in social terms as well.

For Marx, there is a need to understand how the historical subject is alienated from the products of her labour and the labour process itself, and as a result how she is alienated from herself and her species being. This final form of alienation is that of the individual from other individuals, in-part through the instantiation of competition inside the individual-as-entrepreneur and in-part through the denial of the social content of labour. Thus, Marx argued that the recovery of the general intellect or of socially-useful knowledge, science and technology, revealed at the level of society, was critical where it was developed through association with others. The key is co-operative practice that can refuse the material alienation of capitalist work, and that might enable alternatives to be imagined.

II: on labour arbitrage and the assault on academic labour

The realities of globalisation and of labour arbitrage place an increasing pressure on our ability to face-down hegemonic narratives of entrepreneurialism and the self-made nature of success inside education. In a recent post on Globalisation and the University, I argued that academics need to understand the following.

  1. The global processes oflabour arbitrage, whereby technology is used to deskill and discipline global labour, including inside the academy. This stands against the ideal of many educators for the democratic agendas of digital literacy or learner’s rights.
  2. How transnational capital uses the global processes of competition and free trade agreements to discipline transnational labour, through the use of cloud technologies and outsourced services, through workplace monitoring, and increasingly friable labour conditions.
  3. How globalised, neoliberal cultural norms emerge from the objective conditions of capitalist work, and the everyday reality of those objective conditions for those who work in the global South and whose work in the global North is proletarianised. This includes the ways in which universities reinforce those objective conditions and act as institutions of the state in underpinning the agency of transnational finance capital, like investment banks, management consultancies, technology firms, private equity etc..

The critical space around which the continuing assault on academic labour is being developed has been further restructured by two recent developments: first, proposed legislation in California that connects budget cuts and outsourcing; and second, the publication of an IPPR paper on higher education. These two developments form part of the policy/practice backdrop to an interconnected, neoliberal restructuring of higher education for the market. They connect think-tanks and the vendors of educational technology, to the technology-led outriders of educational reform in the sole name of economic growth and value, and to the politics of austerity. In this, the place of academics and their labour is subsumed under the ideas of the student-as-consumer, the need to catalyse an entrepreneurial society in which economic risk is transferred from society to the individual, and the material realities of globalised labour arbitrage.

Thus, Inside Higher Ed reports that “California lawmakers detailed a plan Wednesday to require the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for low-cost online courses offered by outside groups, including classes offered by for-profit companies.” Moreover, the Bill “would force all the state’s colleges – from community colleges to the University of California at Berkeley – to reduce overcrowding by allowing students to enroll in dozens of outsourced classes.” The Bill’s sponsor, Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, “said the bill would reshape higher education”. Budget cuts have reduced “California’s budget-weary public higher education [system’s ability] to meet student demand”, with reports of 500,000 students being turned away.

Zerohedge among others have reported on the realities of the student debt bubble, and I have written elsewhere about the interconnections between education, technology and student debt, and “the structural need for capital to seek out rents or profits from new educational spaces, based on either the reduction in the circulation time of commodities or the creation of new services, applications or information flows.” Inside economies that are addicted to debt, and which are based on a promise of repayments through deregulated, globalised, entrepreneurial zeal, the use of technology to crack open education and restructure academic labour practices is critical. Thus, Inside Higher Ed reports the concerns of The California Faculty Association, the union that represents professors in the California State University system:

We are seeing a whirlwind of new technologies – as well as proposals on how to best deploy them – coming to the fore and as such, it is imperative that we clearly understand what is, and what is not, working. We want to maintain academic credibility and the delivery of accessible, quality public education, rather than chase the latest private sector fad.

Inside Higher Ed notes that “The proposal could meet opposition from faculty worn down by years of budget battles.” Bob Samuels writes about this very point in more detail and focuses on the mechanisms through which this type of political restructuring underpins the outsourcing of academic practices.

Senator Steinberg is pushing a bill that will potentially outsource many of the University of California lower-division courses to outside course provides like Udacity and Coursera. Here we see one of the clearest examples of privatizing a public good. The state cuts the UC budget for years, and then the same people who cut the budget say we should now turn to online education to deal with the mess. Of course they add that faculty will have a say, but the question is which faculty, and can they stop a plan that is supported by the university president, the governor, and now the legislature?

In this view, the social content of academic labour formed inside the University as a space for association is alienated, objectified and subsumed inside the material realities of marketization and private-sector accumulation. The links between austerity-driven education policies, student debt as an engine for business-as-usual, the use of technology to discipline academic labour, and the threats of outsourcing, are used to restructure the relationships between academics and society.

This hegemonic narrative is reinforced by think-tanks through reports that connect higher education to the market and entrepreneur, and a life that can only be described in terms of work-readiness or personal failure. This is clear in the Institute for Public Policy Research’s paper, An Avalanche is Coming. The paper allegedly “challenges every player in the system to act boldly”, although the key player who voice is marginalised is the academic, and this is understandable given the paper’s focus on restructuring academic labour in the face of the material realities of economic growth:

Citizens need to seize the opportunity to learn and re-learn throughout their lives. They need to be ready to take personal responsibility both for themselves and the world around them. Every citizen is a potential student and a potential creator of employment (p. 5).

This is a world described entrepreneurially for work, and for a recalibration of education and its structures for individuated success or failure. The social nature of learning, and the associational opportunities that education affords, are negated because the focus for technology-fuelled universities has to be:

creating value for their students (p. 5)

and this form of value can only be realised inside capitalism for the accumulation of wealth. As a result of this need to create and extract value on an individual level:

The traditional university is being unbundled (p. 5).

Thus, the report focuses upon the role of the twenty-first century University and new, private providers in:

ensuring education for employability?

breaking the link between cost and quality: “In the era of modern technology, when students can individually and collectively create knowledge themselves, outstanding quality without high fixed costs is both plausible and desirable.”

restructuring the entire learning ecosystem to support alternative providers and the future of work. “A new breed of learning providers is emerging that emphasise learning by practice and mentorship. Systematic changes are necessary to embedding these successful companies on a wider scale.” (p. 6)

This focus on outsourcing academic practice and knowledge, private-sector commodification of academic knowledge, and in reducing the costs of academic practice, mean an on-going assault on academic labour. Thus, the IPPR paper asserts that academic autonomy threatens a reduced student experience and creates systemic risk through the tensions innate in academic labour-relations, because:

faculty lead and undertake the research and (sometimes) the teaching, the two activities which drive the key outputs. The relationship between faculty and the organisation itself is fundamentally tense, in a way that is not true of other organisations of intellectual merit. Consultancies, for example, create incentives in which individual consultants are driven by organisational goals. Universities cannot (and should not) do the same. (p. 27)

Moreover, in a world where the teaching of academic stars is globally available:

These scholars are a far cry from the run-of-the-mill faculty making their (often good) living from a combination of teaching, research and consultancy. While the stars may attract the students, these are the people who actually teach them. (p. 27)

Thus, in the paper the hegemony of technology in reshaping academic labour is critical, and this enables think-tanks and consultancies to work with emerging neoliberal public policy like that being invoked in California to “delineat[e] a form of unfreedom” inside-and-against the University. This is laid out through “The ubiquity of information and the near-zero cost of storing and transmitting it means that universities no longer own the monopoly over the expression of ideas in courses. EdX has made many of the courses taught by Harvard and MIT academics available for anyone in the world to use” (p. 38). Critically then, this is about a process of restructuring higher education for the market, and an assault on academic labour through the global processes of arbitrage. Here technological innovation “potentially provide a much more efficient market for teaching and learning than the university ecosystem – and for many people this might be the best way to improve their lives through learning”, and this means that “For traditional universities, a dramatic rethink of how faculty use their time and how they interact with students will be central to future success” (pp. 44-5).

Thus, the costs of a university education, and more especially the costs of academic labour in a globalised market, are underpinned by a narrative that situates education inside-and-for individuated capitalist work, and which reinforces the process of alienation. As a result:

Learning and work are becoming inseparable – indeed one could argue that this is precisely what it means to have a knowledge economy or a learning society. It follows that if work is becoming learning, then learning needs to become work – and universities need to become alive to the possibilities… Since technology can aggregate large amounts of data and communicate it decisively, methods other than the award of the university degree could mark a person as prepared for employment. (p. 52)

III: redeeming academic labour

Thus, academic labour is under assault both inside-and-beyond the University through a focus on capitalist work, rather than socialised living or socialised knowledge or socialised goods. The driver for this is the production/consumption processes of economic growth and the real subsumption of the University inside the material realities of the market. Universities must conform to the neoliberal ideal of the entrepreneur who succeeds in the market or they must be disciplined by external providers like MOOCs:

Economic value creators – in the shape of entrepreneurs – are defined by their ability to effectively turn raw resources into a bigger whole. They are increasingly likely to employ fewer full-time employees and instead outsource key deliverables to those that demonstrate the highest competency in a particular task. This competency is measured by their track record in that task, not by their underlying credentials. People will need to learn constantly and increase their skills. (p. 55)

This is the new normal for higher education in the global North, and the terrain on which academics need to find solidarity and resistance, and then push-back. This terrain in one in which universities will increasingly be driven through competition to find ways to reduce costs, to outsource services and provision, to meet the needs of globalised finance capital including the edicts of bond markets, credit rating agencies and private equity, and to reinscribe their students as present and future customers. At issue is the role of academic and professional service staff unions in critiquing this material reality and in finding alternatives that “seek[] to uncover its basis and the possibility of its overcoming.” Reclaiming labour-power inside the University is one such starting point and it is based on solidarity actions across the global North and the global South. In a space that is being restructured for value extraction against academic labour, spaces for association and solidarity are pivotal.

Over at Music for Deckchairs, Kate Bowles has argued:

At the heart of this two-tier system of elite university providers and mass university markets will be unbundled digital delivery of content, online platforms, locally supported tutoring and proctored testing. And Pearson are standing by with the clinical strength solutions to all the problems. So at the very least, this report is a strong case for higher ethical standards in research and analysis of educational markets by vendor stakeholders. Pearson have an extraordinary conflict of interest here, which is a very weak basis on which to try to gain our trust.

And it’s not a radical proposition: it’s a reheat of every argument being had everywhere about MOOCs, college tuition, university branding, ranking and funding, graduate employability, the emerging Asian markets (which is truly an awful way to think about individual students), young people and technology, the campus experience, the global superstars. The whole minestrone.

What’s missing is a vision for change that any of us would be proud to be part of.

Defining that vision demands that academics seek to reclaim the social content of their labour against the neoliberal processes of labour arbitrage. As Rikowski argues, we need to find and articulate alternatives:

the politics of human resistance is not only concerned with opposing the reduction of education and training to labour power but also holds out for modes of education and training aimed at meeting human needs and opening up realms of freedom. At this point, the politics of human resistance also needs to intersect with a more generalised anti-capitalist education otherwise it embraces only one dimension of the negativity required for progressive social change: i.e. resistance to the reduction of education and training to labour power production – without offering alternative forms of education and training.

The challenge is to take these social struggles that exist inside-and-against the University and infuse them politically, using globalised technologies, in order to open-up a counter-hegemonic space or global commons. It is only through the politicising of academic (student/teacher) labour through solidarity actions that truly transformational change which addresses social need and marginalisation beyond the market can be realised. Universities are critical sites in the globalisation of this struggle, as is the student/teacher as producer/consumer of material relations that are beyond the subjective. They form sites of struggle that are against those spaces described in the IPPR paper or Steinberg’s Bill. They form spaces through which we might replace the restructuring and reorganisation of global society for capital accumulation. They form spaces for the realisation of pedagogic models and ideas of public education that maintain counter-hegemony. It is time for academic labour to find its voice or to lose those spaces to the market.

The University and the globalised learning landscape

In a post on Globalisation and the University, I picked up on William Robinson’s work on the mechanisms by which a transnational capitalist class, acting through a transnational state apparatus, and supported by a neoliberal political society, hatched from within national capitals. I made the point that it is impossible to understand the role of the University without developing a critique of its relationships to that transnational capitalist class, both in the ways that it is being restructured by political society and national state apparatuses across the global North, and crucially as an integral element in developing the hegemony of that transnational capitalist class throughout civil society. Effectively the University is shaped by the national policies that are catalysed for transnational capital, like privatisation, tax-exemption and indentured study. However, it also helps both to broaden the flexible, transnational capital accumulation from territories in the global South, and to deepen the mechanics of accumulation from previously socialised goods in the global North like healthcare and public education. These spaces are in-turn enclosed, folded into the circuits of globalised production, and then commodified for private consumption and gain.

A separate point that Robinson makes in his Theory of Global Capitalism surrounds the idea that technology, entrepreneuialism and innovation, despite their centrality to the processes of globalising production and consumption and to catalysing the flows of capital accumulation, are merely dependent variables in any social change. Capitalists and governments innovate and apply technologies and techniques because of the internal dynamics of the system of capitalism. These dynamics include competition, making the organic composition of capital as efficient as possible through squeezing labour, maintaining the increase in the rate of profit, and class struggle. Technologies are used inside capitalism to lower costs, to drive productivity, to discipline labour and to gain competitive advantage over other capitals/businesses/universities. Technological change is the result of social forces in struggle and the need to overcome the temporal and spatial barriers to accumulation.

In the transnational phase of capitalism then, technologies are used: to drive down labour rights across the globe; to polarise wealth and access to global income, as well as global, social mobility; to destroy the circulation time of commodities on a global scale; to escape the national (taxation) barriers to accumulation; to replace and rationalise human labour by labour-saving machines; to support the power of globally-mobile finance capital over labour; to coerce militarily those areas of the globe that act as a barrier to accumulation, for instance through the coercive use of drone technology; and to maintain the hegemonic power of a global elite, including the secular control of that elite over the consumption of media, politics, and social life in the global North. This secular control is based on the tenets of liberal democracy that are increasingly limited by the power of transnational capitalism over the objective material reality of life, and which is reinforced technologically and pedagogically. To argue for emancipation through technological innovation, least of all inside the University, is to fetishise technology and to misunderstand how technology is shaped by the clash of social forces and the desire of capital to escape the barriers imposed by labour.

Technological innovation goes hand-in-hand with strategies for capital accumulation and the explosion in proletarian work, unemployment and underemployment across the globe. Much of this immiseration remains hidden from those in the global North who perceive that capitalism and the market offers the only workable solution. This ignores the fact that, as an article on the Network of Global Corporate Control demonstrates, the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations

[identifies] a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy… a core of 1318 companies [representing] 20 per cent of global operating revenues and… the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms… representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues’… a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies … controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth … Most were financial institutions.

In the face of these objective realities I wonder what we are to make of engagements like the Changing the Learning Landscape programme inside UK Higher Education, which aims at strategic change in the use of technology in order: to change students’ prospects and life chances; to promote systemic and institutional change; and to support collaboration and partnership-working. In particular, I am interested in the extent to which the agency of students, staff or institutions is constricted through the restructuring of the University as a competing business, and the use of technology inside that business for accumulation as opposed to emancipation. In the restructuring of the University inside globalised capitalism any such agency risks being reduced to a competition over the least precarious forms of employment. This is the living death that is capitalist work refocused upon the objective realities of labour arbitrage.

This then makes any analysis of the ways in which students and staff engage with technology much less about their subjective reality as visitors or residents, and much more about their objective, material reality as a producer or a consumer inside globalised, transnational production processes. Inside a view of the student/teacher as visitor/resident there is limited scope for dissent, pushing back or resistance to the proletarianisation of work. There is only acceptance of capital’s domination over the lifeworld of labour and a reduction of discourse to specific technologies or to the ability of individuals to maintain a boundary between work and personal life, a battle which autonomous Marxism’s critique of immaterial labour, cognitive capital and the social factory tells us that capital will win unless we find cracks to exploit or mechanisms for exodus from the processes of accumulation and proletarianisation.

Therefore, any focus on institutional change needs to critique the relationships that emerge between student and teacher as producer and consumer, inside the globalised, material realities of transnational capitalism. They form representatives of global labour as it is being restructured inside globalised production processes, and the University is a site of that restructuring in the name of transnational capital accumulation. In this way, I wonder whether critiques of the possibilities of digital literacy, with a focus on the identities of student/teacher as producer/consumer, might offer a better way of revealing the globalised relationships of student, teacher and University. It is an understanding of the globalised production/consumption axis that offers a more meaningful critique of the fetishised idea of the digital student than the model of visitor/resident which in fact risks further fetishising of students or student life or digital technologies, and cannot break from the logic of capitalist exploitation. Without a deeper political context, rooted in production/consumption and the dynamics of capitalism, visitor/resident can only ever serve the reproduction of exploitative and polarised social relationships.

I wonder then whether a focus on critique of the productive and consumption-led capabilities and attributes of digital literacy, which are themselves openly/transparently grounded in craft skills that are understood as situated inside capitalist re-production processes, might be a more useful crack for pushing back against capital. A digital literacy that reflects on practices that are situated in complex, virtual/physical space-time, might then enable an enriched understanding of the individual’s asymmetrical relationship to transnational capital. This relationship includes the objective reality of indentured study, the coercive nature of technologies in monitoring performance, the restructuring of study in the name of economy, and the looming global energy/climate crisis.

Each of these objective realities demands that we reconfigure our thinking about the relationships between student, teacher and University, in terms of production/consumption and the material reality of capitalism. It is here that the power of global capital over global labour might be resisted through a focus on ideas like student-as-producer, using globalised platforms like wikimedia or ds106, not as fetishised commodities, but as sites for solidarity actions that reinforce the ability of counter-hegemonic forces to work together against the processes of accumulation. It is inside-and-against ideas like student-as-producer that we might resist the real subsumption of learning and teaching agendas, and pedagogic innovation programmes, for the hegemonic power of elites.

One of the key issues then is the extent to which programmes like Changing the Learning Landscape can be used as a space to resist the co-option of pedagogy for neoliberal agendas related to employability, enterprise and recalibrating the macroeconomic context for growth. How can such programmes resist the fetishisation of both technologies and students? How can they push-back against the competitive dynamic for constant change and innovation, to focus on the ways in which the production processes inside the University can be revealed and co-opted for a different, socialised form of wealth? How might they enable a contributional, productive economy, which is deliberative, participatory and inclusive? How might they enable students/teachers to open-up the University as a site of political power and civil society to transparent critique?

In fact, how might ideas like digital literacy and student-as-producer, technologies/platforms like wikimedia, and sites of struggle like the University, be opened-up pragmatically through programmes of work like Changing the Learning Landscape, to enable critique of the idea that the student/teacher as scholar might become an organic intellectual? How might they truly connect the University to the idea of the public good through a globalised learning landscape that is not enclosed but which is developed as a Commons through solidarity actions? In Robinson’s terms, how might an organisational critique based on ideas like student-as-producer be connected to a dissatisfaction in civil society with the objective, material reality of transnational capitalism? Grass-roots social movements, environmental crisis, global student occupations, global protests against austerity and the power of finance capital all make it increasingly difficult for ruling elites to maintain hegemony. Hence, in-part, the enforcement of indentured study and the reality of pedagogic cultures based on enterprise.

The challenge is to take these social struggles that exist inside-and-against the University and infuse them politically, using globalised technologies, in order to open-up a counter-hegemonic space or global commons. It is only through the politicising of academic (student/teacher) labour through solidarity actions that truly transformational change that addresses social need and marginalisation beyond the market can be realised. Universities are critical sites in the globalisation of this struggle, as is the student/teacher as producer/consumer of material relations that are beyond the subjective. It is through the technological mobilisation of these social forces that the legitimacy of the transnational capitalist class might be challenged, in order that global production might be redirected sustainably for the majority of the world’s population that are neither visitor nor resident, but whom are impoverished and pauperised, as opposed to being for the minority of high-income, high-status groups in the global North. This means developing models that replace the restructuring and reorganisation of global society for capital accumulation, including the realisation of pedagogic models and ideas of public education that maintain (counter-)hegemony.

On Globalisation and the University

I: on globalisation

In his Globalization: nine theses on our epoch, William Robinson argues that “activists and scholars have tended to underestimate the systemic nature of the changes involved in globalisation, which is redefining all the fundamental reference points of human society and social analysis, and requires a modification of all existing paradigms.” In the systemic changes that are driven by and which drive globalisation, we are increasingly witnessing a transnational conflict between capital and both an impoverished labour force in the global South, and a labour force that is being increasingly proletarianised in the global North. Robinson argues that this conflict is incubated through and exacerbated by technologically-mediated innovations in capitalist production processes that increasingly discipline labour. Disciplinary practices include: threats of outsourcing; using technology and efficiencies in production to drive down wages; enforcing changes to terms of employment; attrition or privatisation of social welfare; the use of technology to monitor work; and increasingly deflationary economic policies which attack standards of living for all-bar social elites. The ability of capital to discipline labour is critical because, as Simon Clarke has noted, as capitalism restructures itself, the conditions for the renewed production of surplus value is set by dominating and restructuring labour power and means of production, rather than by stimulating consumption.

For Robinson the mechanisms through which transnational capital is hatched out of national capitals in the global North is a central theme of globalisation. He sees a corollary in the capture by transnational elites of the state apparatus for control in the global North and the attempt to do so in the global South. He then argues in a discussion paper that in understanding the mechanics of capitalism in its neoliberal stage, and in shaping responses to it, it is critical to analyse how globalisation is “a qualitatively new transnational stage in the on-going evolution of world capitalism”. This echoes Ellen Meiksins Wood’s argument that

we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself.

Here capital needs other economic systems, including public sector spaces, as soil and medium for accumulation, with new roles for nation states under the logic of competition, in policing order and law, and in setting a clear economic direction.

II: defining a new epoch

For Robinson, globalisation as a new epoch in the history of capitalism is made up of four key strands. These strands need to be applied to specific contexts, like the terrain of higher education and the impact of technology on it, in order that a meaningful critique can be generated.

  1. The first strand is the rise of truly transnational capital, pivoting around an integrated global production and financial system. Thus, we witness the growth of transnational, educational corporations like Pearson, and the involvement of the investment banking arms of Goldman Sachs, or of consultants like McKinsey, or of outsourcing corporations like Capita, in opening-up education, and the use of technologically-driven services to commoditise the space further. Through these integrated systems, education providers are tied into networks of defence, security, finance and policing activity, and processes of outsourcing and change management that are driven by the need to extract surplus value.
  2. The second strand is the coalescence of a new class group which Robinson describes as “the hegemonic fraction at a world level of global class structure”. This transnational capitalist class is grounded in global markets and circuits of accumulation. This differentiates it from the hegemonic fraction of the previous epoch of capitalism, which focused upon national markets and circuits of capital. Inside higher education we witness a cadre of public administrators, for example in the UK Department for Education, actively courting and working with global corporations and management consultants to implement social education policy.
  3. The third strand is the rise of “a transnational state apparatus”, which forms a loose coalition of institutions which is comprised of all super-national, transnational and international institutions, for example the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the North American Free Trade Association and so on. In those nation-states that are in crisis, like Greece, Italy, Spain and Ireland, the structures of the nation state are being transnationalised so that they relate to and underpin an emerging transnational structure. Education cannot escape this locus of control.
  4. The fourth strand is the appearance of “new forms of global inequality that cut across the old north-south and nation state lines that group new types of transnational social inequality”. In this, technologies are being used to help reconfigure institutions and capitalist relations of production, in order to generate new configurations of global power that operate transnationally, and access to technologies reinforces these systemic inequalities.

As Robinson argues, “[w]e need to understand these things”, if we are to analyse how our work inside the University is co-opted for the extraction of value by transnational elites, which operate inside-and-against national politico-jurisdictional boundaries through networks of corporations, think tanks, administrative institutions, private equity firms etc.. Simply thinking in terms of learner’s rights, or personalisation, or digital literacy, or critical pedagogy is meaningless without situating that [whatever] in the context of globalised capitalist relations of production.

This process of understanding might take our use of technology inside the University and relate it to the offensive undertaken by capital in its post-Fordist, neoliberal phase, where it breaks free of nation state constraints on accumulation, and especially the relationship between capital and labour that generated a social welfare and social democratic model of the second-half of the Twentieth Century. This model included the idea of the University as a public good, or as a publically/charitably-funded, governed and regulated good, which could respond to local or national need. However, it restricted the ability of capital to drive the rate of accumulation and profit at an appropriate level, and as such capital sought to restructure global production and consumption processes, in-part through technological innovation. As George Lambie has noted:

It is important to understand that it is not so much the geographical distribution of labour that is the problem for workers, but the global restructuring of the relationship between capital and labour… Labour is [now] a factor of production that, like all others, must be utilised in a manner that maximises profits.

Thus, we see a global break with the need to be responsive to any social democratic framework, in the face of a new, transnational model of accumulation that is dominated by finance capital.

Robinson argues that this new model has four critical outcomes.

First, “new capital-labor relations… based on a cheapening of labor, on the notion of flexible labor or deregulated and de-unionized labor, becomes now the general, worldwide model.” Thus, we witness hyper-exploitation inside factories in the global South that support the economies of the global North, alongside the disciplining of technologised and service-sector labour in the global North through threatened outsourcing or the commodification and leverage of core or developmental skills. Lambie has argued that:

If the post-war Keynesian consensus produced the Fordist worker, globalisation has resulted in a ‘Walmart-isation’ of labour, typified by part-time, non-unionised, depoliticised, disempowered and quiescent employees with few benefits, rights or opportunities to influence the conditions dictated by capital.

At issue here is the extent to which higher education in the global North underpins that on-going commodification process, either in new forms as it promotes innovations around personalisation and accreditation, like badges, digital literacy etc., or through its standard structures carried in distance learning, internationalisation strategies etc.. One might ask how such practices form a means of further restructuring a flexible, globalised regime of labour relations.

Second, there is “a dramatic round of extensive and intensive expansion of capitalism itself”, so that there is no outside of the system of value-extraction, enclosure and accumulation. This includes states that held out against full integration in the circuits of capital, like China, and pressure on revolutionary states such as Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and Angola. Thus, we see the current vogue for universities in the global North to commodity-dump cheap educational products through MOOCs or distance learning, or to extract high-level skills through internationalisation strategies, or to enable capital to reproduce its structures through educational “outreach” in the global South. A recent Bain Consulting report on A world awash with money noted:

By using distance-learning technologies to “export” higher education, leading universities in the advanced economies can accelerate the training of the home-grown specialists the emerging-market economies will need. And by “importing” the talent of engineers, managers, physicians and other highly skilled professionals from companies in developed markets, businesses in the emerging markets will not need to wait a generation before their own education systems can produce the skilled workforce they require.

However, we also see the intensive expansion of capitalism through aggressive privatisation of the previously public spheres like education. This also means that we are increasingly witnessing the conversion of the cognitive capital produced inside the University, like the human genome or services based on learning analytics or drone research, into accumulation and the commodity-form, driven by intellectual property rights. Thus, the University is used to enable the geographic spread of transnational capitalism, but it also enables capital’s circuits to be deepened through the commodification of intellectual life inside new terrains.

Third, a global legal and regulatory structure is created in order to facilitate the emerging global circuits of accumulation. Thus, not only does the World Trade Organization catalyse multilateral, bilateral, and global free trade agreements, but the IMF and the World Bank are recast in order to underwrite and catalyse structural adjustment on a global stage. This is critical because under austerity policies, the global market has a declining ability to absorb global economic output, which then stresses the system through under-consumption/over-accumulation. With no massive public works and limited focus on war as a means for the State to absorb surplus value, we witness a focus on redistributing wealth through quantitative easing and privatisation from the poor to the wealthy. One might also view the underwriting of student loans as a new, derivative-driven bubble, the role of universities in on-line strategies that include MOOCs, and the engagement of private providers in the global educational space, as mechanisms for meeting the production/consumption gap in output.

Fourth is the “neo-liberal structural adjustment programs which seek to create the conditions for the free operations of the emerging transnational capital across borders and within each country, so that capital, particularly emerging transnational capital, is unhindered by both state borders and by regulations within states.” As I argue elsewhere

Beyond their capitalisation by transnational networks to attempt either the restructuring of the University or the release of the surplus intellectual value contained inside it for entrepreneurialism, technological innovations are also aimed at maintaining an increase in the rate of profit. Hence the role of transnational educational corporations like Pearson, or of transantional finance capital, like Goldman Sachs, in the privatisation of higher education, with technology as a crack in that idea that the University might be publically-financed, governed and regulated.

Thus, in the range of global educational initiatives, that encompass MOOCs, global digital literacy, cloud-based innovations and outsourcing, internationalisation strategies, data mining, mobile learning etc., the key is to understand how technology-driven innovations relate to the globally-hegemonic fraction of transnational, finance capital. This is critical because these innovations are not outside the circuits or cycles of globally mobile capital. Thus, these innovations further reduce the technical constraints or barriers to the reproduction of capital and its valorisation/accumulation processes, just as they revolutionise the transportation, interaction, production and consumption of individuals with (intellectual or cognitive) commodities/products.

III: a new epoch as crisis

These outcomes are clearly linked to the on-going crisis of capitalism in its neoliberal phase, and are connected to over-production and the falling rate of profit, which in-turn catalyses a desperate rush for new markets. Simon Clarke has argued that over-production occurs because capital drives beyond its natural limits, leading to a crisis of disproportionality in the production process made worse by credit bubbles and commerce, so that it becomes a general crisis of overproduction. Thus, the greater the mass of surplus value to be released as commodities, the more frantic is the search for new markets, and the more vulnerable is accumulation to disruption when it confronts the limits of profitability, for instance in falling demand. We might also witness this in the production/consumption of higher education as credit-fuelled study and in the recalibration of universities as businesses that underwrite a Government’s Industrial Strategy. This in-turn risks a crisis of disproportionality/profits in the circuits of educational provision.

In these processes of transnational valorisation/accumulation, Robinson argues that:

the network nature and structure of the global economy, organized as subcontracting and outsourcing chains which are quite endless, which cross national borders and so forth and also as a network structure in the sense that a network is where a segment can attach to a network, and by that attachment, it is connected to all kinds of other elements and other forms of organizations it would not be networked to literally and then it can detach and reattach itself to other networks. It’s more like a global spider web, except again that you have power being centralized, exercised through decentralized networks but concentrated.

This is again important in assessing both the role of the University in structuring those networks, but also in revealing how technologies are used to amplify the mechanisms through which the University can be further enmeshed in the circuits of capital. A corollary of this is seen in the recalibration of the relationships between academic management and academic labour through financialisation, debt and indentured study, the idea of student-as-global-consumer, and the use of technology to discipline working practices. It is impossible to assess this process properly without thinking through the relationships between the University and transnational finance capital, and the idea that the University is being increasingly subjected to pressure for structural adjustment. This, in turn, includes the ways in which what Robinson calls “the transnational state” sets primary and secondary policy that creates the conditions for globalised capital accumulation. In the UK this includes the Coalition’s restructuring of secondary education curricula, the momentum for performance management of teachers, the removal of VAT exemption for shared services, raising the cap on student fees, using student number controls and core/marginal provision to drive change, and co-hosting educational technology symposia with corporations like Goldman Sachs.

Thus, the State is now a key instrument of the global capitalist system in creating an environment in which capital can reproduce itself and in widening and deepening the interests of global capital over national capital and national labour forces or the unemployed. Education and the place of the University has to be seen in light of this globalised social polarisation and social reproduction, and the increasing levels of global inequality that follow in its wake, which includes falling living standards and the extension of precarious working and living conditions in the face of austerity in the global North. As Robinson cautions us

[This is]not a crisis for the capitalist system unless those that are starving to death or those that don’t quite know how they will be able to survive actually resist those conditions… If half or two-thirds of humanity just quietly starved to death, there wouldn’t be a crisis of the system, only for those people starving. But since they are resisting, it is a systemic crisis.

Thus, Robinson notes that we increasingly face “a crisis of legitimacy in the sense that states are facing legitimization crises everywhere–that’s the famous crisis of governability.” The view that market mechanisms are the sole arbiter of social relationships and that efficiency in the name of the accumulation of capital are our only ways of constructing a meaningful life-world, is increasingly under attack. Witness the students in Occupation at Sussex University stating that:

Perhaps most importantly the decision to bring private providers into the education sector reflects a larger ideological push by this and previous governments to marketise education as a consumer good. For management at Sussex this is certainly a continuation of departmental teaching and university-wide job cuts over the past 5 years under the guise of “deficit-cutting”. We stand firmly against the segregation of our campuses along producer/consumer lines and reject this false dichotomy. Moreover, we reject the way in which outsourcing further segregates different members of the campus community, whose job statuses, though necessarily complementary in practice, become suddenly dissociated financially and institutionally, leading to a complete breakdown of the social cohesion intrinsic to any healthy and normally functioning organisation. We wholly reject the undemocratic and unaccountable structures and procedures which this management has procured in order to force its agenda on members of the Sussex campus community. We reassert that Education is a public good that is and should remain free of perverse market incentives in every aspect of its provision.

IV: capital’s response to the crisis and Robinson’s Nine Theses

It is useful to state Robinson’s Nine Theses, as an analytical tool for framing what might be done to resist transnational capital.

First, the essence of the process is the replacement for the first time in the history of the modern world system, of all residual pre (or non) –capitalist production relations with capitalist ones in every part of the globe.

Second, a new ‘social structure of accumulation’ is emerging which, for the first time in History, is global.

Third, this transnational agenda has germinated in every country of the world under the guidance of hegemonic fractions of national bourgeoisies.

Fourth, observers search for a new global hegemon and posit a tri-polar world of European, American, and Asian economic blocs. But the old nation-state phase of capitalism has been superseded by the transnational phase of capitalism.

Fifth, the ‘brave new world’ of global capitalism is profoundly anti-democratic.

Sixth, ‘poverty amidst plenty’, the dramatic growth under globalisation of socioeconomic inequalities and of human misery, a consequence of the unbridled operation of transnational capital, is worldwide and generalised.

Seventh, there are deep and interwoven gender, ethnic and racial dimensions to this escalating global poverty and inequality.

Eighth, there are deep contradictions in emergent world society that make uncertain the very survival of our species – much less mid- to long-tem stabilisation and viability of global capitalism – and portend prolonged global social conflict.

Ninth, stated in highly simplified terms, much of the left world-wide is split between two camps.

Thus, the globalised terrain upon which universities now exist as competing capitals, forces them to:

  • become efficient in service-provision, for example through outsourcing, privatisation or cloud-based services;
  • respond to indentured/debt-fuelled student life and expectations, linked to personalisation, employability, bring your own device;
  • compete internationally either through traditional mechanisms like overseas campus provision, or through virtual, technocratic innovation;
  • drive mobility and flexibility as a means of leveraging surplus value from employees;
  • engage with high-risk, financialised growth strategies, for example medium/high yield bonds;
  • connect to the research and development imperatives of globalised capital for securing new terrains for accumulation, including data mining and learning analytics, or drone-based/makerspace-type research;
  • drive the reskilling of global labour as a commodified workforce through employability strategies that are underwritten by concepts like badges and digital literacy; and
  • connect to the politico-jurisdictional imperatives of globalised capital by suppressing academic dissent, or investing in security/policing functions.

This is important because as Robinson’s analysis enables us to see, the University is enclosed by the realities of transnational capital, through which we witness the complete commodification of social life based around segmented structures and hierarchies. Here, the relations of the capitalist economy structure all spheres of life, and a set of mutually-reinforcing social, economic and political institutions and cultural and ideological norms fuse with and facilitate a new period of capitalist accumulation. The cultural/ideological component here is set in-part through education and technology, and is based upon consumerism and cut-throat individualism rather than collective well-being. Through the focus on mobility, flexibility and employability, and the recalibration of student life through debt, collective action is confronted and marginalised by a focus on personal aspiration. As a result, the University becomes a node in a global productive structure with a concentration of services, knowledge, finance and technology in the global North and of productive labour in the global South. As Robinson notes, “The dominant global culture penetrates, perverts and reshapes cultural institutions, group identities and mass consciousness.”

As I noted elsewhere in discussing academic exodus, pace John Holloway, the ideological, political drive towards, for instance, indentured study and debt, internationalisation, privatisation and outsourcing means that the University has little room for manoeuvre in resisting the enclosing logic of competition and in arguing for a socialised role for higher education. This means that the internal logic of the University is prescribed by the rule of money, which forecloses on the possibility of creating transformatory social relationships:

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.

Thus, we need to see the University as a business recalibrated inside the structural power of fully mobile transnational capital. This is disciplinary and based upon dense networks of supranational institutions and relationships, alongside the co-option of national jurisdictions for: fiscal and monetary policies that enable macro-economic stability; creating an infrastructure for global economic activity; and social control. For Robinson, capital needs state power rather than the nation state, which acting as the neoliberal state becomes an agent for wringing concessions from global labour.

V: what is to be done?

Critiquing the role of transnational corporations in controlling assets and trade, and in driving speculation and speculative bubbles that threaten livelihoods and lives, is critical in understanding how economic power drives political action. Witness this report from Bain Consulting on A world awash in money

As fluid as the movement of capital has become thanks to information technology and high-speed communications, the barriers that impede its flow to and among the capital-hungry developing markets will remain formidable. Investors will continue to favor the advanced markets, which are well endowed with the “trust architecture”—strong property rights protections, reliable legal systems and institutional depth—that owners of capital value.

Under the conditions outlined above the content of university life is driven by the realities of globalisation that form a socio-cultural space that reinforces disempowerment, in spite of rhetoric about learner’s rights, social justice or mobility, or economic equality. What is worse is that the University risks becoming a node in the permanent structural violence that is visited against the majority of the world’s poor, ostensibly in the global South. Internationalisation strategies, MOOCs, intellectual property and patent law, structural adjustment, exporting mobile learning, all become circuits through which capital is accumulated from the South. This is continually restructured through corporate management, the store of capital in spaces that service tax havens for the North, and the location of centres of technology and finance in the North. However, the threat of a new international division of labour is also realised as the immiseration of the middle classes in the North as they are indentured or threatened with outsourcing, and as their futures are asset-stripped and accumulated by transnational elites.

Robinson argues that the left has two responses. These are: first, the neo-Keynesian approach that seeks rapprochement with capital, based on social democracy and redistributive justice, in order to make it work ethically; second, those who see capitalism as inherently wicked and to be rejected/resisted without working through a coherent socialist alternative to the transnational phase of capitalism. In developing a set of possible alternatives that move beyond these positions, he argues that:

we should harbour no illusions that global capitalism can be tamed or democritised. This does not mean that we should not struggle for reform within capitalism, but that all such struggle should be encapsulated in a broader strategy and programme for revolution against capitalism. Globalisation places enormous constraints on popular struggles and social change in any one country or region. The most urgent task is to develop solutions to the plight of humanity under a savage capitalism liberated from the constraints that could earlier be imposed on it through the nation state. An alternative to global capitalism must therefore be a transnational popular project… The popular mass of humanity must develop a transnational class consciousness and a concomitant political protagonism and strategies that link the local to the national and the national to the global.

Thus, it is possible to see cracks in the contradictions of global capitalism, and to develop popular alternatives, like the range of social centres, or co-operative alternatives, or occupations that form oppositional moments to specific issues, but these need viable socio-economic alternatives to sustain them. This is a form of Gramscian mass intellectuality, whereby counter-hegemonic positions are developed and nurtured through solidarity actions. These counter-hegemonic positions need to be grounded in a political economy that reflects a socialised, rather than privatised globalisation; a globalisation from below that both demands global solidarity actions and is based on participatory practices, like general assemblies or associational democracy.

Robinson offers the possibility that alternatives might include: “some type of global Keynesianism, a global redistributive project, a global reform capitalism”; “global fascism” as a reactionary political project focused on coercion, and the militarisation and the masculinisation of popular culture and of social relations; or “a global collapse of civilization, a degeneration of civilization. And again, we’ve seen such outcomes throughout history when no social force can stabilize a particular system, when a civilization cannot resolve its internal contradictions”. More hopefully, he argues for “a global 21st century socialism” infused democratically, with examples that emerge from the co-operative movement in South America, in Venezuela and Cuba.

Critical in the development of a viable alternative is Robinson’s idea that “we always make our own collective history and so the future is never predetermined.” Thus, Ellen Meiksins Wood states:

We really can begin to look the world not as a relationship between what’s inside and what’s outside capitalism, but as the working out of capitalism’s own internal laws of motion. And that might make it easier to see the universalization of capitalism not just as a measure of success but as a source of weakness… It can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures.’

Crucially then, there is a role for those who labour inside the University in revealing the systemic nature of globalised capital in co-opting all of human existence for profit-maximisation, growth strategies, and accumulation. Moreover, there is an imperative for connecting critique to the mechanisms through which capitalism in its neoliberal phase increasingly consumes and destroys humanity and nature. As Lambie argues, revealing these mechanisms highlights how the family, community and workplace are eroded, and how social welfare is damaged, leading to precarious or vulnerable futures. Thus, the connection of academic critique to the mechanisms through which austerity reproduces and extends the power of transnational elites may reveal the true class position of global labour, including those who regard themselves as the educated middle class. In this, the development of solidarity actions grounded in mass intellectuality is critical.

From inside the University, those solidarity actions might be focused upon developing critiques of the following.

  1. The global processes of labour arbitrage, whereby technology is used to deskill and discipline global labour, including inside the academy. This stands against the ideal of many educators for the democratic agendas of digital literacy or learner’s rights.
  2. How transnational capital uses the global processes of competition and free trade agreements to discipline transnational labour, through the use of cloud technologies and outsourced services, through workplace monitoring, and increasingly friable labour conditions.
  3. How globalised, neoliberal cultural norms emerge from the objective conditions of capitalist work, and the everyday reality of those objective conditions for those who work in the global South and whose work in the global North is proletarianised. This includes the ways in which universities reinforce those objective conditions and act as institutions of the state in underpinning the agency of transnational finance capital, like investment banks, management consultancies, technology firms, private equity etc..
  4. How universities focus their research and development on social need that is defined locally rather than amplifying global transnational value extraction.
  5. Shining a light on models of accumulation that are riven with new forms of imperialism, and capital flows from the global South to the securitised, debt-driven global North.
  6. Developing mechanisms for understanding how the tensions that are revealed in the high levels of debt-to-GDP on both national and global scales might be resolved, or how alternative value forms and social relationships beyond a currency that is underpinned by oil might be developed.

Key is describing and deliberating the relationships between the University and specific social forces that might be used to catalyse a new political consciousness. At issue is how the University and academic labour might resist co-option on a global scale, in order to support those social forces that might fight for a different form of valorisation and for policies that are based on social need as the central development strategy of the State.

Making the Cloud work for you: institutional risk and governance

On Thursday I am presenting at BETT13 on “Making the Cloud work for you”, with a subtitle of “institutional risk and governance”.

My presentation is here:

These are my notes for those slides, which are a mix of a case study of learning and teaching a De Montfort University and an approach to personal/institutional risk.

SLIDE 3: thinking about the pedagogic development of cloud-based technologies has amplified issues around the following [risks].

  1. How does the use of cloud-based technologies affect how an institution maintains a level of curriculum control or control of curriculum change-management processes? Control might be required for quality assurance, curriculum transparency or accountability. Where academic autonomy and the use of technologies in the curriculum is devolved, how do cloud-based technologies affect ad hoc curriculum design/delivery, as opposed to strategic control. How do staff digital/technical literacies affect this approach? What are the implications where staff are operating beyond a hosted/in-house LMS?
  2. How do institutions support/nurture in-house skills development? Do they focus on what is of quality or is distinctive or is interesting, and then outsource or migrate that which is deemed boring (depending on risks to data etc.)?
  3. How do institutions analyse and prepare for elasticity of demand and new service-provision, where technologies or techniques are in the cloud? How d they focus on developing technologies that will enable emerging and future web applications?

SLIDE 4: this is DMU’s Core/Arranged/Recommended/Recognised technology model. This is defined as follows:

Core: integrated corporate systems, including the Blackboard VLE, the staff/student portal, library management systems, MS Lync, streaming media (the DMU video server), dropbox facilities like Zend, and the DMU Commons (our.dmu), are available to students/staff to use with the devices and services of their choosing, and extended through tools that the institution arranges, recommends or recognises.

Arranged: accounts are created on key plug-ins or extensions beyond the core, like plagiarism detection tools (Turnitin), external blogs and wikis, like Campus Pack, and synchronous classrooms (WizIQ, WebEx).

Recommended: recommendations are made with supporting training materials, for connecting key, web-based tools into the core/arranged mix. This might include using RSS to bring in content from Twitter, SlideShare, iTunes or YouTube, or supporting SKYPE.

Recognised: the institution is aware that students and staff are experimenting with other technologies and maintains a horizon-scanning brief, until and unless a critical mass of users require the recommendation of specific tools.

SLIDES 6-11: whether or not one buys into the critiques of how neoliberal policy is opening-up higher education, it is clear that HE is seen as a marketised space into which services can be sold. Lipman defined this as a $2.5 trillion market in education that is restructuring the reality of education and training. This has ramifications for those who work in institutions that are, at least in-part, publically/charitably-funded, governed and regulated. How value is defined in that restructured space, beyond the rule of money, needs to be assessed, including which services will be outsourced to the cloud and why. This is more important because, as Macquarie Capital Equities Research House argues, the market for cloud-based solutions is growing and becoming more aggressively competitive. Witness Google’s Knowledge Graph and the application of big data/semantic web to web-based service development. The rate of profit is critical here in how it affects the restructuring of businesses that operate “the cloud” and which will be looking for new markets, and for those universities which are being recalibrated through HE policy as businesses and which need to extract value from their operations. UK Government policy, the pronouncements of UK Vice-Chancellors like Malcolm Gilles, and reports from think-tanks like Educause create a cultural space inside civic society that helps to reframe educational policy around deterministic uses of technology.

SLIDE 12: Stakeholders inside universities might reflect on how technology is deployed inside hegemonic, fiscal “realities”. These include the following.

  • The drive for public-private partnerships, or private finance initiatives that drive efficiencies, value-for-money etc.. This underpins ideas of service re-engineering, outsourcing of services to lower-wage/cost spaces, and consultancy for new services. This is about disciplining labour and extracting surplus value from outsourced services.
  • The generation of discourses of efficiency/productivity that are rooted though analytics, big data, the reduced circulation time of information-based commodities, changes in production through outsourcing, and workload/workforce monitoring.
  • The legitimation of further innovation and R&D, through discourses of value-for-money, commercial efficiency, business process re-engineering (c.f. European Vision 2020; HEFCE 2012).
  • The need to maintain technological innovation, in order to stay one step ahead of competitors. This connects to Marx’s idea of the moral depreciation of technologies/machines, and the need for constant innovation/value-creation.

Each of these pressures act on universities, and catalyse the need to consider cloud-based migration.

SLIDES 14-17: the second big risk is to users and institutions of placing data in the Cloud, especially where that data is stored on services hosted by a corporation based in the USA, or where hardware is physically located in the USA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology have both raised concerns over the Justice Department’s use of courts in the USA to subpoena access to data that has left a user’s device and is stored in “the cloud”.

SLIDE 18: universities might wish to consider the following cases, which affect the storage of corporate assets (research data, personal information, communications, assessments and evaluations etc.) in the cloud.

  • Twitter: the EFF/American Civil Liberties Union reported on the U.S. Department of Justice’s subpoena to Twitter for Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir’s tweets regarding Wikileaks. The Salon reported:

The information demanded by the DOJ is sweeping in scope. It includes all mailing addresses and billing information known for the user, all connection records and session times, all IP addresses used to access Twitter, all known email accounts, as well as the “means and source of payment,” including banking records and credit cards. It seeks all of that information for the period beginning November 1, 2009, through the present.

  • LinkedIn: opens-up attempts to crack a service, and to enable hackers to aggregate data for future cracking of other services, for instance by confirming guesses about passwords. This enables the comparison of hacked data against pre-computed versions and broadens “guessable” data. How does this affect the recommended technologies that staff/students use? In June 2012, ComputerWorld noted:

More than 60% of the unique hashed passwords that were accessed by hackers from a LinkedIn password database and posted online this week have already been cracked, according to security firm Sophos.

  • Facebook, Google and Twitter: there is now an obligation to identify “trolls”, and internet companies will have to surrender the details of those posting libellous messages. How does this affect staff and student professional development/identities?
  • Leveson: Jeremy Hunt’s private Gmail account, which was used to conduct official business was subject to Freedom of Information, according to the Information Commissioner.

This raises issues of: cloud-based service availability and resilience; confidentiality/privacy and personal/institutional data; copyright/copyleft/content distribution; data security/back-ups control/deletion.

SLIDES 19 and 20 demonstrate how important it is to protect critical assets or data from providers and to think about service resilience, even when dealing with a behemoth like Amazon Web Services which has suffered outages.

SLIDE 21: demonstrates just how ubiquitous cloud services are, and how deeply interconnected they are to broader geographies of transnational finance capital and corporate governance. Thinking through what transnational corporate governance means for your institutional data/services/technologies is critical.

SLIDES 22-23: some final governance issues for institutions and their staff.

  • Risk-management operates at a range of scales: does it matter if someone accesses your stuff? [c.f. Dropbox; subject to FoI] If so, canyou build Chinese walls or local alternatives?
  • What about corporate governance, including access to services that are marketised? [e.g. the recent Google-Verizon issue, which flagged the possibility of a two-speed internet, especially for multimedia distribution/consumption. See also the potential costs of accessing data in a marketised HE space.]
  • Does it matter if the academic who is responsible for the curriculum/assessment that is managed in the Cloud, in non-institutional services gets hit by a bus? [What should be managed in-house or hosted via a contract?]
  • Do we understand that data is being transferred into a service and that we have responsibilities? [T&Cs; Intellectual Property; protected characteristics; indemnities for libel].
  • How do we work-up the digital literacies of our staff/students in these spaces?