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

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

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

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

Our response focuses upon the following.

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

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

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

I’m speaking at the Educational Innovation in Economics and Business (EdinEB) conference on 3 June, in Brighton. The conference is focused on the interplay between theory and practice, with the focus on “Critically questioning educational innovation in economics and business: Human interaction in a virtualising world”. I will be speaking about the following…


The global economic crisis of 2008 has been followed by a persistent recession, with low levels of growth, weak aggregate demand, and high levels of underemployment or unemployment. This forced an engagement with the idea that the global economy is witnessing a secular stagnation or crisis, which has in-turn recalibrated the landscape of English higher education, with implications for the idea of the University. This process has amplified the twin forces of marketization and financialisation that are reconstituting the higher education sector for the production, circulation and accumulation of value.

As a result of this restructuring for value, educational innovation has been subsumed under political economic realities, which stipulate that there is no alternative to the logic of choice and competition. This political economy is underscored culturally and pedagogically through an obsession with innovation that includes: redefining academic labour as entrepreneurial or for employment; enforcing a creative curriculum; amplifying the use of data to establish learning gain; co-opting the staff/student relationship as partnership; developing internationalisation strategies through open education.

This keynote will argue that educational innovations might usefully be examined in light of the relationships between: technological and organisational innovation; the dominant political economy that is affecting competing educational providers; the disciplinary role of the State in shaping an educational space for further capital accumulation; and the subsumption of open networks to the realities of performativity and performance management. The argument will situate educational innovations inside-and-against Capital’s drive to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control, rather than to enable social mobility or emancipation.

It will be argued that the ways in which such educational innovations and the services that are derived from them are valorised might offer a glimpse of how the processes that drive capital accumulation might themselves be resisted. The argument will draw on the examples of The Post-Crash Economics Society (PCES) at the University of Manchester, the People Political Economy Project in Oxford, the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE), and the Rethinking Economics conference, in order to examine the social relationships that emerge around notionally neutral, educational innovations. We might then ask, is it possible to reclaim human interaction and sociability in a virtualising world?

on [rage against] learning gain

> Data-driven educational consumption…<

Efficacy is a deceptively simple but incredibly powerful idea – that every product we sell should be measured and judged by the learning outcomes it helps to achieve. Every decision, every process, every investment we now make within Pearson is driven by an ‘efficacy framework’ that requires us to be able to answer four key questions:

  • What learning outcome do you aim to achieve?
  • What evidence – what data – will you collect to measure progress?
  • Do you have a clear plan that gives us confidence you can implement?
  • Data-driven, joint ventures rooted in leverage …

And, as we’ll always be working in partnership with other stakeholders, do we, collectively, have the capacity to deliver the desired outcome? If we can’t clearly see how a new product or service will drive up learning outcomes, we won’t invest in it.

> The data-driven rule of money…<

This is what is driving us to remake Pearson as a company set up to tackle one of the most important global socioeconomic issues of our time – how to make better education more accessible and affordable for far more people around the world. Or, to put it another way, how to get a far better return on the five trillion dollars, and more, the world spends each year on education? And it is this shift from inputs to outcomes that will, I think, more than anything else, drive change in global education over the next ten years.

John Fallon. 2014. Pearson’s Five Trillion Dollar Question.

> Open data as disciplinary tool…<

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… 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… 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.

David Willetts. 2013. Robbins Revisited.

> Open data will not save your educational future…<

we see a clear potential to unlock significant economic value by applying advanced analytics to both open and proprietary knowledge.

James Manyika et al.. 2013. Open data: Unlocking innovation and performance with liquid information.

>Open data and learning gain will unlock your value for their accumulation…<

As part of our commitment to supporting excellence and innovation in teaching and learning, as outlined in the HEFCE Business Plan, we are working with the sector to develop better ways of capturing excellent educational outcomes, including new approaches to measuring students’ learning. Developing our understanding of student learning is integral to ongoing debates about the quality and impact of higher education, and how we evidence the value of investment in it.

Learning gain has been defined and conceptualised in a number of ways. For our purposes, we define learning gain as the ‘distance travelled’: the improvement in knowledge, skills, work-readiness and personal development demonstrated by students at two points in time. There has been increasing interest, both nationally and internationally, in this concept in higher education, influenced by a number of key publications and programmes of work.

Our work on learning gain is part of a broader programme of work that is intended to improve students’ educational outcomes, and to provide insight to improve teaching practice and enhance capability (at an institutional strategic, department and individual academic level) across the sector. The development of a better range of indicators of the outcomes of higher education also has the potential to enhance student decision-making and to demonstrate more clearly, to Government and to students, the value of their investments in higher education.

HEFCE. 2015. Invitation to submit expressions of interest in piloting and evaluating measures of learning gain.

Increased fees and pressures on public funding mean we have to:

demonstrate the quality of higher education provision

evidence the positive impact of HE

evidence the value for money of investment in HE.

Madeleine Atkins. 2015. Measuring what matters: Learning gain in higher education.

> Who benefits from learning gain?<

For a five-year contract, Pearson was paid $32 million to produce standardized tests for New York. Its contract in Texas was worth $500 million. Pearson also owns Connections Academy, a company that runs for-profit, virtual charter schools. It also owns the GED program, although competitors have been creating alternatives in order to combat Pearson’s expensive tests. By and large, the massive corporation has far-reaching control over the education industry.

One of the best ways a standardized testing corporation can make more money is by coming up with new standards, which is why it’s not surprising that Pearson has played a role in crafting the new Common Core State Standards, a new set of standards set to be implemented in most states this coming school year. Advocates argue these new standards will increase but not improve testing —which will now be done on computers many schools don’t even have.

Peter Cohen, CEO of Pearson’s K-12 division, said: “It’s a really big deal. The Common Core standards are affecting literally every part of the business we’re involved in.”

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, estimates implementing the new standards will cost the nation between $1 billion and $8 billion. Nearly all the profits will go to book publishers and test creators like Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill.

As corporations have found they can profit from turning students into unimaginative machines, they are newly discovering they can profit from standardizing teachers as well. Pearson’s new edTPA standardized assessments will determine teacher certification. Seven states have already adopted edTPA, with New York set to implement the program in May 2014.

Alyssa Figueroa. 2013. 8 Things You Should Know About Corporations Like Pearson that Make Huge Profits from Standardized Tests.

I’ve been following policy developments in English HE aimed at modifying academic behaviour over the past few weeks : specifically (though not exclusively) a HEFCE seminar on “Learning Gain” and the ongoing deliberation around the REF and HEFCE’s (shortly to be released) allocation of QR funding that will be linked to it.

The latent conspiracy theorist in me insists that I mention that both “Learning Gain” and the “Impact” component of the REF are being designed and delivered by Rand Europe. And Rand, in a triumph of private sector management excellence, are basically doing the same job twice. Though in disparate fields, both initiatives are an attempt to do the following:

  • to measure an attribute of education or research that was previously thought immeasurable.
  • to use this scheme of measurement nationally, across multiple institutions in multiple contexts
  • to make an assessment of the activity that allows significant gain to be made against these measurement schemes.
  • To reward and fund these areas of “excellence”, to encourage others

This faux-scientific nonsense has replaced the kind of small targeted investment in the community that has been proven to actually work. The kind of thing that other HE sectors around the world have learned from the UK and are currently implementing whilst we import failed approaches from elsewhere.

David Kernohan. 2015. Shame, pain, disdain and learning gain.

> Who is co-opted into the disciplining of student labour through learning gain and learning analytics?<

Capturing and analyzing data has changed how decisions are made and resources are allocated in businesses, journalism, government, and military and intelligence fields. Through better use of data, leaders are able to plan and enact strategies with greater clarity and confidence. Data drives increased organizational efficiency and a competitive advantage. Simply, analytics provide new insight and actionable intelligence.

In education, the use of data and analytics to improve learning is referred to as learning analytics. Analytics have not yet made the impact on education that they have made in other fields. That’s starting to change. Software companies, researchers, educators, and university leaders recognize the value of data in improving not only teaching and learning, but the entire education sector. In particular, learning analytics enables universities, schools, and corporate training departments to improve the quality of learning and overall competitiveness. Research communities such as the International Educational Data Mining Society (IEDMS) and the Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR) are developing promising models for improving learner success through predictive analytics, machine learning, recommender systems (content and social), network analysis, tracking the development of concepts through social systems, discourse analysis, and intervention and support strategies. The era of data and analytics in learning is just beginning.

edX. 2014. Data, Analytics and Learning.

> Whose futures are subsumed in this rush to measure?<

Occupy LSE, in its founding statement, made clear that the ethos of the neoliberal university is where the institution ‘sells-itself’ to potential clients (i.e. students) seeking ‘value-adding’ work processes (i.e. education) administered by profit-making service providers (i.e. universities) and employed workers (i.e. lecturers) to work on individual ‘human capital’ so as to improve ‘earning potential’ in the world of work. It was clear in the occupation’s outreach that the marketisation of higher education and the imposition of fees has changed the culture of students and institutions, creating entrenched interests and cultural perceptions which have become ‘sticky’. Many students that Occupy LSE canvassed were very critical or unamused at the occupation – some complaining that we were ‘ruining the image’ of the institution they had paid so much to attend and whose logo added so much value to their CV. When universities charge so much for one to attend, it produces, by the very nature of the monetary investment and debt involved, a cultural mentality where education acts as a service which must have a clear dividend to be profitable (usually a well-paying job)….

Yet at the same time as treating the university as a business, students as consumers, lecturers as providers of ‘value-adding’ services, and degrees serving as instruments for increasing ‘earning potential’, the class of managers also acknowledges the deep spiritual gap left by this process of commodification. The university truly becomes a factory, where the institution, and the individual subjects it produces, measures the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

Matt Myers. 2015. Report from the LSE occupation.

>What are the labour relations implications of this new front in the rule of money?<

government and universities are actively supporting HR and professional development projects that anticipate long-term casualisation of university teaching, and focus on better handling of this risk. This reflects the adjustment of TEQSA’s calculations away from hinting that casualisation could be “excessive”, towards an expectation that majority casualisation of university teaching can be properly managed and performed with robust procedures and a positive attitude.

Kate Bowles. 2015. The New Normal.

In return for accepting an attack on their working conditions, Warwick’s precariat are being offered the chance to invest in their human capital. They can access resources to help their Continuing Personal Development (CPD), and expand their CV in the process.

In short, the hope of one day possible escaping precarity is being leveraged as a way of binding staff to the very structures which make them precarious.

The University of Warwick is evidence of a growing trend amongst UK universities. The social democratic university ideal of institutions where everyone shares common goals, common commitment and participated in collective processes of education as guided by democratic structures is very, very dead.

Instead, democracy has been systematically killed off, and there is an increasingly confrontational and repressive approach to dissent. The kettling of students in 2010 and Birmingham University’s vindictive campaign of repression against dissenting students was only the first indication of this sea change. The mediation and negotiation of different interests has been abandoned, and any attempt to force concessions from managerial overlords has led to prolonged antagonism.

We cannot just imagine our way out of this situation. Any progress will rely on making collective interventions in the relations and forces which structure the university.

We are increasingly seeing a polarisation in university life: it’s the yobs versus the managers.

John Murray. 2015. 6 Things Warwick University’s New Temp Agency Tells Us About Academic Precarity.

In a service-dominated economy that cares very little about values, facts, relationships, joy, satisfaction, wellbeing we are nevertheless supposed to be or perform happiness, relationships and values (of the company at least). When transferable skills come to dominate education and employment above all others, we can be sure that what is really being taught is the ability to be transferable. An education that focused instead on values, deep knowledge and intransigence would be an education for a different world.

Nina Power. 2015. The ‘transferable skills’ paradigm is cover for the creation of transferable people

the newest wave of automation is leaving some jobs to humans. Work involving creativity, problem-solving, and social intelligence are all off-limits to automation for the time being. But these are mostly high-skilled, high-waged jobs, and they are often jobs that are difficult not only for machines, but also for humans.

In the earliest waves of automation (for example the mechanisation of craft work), the biggest section of the labour market under threat was relatively high-skilled workers who posed a threat to capitalists and management. Low-skilled jobs were both cheap and relatively easy to discipline, and offered numerous outlets for displaced workers. Yet today, it is largely low-skilled, low-waged jobs (both manual and cognitive) which are under threat – a situation which makes this wave of automation significantly different from previous ones.

Nick Srnicek. 2015. 4 Reasons Why Technological Unemployment Might Really Be Different This Time.

> Rage against the rule of learning gain: the leverage, co-opted rule of money.<

And so we rage against the rule of money. Not against money itself, necessarily, because in the present society we need money to live. We rage rather against the rule of money, against a society in which money dominates. Money is a great bulldozer tearing up the world. It is an insidious force penetrating ever more aspects of our lives. Money holds society together, but it does so in a way that tears it apart.

At one stage it seemed we had pushed the rule of money back, at least in areas like health and education. It was never really so, and for a long time we have seen the progressive re-imposition of the rule of money as the prime criterion for every decision. Now money has emerged in all its arrogance. That is what makes us so angry – the government has proclaimed openly “Money is king, bow low to the king!”

Rage, then, rage against the rule of money! As long as money rules, injustice and violence prevail – money is the breach between the starving and the food, the gap between the homeless and the houses. As long as money rules we are trapped in a dynamic that nobody controls and that is visibly destroying the possibility of human existence.

Money seems all powerful, yet it is not. It is merely a form of social cohesion, and depends on our compliance. Say no, then. Do something else, do things in a different way. Refuse and create.

John Holloway. 2011. Today’s march is a challenge to the rule of money.

on educational technology and divestment

I spoke yesterday about the relationships between higher education institutions, the policy makers who frame the space inside which the University is being financialised and marketised, the technology companies which are attempting to leverage value from the education sector, and the finance/venture capitalists that are underwriting educational technologies. There is a slideshow on my slideshare, and a podcast of the session here.

I have written elsewhere about the implications of this transnational network, or association, of capitals both for higher education practice and for students and academics. I have also written elsewhere about the power of such a dominant network of merchants in higher education. I have also written elsewhere about how these networks amplify the militarisation of higher education. However, there is one specific point that I made yesterday, which I wish to reiterate here, which is connected to divestment. The recent occupation by students at the London School of Economics included in its list of demands divestment, stating:

We demand that the school cuts its ties to exploitative and destructive organisations, such as those involved in wars, military occupations and the destruction of the planet. This includes but is not limited to immediate divestment from the fossil fuel industry and from all companies which make a profit from the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestine.

This idea of questioning which firms, companies, products, whatever, universities invest in recomposes any discussion of educational technology. There are some fundamental questions here about the networks of hegemonic power that universities are folded into, which link technology and data mining firms, venture and finance capitalists, academics, and the military. So we might ask, for example:

Who supplies our virtual learning environment?

Is there a parent company?

What are the relationships of the parent company to finance or venture capital?

What other companies does this parent company own? What activities are they involved in? Securitisation? Training the military? Biotechnology?

What networks of power is the company that supplies our virtual learning environment mapped onto?

What networks of power is the University mapped onto through its connections rooted in educational technology?

Through its deployment of educational technologies, how is the University complicit in activities that reinforce and reproduce hegemonic power? How does it reinforce and reproduce unsustainable narratives of growth? Given the energy and carbon embedded in high technologies, how does such deployment map onto concerns voiced by the keep it in the ground campaign?

This final question is rooted in our academic engagement with high technology firms that are seeking to use education in order to expand the orbit for value accumulation and extraction, in particular where fundamental questions are being raised about the impact on the global climate of unrestricted models of economic growth. All of a sudden we are forced to ask fundamental questions of political economy about the educational technologies that we deploy.

Clearly inside a policy space that is being opened-up for-profit through competition, divesting from such webs is problematic, and demands a larger conversation about the idea of the University as a public good. In the UK, former Universities Minister, David Willetts argued “conventional universities no longer hold all the cards on how the higher education market develops.” Around the same time, the Institute for Public Policy Research noted in its report, Securing the future of higher education that there was a need to open the market-up through: first, access to open data (which would increase accountability and consumerism); second, the rule of money in underpinning efficiency and improving the student experience; and third, by encouraging competition from new providers who would bring innovation, entrepreneurialism and cost-efficiency.

As Will Davies notes in the limits of neoliberalism such entrepreneurial activity is enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism. These associations of capitals, or venture capitals, which are able to leverage value transnationally are rooted in competition and an idea of entrepreneurial activity that is rooted in a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns; second in expanding the arena for competition.

Investment in educational technology is also a space which, as Audrey Watters notes in Men Still Explain, is dominated by men from the global North.

Culturally. Ideologically. There’s a problem with the Internet. Largely designed by men from the developed world, it is built for men of the developed world. Men of science. Men of industry. Military men. Venture capitalists. Despite all the hype and hope about revolution and access and opportunity that these new technologies will provide us, they do not negate hierarchy, history, privilege, power. They reflect those. They channel it. They concentrate it, in new ways and in old.

There are serious questions about whether academics and students are content with these hegemonic positions and whether we are able collectively to understand the role of educational technology inside our universities and colleges without developing a critique of its relationships to a transnational capitalist class. We might wish to use such a critique to question where academic labour is invested and from where is might be divested. Such a critique needs to be aligned with the realities of divestment from fossil fuels. This is a political issue that is in tension with the realities of the security state and the regimes of power that are maintained through transnational flows of capital, and which educational technology reveals. We should be seeking to discuss on campus whether we are content with our educational connections to educational technology products that are rooted in financialised and marketised responses to the secular crisis of capitalism. We should be seeking to discuss on campus how educational technology reinforces our implicit, academic links to venture capital, private equity, the military and security firms.

My presentation closed with two questions.

Inside the University, can educational technology be (ref)used politically to recompose the realities of global struggles, rather than for value?

What does divestment imply for the use of educational technology?

We should be seeking to discuss on campus what our activities and our relationships help to legitimate, and whether a diversity of alternative positions is possible beyond the market and those who maintain the power of the market over everyday, public life.

The University and the Secular Crisis

I am delighted to have a paper accepted by the Open Library of the Humanities on the University and the Secular Crisis. The paper builds on my inaugural, the slides for which are here. It also extends the arguments that I made on this site here and here and here and here, in an article about the abolition of academic labour.

The article will be out in September(-ish), but the abstract is appended below.


The economic crisis of 2008 was followed by a persistent recession, with low levels of growth, weak aggregate demand and high levels of underemployment or unemployment. For several recent authors this forced an engagement with the idea that the global economy is witnessing a secular stagnation or crisis. This article is situated against the changing landscape of English HE and seeks to understand the implications of the secular crisis on that sector and on the idea of the University. It examines how responses to the secular crisis have amplified the twin forces of marketization and financialisation that are reconstituting the higher education sector for the production, circulation and accumulation of value. It then places this analysis inside the political economic realities of there is no alternative to the logic of choice and competition. The argument is then made that as this cultural turn affects the idea of what the University is for, both historically and materially, academics and students need to consider the potential for developing post-capitalist alternatives. The central point is that by developing a critique of the restructuring of higher education and of the idea of the University through political economy, alternative forms of knowing and developing socially-useful practices can emerge.

Keywords: higher education; political economy; secular crisis; university

for a political economy of massive open online courses

I have an article coming out in a special issue of Learning, Media and Technology next year, on open education. It’s entitled “For a political economy of open education”.


In understanding the changes that are impacting the global higher education sector, developing a critique of the relationships between technology and technological innovation, new managerialism and financialisation, and the impact of the secular crisis of global capitalism, is critical. Moreover, it is important to critique these changes historically and geographically, in order to understand how political economics shapes the space in which higher education policy and practice is recalibrated for capital accumulation and profitability.

This article will argue that educational innovations like MOOCs might usefully be examined in light of the relationships between: technological and organisational innovation; the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall that is affecting competing educational providers; the disciplinary role of the State in shaping an educational space for further capital accumulation; and the subsumption of open networks to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability. Such an analysis then enables a critique of the claims that are made for open networks in delivering new forms of sociability that transcend structures of power and domination.

As a result of this political economic critique, the article will situate the emergence of MOOCs inside-and-against Capital’s drive to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control. It will argue that the ways in which MOOCs and the services that are derived from them are then valorised might offer a glimpse of how the neoliberal educational project is disciplining academic labour and how it might be resisted.


I have written about MOOCs and political economy here.

I have written about MOOCs and neoliberalism here.

I have written about MOOCs, networks and the rate of profit here.

I have written about MOOCs and the restructuring of the University here.

CAMRI presentation: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

I’m speaking at the University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) on 25 March 2015 about the relationship between capitalism, educational technology, and the proletarianisation of the University. How lovely.

The working title is: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

The working abstract is…

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the circulation of productive capital was “a process of transformation, a qualitative process of value”. As capitalists sought to overcome the barriers to this transformatory process, they worked to revolutionise both the means of production via organisational and technological change, and circulation time via transportation and communication changes. Reducing friction in the production and circulation of capital is critical to the extraction of surplus value, and Marx argued that in this transformation “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier [and]… the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.” Higher education is increasingly a space which is being recalibrated so as to increase the mobility or fluidity of intellectual production and circulation. Thus, technology, technical services and techniques are deployed to collapse the interfaces between space and time, and to subsume academic labour inside processes for valorisation.

However, this collapse also reveals the stresses and strains of antagonisms, as the friction of neoliberal higher education reform deforms existing cultures and histories. Through such a deformation, it also reminds us of alternative historical and material re-imaginings and alternatives like the Chilean CyberSyn project, the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living, the Hornsey Experiment, and so on. This paper argues that inside the University, the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education and academic labour to be co-opted for value-production. As a result, academics and students are defined as entrepreneurial subjects with limited power-to produce a world beyond value. A question is the extent to which pedagogical and transitional alternatives might be described, and whether in the process it is possible to uncover ways in which education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, as a form of resistance.

On my inaugural

So. Here we are.

It was my Professorial Inaugural yesterday. There is a slides/audio recording of it here (my jibber-jabber starts around 5 minutes in, but there is a rolling slideshow beforehand. If you watch this, do so whilst listening to Airbag by Radiohead). There is a recording of the audio on SoundCloud here.

Emma Dyer, Ian Pettit, Mark Hulett and David Kernohan made all this possible, and I am immensely grateful to them.

I am also immensely grateful to all those who travelled from far-and-wide to listen to me. This has been a difficult few years and to see so many people I love in the same space was wonderful, amazing, hopeful. I hope you all know how much you mean to me.

There is a collection of stuff related to the idea of 2+2=5.

ONE. I asked for people to contribute to a Spotify playlist, rooted in the words: education; faith; mass intellectuality; courage; solidarity; love; University; crisis. The final-cut playlist is at 225lols, but the collaborative Spotify playlist is still live at prof_lols.

My friend Richard Snape wrote a lovely piece about his music choices here.

TWO. My friend Andrew Clay created a teaser trailer at 225lols.

THREE. There are some tweets captured at the hashtag #225lols. I have Storified these here.

FOUR. The event was framed around the idea of collective work. I wanted to argue that we are persistently told that this abstract world, defined by capitalist social relations, is all we have. That in the face of environmental and social despoliation and degradation, all we can have is rooted in a marketised world. That all we can have or aspire to is rooted in a world of limited, value-driven commodities. That our common humanity is irrelevant in the face of the need to produce and accumulate value. This is a world that is defined through labour, but which negates the humanity of those who labour. This idea, that we have to believe that 2+2=5, irrespective of what our common sense tells us, is psychologically damaging. As we fall under the rule of money, we are told that all we can have is not a commons. I wanted to ask, in the face of this dissonance, how might we re-imagine the University? Can we reclaim our power-to-do in this world, against their power-over us?

After the fact, I was asked two key questions. The first was what can we/a lecturer do? My answer, simply, is to seek spaces for solidarity inside/outside the University. To look for cracks and spaces for solidarity and to associate around that solidarity. To push-back against the market, which is in fact about the accumulation and expansion of their power-over the world. Inside, I stated that people should join the union, because collective labour is a space of strength and safety. Inside, I asked people to work with students and colleagues as academic labourers or scholars, on producing rather than simply consuming the world. Work collectively and care about that work.

Courage in being for ourselves.

Faith in each other, and our concrete realities.

Justice in an unjust world.

This emerges from the idea of collective work. Collective work, rather than individuated, entrepreneurial, technologized work that leaves us vulnerable and at risk, is critical. If you want to read more about collective work, consider reading this on collective empowerment, or this on Hong Kong’s umbrella movement, or this on Autonomy in Brazil, or this on the Zapatista Little Schools or this on the Social Science Centre, or this on the Digilit Leicester Project, or this on DMU’s Policy Commission.

The second question was about the nature of the rupture in the fabric of space/time that I referred to as the secular crisis. I see the recalibration of capitalism after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, with the subsequent restructuring of the idea of all-meaningful-life-as-work and all-life-as-the-production-of-value, and the inevitable re-structuring of the University that followed, as a rupture. However, I see this as hopeful, because it forces us to see through the charade of there is no alternative. Because for a majority of people, it is a charade. A form of living death. At once, the rupture in the fabric of space/time enables us to see the inequities that emerge, and to question whether collectively we need to outsource our lives to the market, or whether there might be another way. A way for us to take ownership of the production of this world and our lives. A way for us to push back or refuse the dissonance of 2+2=5. A way to use the secular, systemic crisis of capitalism to look for an alternatives. To look for a transition through co-operation.

And that possibility is a truly beautiful thing.

Hope that we might make something different.



on chronic fatigue and being increasingly anxiety-hardened

You do it to yourself, you do/And that’s what really hurts

Is that you do it to yourself/Just you and no one else

You do it to yourself

Radiohead. 1995. Just.


That there/That’s not me

I go/Where I please

I’m not here/This isn’t happening

I’m not here/I’m not here

Radiohead. 2000. How to Disappear Completely.

Since my Mom passed in April 2013 the tinnitus has been dreadful. The tinnitus, and the sinuses scarified. From my ears across my cheeks, and running above my eyebrows. My sinuses feeling like someone had been scraping at them with a rusty spoon. And so fucking, cripplingly full of something. Pressure. Unnaturally full and irritated. So that the something, the pressure in my sinuses and the tinnitus and the soreness merged. Merging in my sinuses with a constant ringing in my ears. And a desperate, cloying, black fatigue in my soul.

A desperate fatigue in my soul that made living and surviving a trial. Because when you are used to being a bit manic, in always moving and never sitting and never being but always doing, fatigue is the very worst thing. The inability to do and to prove myself over-and-over again. The forced labour of sitting with myself, and imagining my bodily failure, the realisation of my uselessness, rather than the joy of being still. The end of days.

And I remembered that my breakdown of September 2000 was preceded and signalled by a virus, and triggered by the fury of living and working too fast, and accompanied by an acute attack of vertigo, with terrible chronic fatigue and sinusitis following in its wake. The days spent bedridden and railing at my mortality and the weakness of my flesh. The days when walking across the bedroom to the toilet was exhausting. And the panic that followed and swarmed from December 2000 to, well, now. The insidious panic that swarmed and found the cracks in my psyche, and found a home in the cracks inside, and refused to leave. And the panic that was always there inside; until the inside cracked under the pressure of a manic life; so that the panic leached out from the cracks and into the pores; so that no amount of running could sweat it out; and no amount of scrubbing could remove the stain.

And I forgot that I spent five years recovering. That I spent five years trying to reboot my health and my life. A kind of forced recovery to be what I had been, only minus the panic and the dark thoughts and the brooding. Five years of trying to recover my fitness; by walking and t’ai chi; never knowing whether this five mile walk would leave me bedridden for days or just okay. The apparently intermittent nature of the fatigue meaning that today’s walk up five flights of stairs might leave me feeling fine tomorrow; but tomorrow’s walk up five flights of stairs might leave me unable to work or think or do or be for days on end.

Bedridden. Russian Roulette every day. Every. Desperate. Day.

And always, I now realise, the tinnitus and the scarified sinuses were a signal in amongst the noise of the fatigue. But I treated them all as separate and compartmentalised. The body and the mind compartmentalised. So I saw an acupuncturist for my sinuses. And I saw a counsellor and a therapist for my panic. And I saw a GP for my vertigo. And I did t’ai chi and I read self-help books and I walked in order to find the solution. The one thing that would reboot me; the one thing that would heal me; the solution that would help me to start over again.

And it took until the Saturday of the Edgbaston test in the 2005 Ashes before I knew I would recover and be okay. A walk on Moel Siabod. Falling into a peat bog up to my middle; then going in up to my neck; then being pulled out by Wheelist Wheels and Jane and Jo; then refusing to turn around but climbing the mountain. Fuck you. And the next day being able to get up and watch England draw level with Australia; with no ill-effects. Just patched up enough to go on my way. Although maybe I thought this was less a puncture repair than a full service and ready-to-go. Warier for sure, but back. Back.

And I swore to myself that I would never drive myself to a breakdown again. That if I broke again, I simply couldn’t, wouldn’t be able to cope with the psychological damage again. That if I broke again then I would kill myself. Because the effort it had taken to rebuild myself; to live again; had been my everything. For five long years. And frankly it was too much.

The scars were so deep so that my truth was that another breakdown equalled game over. I couldn’t face those inner daemons running feral again. I was not. I am not. Strong enough.

And in Sick and Tired, Nick Read argues that chronic fatigue, accompanied by tinnitus, irritable bowel, sinusitis and whatever else

is another personal strategy to cope with the contradictions and complexities of contemporary life… to give up the struggle altogether… a state of sheer exhaustion, apathy and inertia, like somebody has pulled the plug and drained out the very essence of life.

He argues that patient histories reveal the extraordinarily-driven nature of sufferers’ everyday lives, focused upon exacting personal standards for performance and high levels of responsibility throughout a life. The result is an overextended, overcommitted lifestyle that is breathless and manic and focused on perfection. And in that period up to September 2000 I had been running an education and technology project in 11 universities, and living in Darlington, and trying to write and to publish, and setting-up and chairing the Walsall football supporters’ trust, a six-hour round trip away, and trying to maintain an active life beyond. Too much responsibility; with everything having to be 100 per cent and perfect; or I was a failure. And my body having asked politely for a while, through increasing levels of tiredness and that inner voice that says “slow down” and the occasional bouts of dizziness, eventually shut down. Apparently out-of-the-blue. Like being hit by a bus.

Only the warning signs were there all along. But I ignored them and my inner voice and kept running. Because what else was there to do? As Read argues

Such people often sleep poorly and seem quite literally to work themselves to a standstill, but instead of being able to negotiate some help or relief in some of their roles, they let their illness do the negotiation for them.

And in the aftermath I had blood tests for the fatigue. I sat for hours with a towel over my head breathing in a steam bath to try to clear my sinuses. And I wondered why I was breathless, and never considered that it was the weight of responsibility and despair settled in my chest. And I waited for the dust to settle and my soul to recover. Just enough.

And recently I have been thinking so much about that time of my life. As I tried to reboot. Because the aftermath of my Mom’s passing was accompanied by such awful vertigo, and such dismal tinnitus, and such pressure in my face, and the cloying fatigue that makes existing a trial and survival from day to day the only thing. So that hope was gone; run out of town by the return of chronic fatigue. And the frustration was that I had forgotten the lessons of the last time/the first breakdown.

I had forgotten that the responsibility of sorting power of attorney and end-of-life decisions for my Mom, and working our whether my Dad and sister were okay, and liaising with consultants, and communicating with a disparate family, and driving 50 miles twice a week to visit a critically ill relative, and writing project bids, and managing a team, and presenting at conferences, and preparing an application for a Chair, and being a National Teaching Fellow, and writing, and being in therapy, and living my life, and riding my bike, and being a husband, and everything else, would rub my soul until it bled. Rub my soul and the fabric of my being until they bled.

And in the bleeding the hope and meaning bled out too. As Read argues of “Jack”

He had worked all his life to compensate for the feeling that he was never good enough, but in doing so he created a false sense of self that had no real meaning. Confronted with that dreadful realisation, he suffered a physical, emotional and spiritual collapse.

The focus on spiritual is critical. My chronic fatigue was more than physical exhaustion. It was and is the exhaustion of my soul. My tinnitus is my soul ringing in my ears. My soul singing at the pain of it all. And my sinuses, inflamed, are a brutal reminder of my despair at and in the world. Forcing me in combination to ask, who am I? Do any of the things I have achieved or done or been really matter? And in the midst I lost hope. Laid bare, all that was left was the courage of an eight year-old boy to get up each day and to try to be. The courage of an eight year-old forcing the forty-three year-old to confront his lack of faith in himself. Courage and faith before hope. And maybe courage and faith before justice and hope. The hope that peace will follow.

And there have been a series of qualitative shifts. As I read Sick and Tired and realised that until my emotional and spiritual health was rebalanced I would not and could not be well. The recognition that I needed a better solution than this pill or that nasal irrigation or this nasal spray. That maybe it wasn’t about what I put into me but what I removed. And about how the forty-three year-old could ask for what he needed so that the eight year-old could be released.

So I realised that my NHS Doctor is amazing but that medication and rest were not a viable, long-term prescription. That chronic fatigue and sinusitis needed a more holistic treatment. And that I needed to stop outsourcing my health and welfare to various doctors or therapists, and to stop fetishizing the NHS or doctors or therapists in the process. That I have been ill for 14 years, or maybe for 43, and I am at one end of the bell curve, and need to own that for myself.

So here was the prescription and the thinking and the plan of action.

I need the anti-depressants (I think) and I trust my NHS Doctor, and the Flixonase seems to work, so let’s keep that for a while.

I was recommended to see another NHS Doctor who didn’t think that my sinus problems were food related. This didn’t seem to be right. My gut was telling me that this was not right. But I decided that I needed to push for an ear, nose and throat referral, so that I could get a scan of my sinuses, so that I could eliminate any physical/anatomical issues. So I pushed.

I was recommended to see a private GP about potential food intolerance. And she took a history and listened and recommended some IgG tests. And she told me about the lack of peer-reviewed double-blind research. And she told me to go away and read about it. And she told me to talk to peers. And she treated me like an intelligent man. And she told me that none of this would work if I wasn’t working on my core relationships, including with myself. And she told me that we needed to stop putting things in and consider taking things out. And the interesting thing is that my gut was telling me to stop eating wheat and dairy, and the tests told me the same, plus soya. And my gut was telling me that after 25 years as a vegetarian, I needed meat. Organic, high-quality meat. And it interests me that all along my gut told me these things, and that Joss Winn gave me the courage to back my gut, when he told me to see the GP and to get the tests done “because you’ve been ill for 14 fucking years Richard, and this way you’ll have some more information to make decisions about your life.”

And I found a new faith in my friends.

And I found a new faith in my therapist. A qualitatively new faith in my therapist.

And I found the beginnings of a new faith in myself. That I could ask for help and be assertive in asking for what I need.

And within two weeks of my wheat-free, dairy-free, soya-free, egg-free, beer-free, organic meat-and-fish loaded, fresh fruit and vegetables, oat-cake/rice-cake and hummus diet, my sinuses are 70 per cent better. And I’m riding again. And the tinnitus is so much better.

And what I am left with is the pain in my sinuses when I overdo it. And this happened this week. When I rode for the third time and then ignored the eight year-old who said “we’re tired. No more for now. Stretch and a bath.” So I did some weights and had a bath, and then walked too far the next day. And then was hit with fatigue and someone/me scraping at my sinuses and the ringing in my ears. Hit full-on by the same bus. So that I struggled to get out of bed. I ignored the voice and was made to pay. Bedridden, just for a day.

And my therapist told me that I sounded manic. To calm down. And she was right. I could feel my circuitry being overloaded, so that the wrong music on the radio threatened panic. So that the drilling outside threatened overload in my cortex. So that my own internal relations were stretched and skewed. So that I almost lost faith in myself as the daemons ran feral in my mind. Because I had never sat with my fatigue. I had never respected the inner voice of the eight year-old; to care for him; to self-care. I had always run and run and run and broken. The drive to proceed and exceed tripping an urge to be always-on.

And now, 24 hours later, the panic and the overload has subsided because I have found the courage to reassert faith in myself. To get some justice for the eight year-old by honouring his voice in the future, and to give myself some hope that even in the darkest moments there might be some peace. I had thought about what I do to myself, and how that hurts. How that is a form of self-harm. So that if I trust my gut and the inner voice I might avoid foreclosing on the future.

<breathe>Courage, faith, justice, hope, peace <breathe>.

And I realised that I am increasingly anxiety-hardened. This is my wisdom. In the midst of the renewed panic of “fuck, fuck, fuck, what if I break again?” I realised that I would survive, and that it would not be the end of my days.

This I see afresh how this recent fatigue is a form of self-harm. A witnessing of my own self-harm. The realisation of my own inability to self-care, at times. And it has shown me that I need to listen and respect my self. That I need to stop repeating my past in my present. That my fatigue and sinusitis and the fucking ringing in my ears are reminders of past trauma that I don’t have to reproduce time-and-again.

And I begin to wonder, as I am anxiety-hardened, what it means to be anxious inside a system that reproduces and actively encourages anxiety. What does it mean to be already anxious inside the anxiety-machine? What does it mean to suffer with chronic fatigue inside a system that encourages and demands and accumulates overwork and always-on and “fitter, happier and more productive”?

I feel that this is increasingly about values and humanity and our innate human usefulness and solidarity, in open and politicised opposition to the universe of value production and accumulation. And the recognition that this is itself about/a manifestation of power and powerlessness. Fatigue and sinusitis and tinnitus as a concrete manifestation of despair and powerlessness and abstraction. As Maggie Turp argues in Hidden Self-Harm, the issue pivots around enabling voice, and voices in association, to be found and heard and respected. Respected in faith and with courage. And this is a spiritual reckoning, and one that is less about outsourcing the power-to create our lives so that living becomes survival, and more about taking ownership for the decisions and realities of our own self-care.

And yet this self-care has to happen inside a system that reproduces our powerlessness over our own use or worth or value or time or activities. A system that reflects and echoes past traumas, which are rooted in our previous powerlessness. And these acts of powerlessness are repeated ad nauseam until our souls bleed. Our anxieties around our performance and our labour and our value are a symptom of our distress at being and doing inside this systemic anxiety machine.

Here I return to the emotional dissonance in our souls, between our wish for a concrete, useful life, and the abstraction of everyday work.

The constancy of the destruction of our concrete world in the face of our enforced and enclosed abstracted lives for work, make those lives “increasingly muted”. How is it possible to become for ourselves, as opposed to being for the abstract destruction of our concrete selves in the countless self-harming activities we witness and reproduce and ignore every single day? How is it possible to end these culturally-acceptable self-harming acts, every, single day?

And Donald Winnicott writes in the Concept of the Healthy Individual that

Health here includes the idea of tingling life and the magic of intimacy. All these things go together and add up to a sense of feeling real and being, and of the experiences feeding back into the personal psychical reality, enriching it and giving it scope.

This is not my manic overload, or my medicated sinuses, or my outsourced intervention, so that I can be productive in an abstract sense. It is my concrete, humane power-to listen to my gut instinct and to stop poisoning my body with processed and refined foods. To listen to my eight year-old as my governor, and to respect and have faith in what he needs. To attempt self-care as an anxious person inside the anxiety machine, by practising being true, necessary and kind to myself. To take a more wise, anxiety-hardened path that accepts my good enough nature and my usefulness and my worth, and refuses the clamour to abstract and foreclose on my future. That seeks to produce another kind of life. Productive of values rather than value. Productive of courage and faith and justice and peace, rather than the ringing of my soul in my ears.

To stop scarifying my sinuses. As an act of self-care. A pedagogical act rooted in self-care.

To stop. As an act of self-care. A pedagogical act rooted in self-care.

To be. As an act of self-care. A pedagogical act rooted in self-care.

You can try the best you can. The best you can is good enough.

Radiohead. 2000. Optimistic.

On the context and use-value of academic labour

Michael Roberts has argued that the UK’s economy, and in particular the productive sectors of the economy, are struggling to recover from the global financial shock of 2008. Roberts argues that

What the comparative data show is that real GDP in the UK underwent the joint-second largest contraction of the G7 economies during the 2008-09 economic downturn.  Following the global financial shock, GDP in the UK fell by 7.2% between Q1 2008 and Q2 2009; this was the joint-second largest peak-to-trough fall among G7 economies.  This is bigger than the fall in GDP in the G7 economies on average and bigger than in the European Union.

I think this confirms my forecast back in 2005 that if world capitalism went into a slump that the UK would suffer more than most because it was, more than any other, a rentier economy, i.e. its prosperity depended on its importance as a global financial centre where it could extract rent, interest and dividends out of the surplus value created by other economies.  In the global financial crash, such economies were likely to take a bigger hit that those with a more productive base.

In the recovery period, the UK’s growth in the period following the recession has been slower than in other major economies.  Average growth in the UK has also been slightly lower than that of the OECD total. 

If we combine the change in employment with the change in real wages, it reveals just where the pain for working people has been felt.

On this measure, British workers have suffered the most in the last five years, with a cumulative fall of 7.3% points, mainly from a decline in wages, but also from a fall in employment.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculates that a mid-range household’s income between 2013 and 2014 was 6% below its pre-crisis peak. This was felt equally across high and low income groups when the cost of living was taken into account… The IFS said that inflation between 2008 and 2013 was 20%, while energy prices rose by 60% and food prices were up by 30% over the same period. “Looking forward, there is little reason to expect a strong recovery in living standards over the next few years….Given this, it seems highly unlikely that living standards will recover their pre-crisis levels by 2015 to 2016.”

The capitalist mode of production is for profit.  Getting profitability back up in a major slump requires cutting costs (laying off labour, reducing wages and stopping new investment).  American capitalists have resorted to straight reductions in the labour force rather than the backdoor trick of reducing real wages, as in the UK.  Either way, working people pay for correcting the failure of capitalist production. The ‘British solution’, however, will also delay the recovery and the push its capitalist sector into a lower medium-term growth rate.  That’s because the growth in productivity (output per employee) will stop if the labour force is not sacked and there is no new investment in technology to raise output per person.

The ramifications of this attrition on productivity and real wages, with a concomitant focus on organisational development and technology-fuelled restructuring, are being felt through UK higher education, with a series of strikes that reflect a range of labour rights issues inside universities, including: high-rates of pay for vice-chancellors, who are behaving more like CEOs of global businesses; outsourcing of services and labour functions; the precarious employment of non-tenured staff; the docking of pay based on partial working to contract, for two hour strikes; the denial of labour rights (sick- and maternity pay, paid holidays) to increasing numbers of staff employed on zero-hour and sub-living wage contracts; and so on. The arguments around these issues are also reflected in an increasing narrative of the customer, or the student-as-customer, inside the University. Moreover, the critical terrain on which this is being played out is the cost-base for the institution and its financial sustainability. Thus, the markers for this are: the fee-cap on students, through which the value of a degree is presently monetised at £9,000 per annum (although with interest the future costs of indenture leverage the long-term reproduction of credit and wage labour/exploitation); the global drive to control the price at which the labour-power of academics can be purchased through precarious contracts, adjunct labour and attrition on staffing levels and costs; purchasing high value labour from key academics/professors who can contribute to an institution’s global brand through research and development; the drive upwards of management costs, in order to reflect perceptions that high-performers must be retained; and so on.

What is missing in this debate about the fee-cap, or student-as-consumer/customer, and the pay of vice-chancellors and institutional managers is a meaningful discussion about the value of academic labour. What is its use-value for society, as opposed to its exchange-value or its price as a commodity (as academic labour-power). It is labour-power that generates value, surplus value and hence capital. In the Grundrisse (p. 167), Marx argued that labour power is: “the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description.” Labour differs depending upon whether it produces use-value (or forms of material wealth) or exchange-value (which is the source of profit and profitability). The labour that produces use-values is concrete, qualitative labour, whereas exchange-value emerges from quantitatively measurable abstract labour. Through exchange, the products of labour are abstracted or alienated, rather than being objectified as use-value. Under the organisation of capitalist production and the coercive laws of competition that work in tandem with the need to turn a profit, exchange and the market dominates over society. The need to abstract labour and to drive exchange for value-extraction underpin organisational development and technological innovation (capital intensity), and the need to drive down labour costs (as means of production), and this catalyses the real subsumption of labour. Increasingly academics are seeing their own labour abstracted for exchange and subsumed under the laws of competition.

As Wendling notes (p. 52), “the social tyranny of exchange-value is so comprehensive that it determines how things are made and even what is made… Capitalism does not care if it produces quantities for use; it cares about producing profit.” It is against this tyranny that the value of academic labour, in the costs of its labour-power, the research/teaching products that it creates, and the relationships that it enables and maintains, need to be discussed and re-evaluated. What is currently being enacted through global labour arbitrage, outsourcing and precarious employment, is the alienation of academic labour through the enclosure and commodification of its products and relationships. This focus on production for exchange is then furthered through the cultural imperatives of student-as-consumer, league tables, impact-measures, knowledge exchange and so on.

What might be needed, in order to push back is a re-focusing on the liberation of academic labour-power, knowledge, skills and practices for use-value that can be used inside and across society. This is the liberation of real wealth outside of Capital’s system of value, and the reclamation of use-value beyond its instrumental use in the market and for consumption. As Marx notes (Capital Volume 1, pp. 300-01)

The value of labour-power and the value which that labour-power valorises… in the labour-process are two entirely different magnitudes; and this difference was what the capitalist had in-mind when he was purchasing labour-power… What was really decisive for him was the specific use-value which this commodity possesses of being a source not only of value, but of more value than it has itself. This is the specific service the capitalist expects from labour-power, and in this transaction he acts in accordance with the eternal laws of commodity-exchange. In fact, the seller of labour-power, like the seller of any other commodity, realises… its exchange-value, and alienates… its use-value.

This set of contradictions and tensions, between use and exchange inside the production and movement of value, and the role of labour as commodity needs to be addressed in the context of the University. What is the work that academics do actually worth? How does it add value and for whom, and how might its social potential be liberated for the use-value of the working class? This means that academics need to address the mechanisms through which the University is mechanised and outsourced, in order that only those with leverage skills are valued. As Marx notes:

along with the tool, the skill of the worker in handling it passes over to the machine. The capabilities of the tool are emancipated from the restraints inseparable from human labour-power. This destroys the technical foundation on which the division of labour in manufacture was based. Hence, in place of the hierarchy of specialized workers that characterizes manufacture, there appears, in the automatic factory, a tendency to equalize and reduce to an identical level every kind of work that has to be done by the minders of the machines; in place of the artificially produced distinctions between specialized workers, it is natural differences of age and sex that predominate… In so far as the division of labour reappears in the factory, it takes the form primarily of a distribution of workers among the specialized machines. (Capital Volume 1, p. 545)

The motion of the whole factory proceeds not from the worker but from the machinery [and therefore] the working personnel can continually be replaced without any interruption to the labour process. (Capital Volume 1, p. 546)

As the University is fully restructured in response to competition and marketization, we witness increasingly exploitative and mechanical conditions of labour. This process delivers performativity and entrepreneurial activity that are themselves internalisations of the need to innovate and exchange, and these processes enable the capitalist, in the form of credit rating agency or vice-chancellor or bond-holder or whatever, to purchase academic labour-power for profit. Increasingly, University management acting as agents for Capital confront academic labour, and: catalyse the internalisation and reproduction of forms of performance management; drive down labour costs through transnational competition; or drive capital intensity and productivity. Pace Marx (Capital Volume 1, p. 723), in spite of these tensions the academic labourer belongs to Capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist.

An added tension or factor in this process is the increasing internationalisation of UK universities. This is important given the structural weakness of the UK economy. The monetisation of UK debt through Government purchases of its own bonds, replicated by the US, Japan and the European Central Bank, can only lead to default. This is particularly the case given the collapse of the post-war Keynesian consensus in the 1970s, the removal of the metallic base to global currencies (in 1971 Nixon stated that the United States would no longer redeem currency for gold), and the deregulation of the spaces in which transnational capital operates. The logic of a global system based on the deregulated transnational finance capital is the endless reproduction of credit to compensate for the lack of demand caused by falling wages in the global North, and huge numbers of new workers drawn from subsistence and part-subsistence into dependency on capitalist wage labour in the global South. This process is witnessed in university engagements in the bond markets and the leveraged growth of student debt, alongside the restructuring of the University as the educational pivot for an association of capitals.

Critically then for universities and for academics contesting the value of their labour is the threat of the structural problems in the UK economy outlined by Roberts, and the wider geopolitical problems facing the failing US petro-dollar. As my friend and colleague George Lambie notes:

The short-term growth in shale oil, and the conquests of Iraq and Libya, plus the seizure of their gold, gave a temporary reprieve for a global economy influenced by the USA. However, the role of Iran alongside the new configuration of power forming around Russian State oil giants, Gazprom and Rozneft, China’s vast gold holdings, and the realisation that significant parts of the global economy wish to trade outside the orbit of the dollar, places stress on the international system inside which universities are being recalibrated.

It is against a pressurised or collapsing dollar system that the value of academic labour and the liberation of its products as socialised use-values needs to be discussed.