Do Universities Care Enough About Students?

I am speaking on a panel at the London Festival of Education on Saturday 17 November, 2012. The panel is covering the question Do Universities Care Enough About Students? I take care to mean a positive perception of assistance that enables the person who is cared about to cope with emotional issues and to perform mental or cognitive activities.

My argument will cover the four points that follow and which have all been made elsewhere on this blog over time.

FIRST. On spaces for caring about students.

The British Child Psychologist Donald Winnicott argued that care was predicated on the value to the individual of an enabling environment where s/he can be held whilst making sense of the world. This act of holding is based on trust and engagement within a secure space that is engaging and not so fragmented as to overwhelm the individual. Both the environment and the relationships have to be good-enough to enable the individual to make sense of themselves and what they feel and want to achieve.

There are connections here to Vygotsky’s social constructivism, and it is important to note Vygotsky’s Marxism. This was captured by Mike Neary as “A key issue for Student as Producer” where it highlights that “social learning is more than the individual learning in a social context, and includes the way in which the social context itself is transformed through progressive pedagogic practice.” Vygotsky argued for a understanding of a progressive environment that might be described as caring in that it enables the individual to make sense of her/his world and act in it.

The environment is the source of development of these specifically human traits and attributes, most importantly because these historically evolved traits of human personality, which are latent in every human being due to the organic makeup of heredity, exist in the environment, but the only way they can be found in each individual human being is on the strength of his being a member of a certain social group, and that he represents a certain historical unit living at a certain historical period and in certain historical circumstances. Consequently, these specifically human characteristics and attributes manifest themselves in slightly different ways in child development than do other traits and attributes which are more or less directly conditioned by the course of prior historical human development. These ideal forms which have been refined and perfected by humanity and which should appear at the end of the development process, prevail in the environment. These ideal forms influence children from their very early beginnings as part of the process of mastering of the rudimentary form. And during the course of their development children acquire, as their personal property, that which originally represented only a form of their external interaction with the environment.

The interplay between cultures and norms, practices, environments or contexts, scarce or abundant resources, relationships and technologies, unfolds as issues of power, identity, coercion and consent inside the University, as the student attempts to emerge more fully into the world. It is in this emergence that the idea of care is negotiated and situated.

SECOND. On the relationship between the University and students, and the idea of the student-as-entrepreneur.

Higher education is part of a regime of capitalist power that directs the consumption and production of our lives, both as we labour and as we relax. As Ellen Meiksins-Wood argued in 1997: “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”. Debt and forms of indentured education that can be driven by information and data flows, and accelerated through the transfer of risk to the individual, are central to this logic. Even where it is shown that educational subsidies like EMA are efficient in recouping their costs they are scrapped because they are beyond the logic of debt. For, as Michael Gove argues debt is now a way of life, and a way of marketising humanity: “Anyone put off… university by fear of… debt doesn’t deserve to be at university in the first place”.

This is amplified in David Willetts’ speech to the spring 2011 conference of Universities UK, in which he made plain a view of: privatisation; cost reduction; consumption as pedagogy; closing-off teaching in “undesirable” subjects; and anti-humanism.

Let me start this morning with our broader vision for HE – it is a simpler, more flexible system which gives students better value and greater choice. That means a more diverse range of providers should be able to play a role. It means funding for teaching should follow the choices that students make. And it means empowering students to make their own choices based on better, more transparent information.

It is from within this space that debt becomes a pedagogic tool, focused upon the consumption of knowledge and lifestyles, of uncriticality, of employability and skills, of business and not economics, of STEM and not humanities. It is about recalibrating the University as a site where, rather than coming to understand the objective conditions that exist inside capitalism, students pay to develop the individuated skills of the entrepreneur. The risk in the separation and individuation of students-as-entrepreneurs is that the responsibility for failure is handed to the individual rather than being collectively/socially negotiated and owned. Thus, future roles/status or the very idea of a meaningful future is indentured and disciplined through the prevalence and amount of debt. Debt becomes a pedagogic tool, and recalibrates the structures, meanings and relationships of the University, as against the humanistic lesson that the university traditionally proclaimed. This is hardly resilient.

We are being taught a lesson that as the state transfers the social value of a university life to the individual via debt, higher education is no longer immune from the logic of the market, and is no longer able simple to call upon the mantra of the public good. Thus we enter a world where graduates face paying back double their student loans as debt charges rack up, and where Universities are disciplined by funding shortages into providing what their students as customers, disciplined by debt in a specific market, demand of them. There is no space for common deliberation about the purpose of an education in a world that faces massive socio-environmental disruption. There is only space for discussion of employment and debt repayment, pivoting around the entrepreneurial self. The logic of capitalist accumulation through debt, and the treadmill necessity of finding spaces for the re-capitalisation/investment of surplus value shackles higher education to the hegemony of consumption for capitalist growth.

THIRD. The legitimacy of caring about students.

As Paul Mason noted in 2011, about why it is kicking off everywhere, “At the heart of it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future”. In Athens, Oakland, Santiago, Quebec, University College London, Dhaka, Taveta and Wundanyi in Kenya, UC Berkeley, and in countless other places and spaces, students have led the protests against the legitimacy of austerity, and the limitations of a commodified educational experience. They have recalibrated their environments to cope with emotional issues and to perform cognitive tasks.

In this process of protest, students have used a range of deliberative techniques to uncover what is legitimate, and to reveal what they are collectively willing to bear in the name of freedom. To care about themselves and each other appears important. What they are willing to bear has to be negotiated communally, through a process that re-legitimises the politics of both the form and the content of the University. This demands trust and consent rather than coercion, a discussion that is more vital to the idea of the University in a world that faces not just economic austerity but socio-environmental crisis. For it may be that we risk enduring a semi-permanent state of exception if we do not find the courage to deliberate the reality of our world. EP Thompson recognised this courage emanating from a radicalised student collective, and saw in it a glimpse of redemption beyond economic growth:

We have been luckier than any of us had the right to deserve in the quality of our students. They took the initiative. They asked the right questions. They began to understand the answers. They stood firm against rhetoric, against threats, against the special pleading of those with large interests to lose. They have – by now in scores – put their academic careers at risk. It is they who have reasserted the idea of a university. They may well need help.

In response to the spread of the state of exception into the space of the University, student occupations have reminded us of the courage that we share in debating what is legitimate, who is marginalised, and why power is wielded. Students have asked who is to be cared about? They have also reminded us that the University is reproduced inside a broader, global set of relationships and political contexts, and this set both enables/disables the use of labels and interpretations about people and practices. This labelling comes in the wake of power, and affects who is scrutinised and which technologies are used to coerce and prevent, and for whom do we impose exceptional circumstances. Through critique we might work to push back against the University’s role in this reproduction of states of exception, and to re-politicise the forms of our University life, against meaningless, enclosed and universal narratives of justice and democracy. To take care of ourselves in society.

FOURTH. A care full University life.

The University develops meaning as it enables working and living in public. The work of the University must be public, knowable and fair, and it must be care full or full of care. How we demonstrate our care is a crucial question. As we answer it, we might consider how we enable our students’ dreams to outlive our fears, and how we collectively develop the courage to keep trying. We might usefully consider the realpolitik of University life. Inside capital and in the face of the rule of law and the market, what is the role of the University? How does the University help us to understand what we are willing to bear in the name of freedom?

We might try, therefore, to understand how the University can help us to be against force and enclosure, in order to become a space for deliberating rather than judging, and for developing an avowedly political response to the collective punishment meted out as austerity and marketisation. In taking this view, we demonstrate that the University cares very publically about a world that is socially-defined for collective ends rather than privatised of value extraction. This is important in overcoming what Christopher Newfield calls “subsidy capitalism”, which “means that the public, directly or indirectly, does not participate in the investment, research, and development decisions that remake society year in and year out. It hands over resources and all decision rights at the same time.” Newfield goes on:

There is a profound cultural limitation at work here: American leaders see the agencies responsible for social benefits as categorically less insightful than the financially self-interested private sector, even though the latter are focused entirely on their own advantage. As it is now, the future emerges in erratic bursts from the secret development operations at companies like Google (e.g. this radio report on the sudden appearance over Silicon Valley of The Cloud). We are having an increasingly difficult time imagining a collective future that emerges from common activity.

In defining a collective future that is against the poverty of the thinking behind the student-as-entrepreneur, we might develop an idea of the kinds of enabling environments where s/he can be held whilst making sense of a world that faces significant socio-environmental and political disruption. As a result we might focus on three different sets of questions that attempt to enable the person who is cared about inside the University to cope with emotional issues and to perform mental or cognitive activities.

  1. What sorts of relationships between people are we encouraging? What are our negotiated roles/responsibilities in the curriculum and beyond?
  2. What sorts of knowledge/understanding do our students need to be effective agents in a society that faces stresses of climate change, peak oil and liquid energy availability, and austerity?
  3. Can the University work equally well for a mixed demographic, with some networked and mobile learners, operating in information-rich environments and preparing for highly-polarised workplaces? If not how do we respond? Is a resilient education part of this mix?

On carbon democracy and the future of higher education

PART ONE: on oil and capitalism

In a paper on Carbon Democracy, Tim Mitchell, historian at Columbia University argues that the production and maintenance of democracy, and the bodies that encompass civil and political society in the global North, have been underwritten on the assumption that unlimited and relatively cheap oil will produce endless economic growth. He concludes that this model, and therefore the institutions that support actually existing liberal democracy in the global North cannot survive the exhaustion of these fuels and associated climate change. In this, his work connects to that of Friedrichs, who suggests that in terms of state-wide responses to peak oil there would be different reactions in different parts of the world, ranging from predatory militarism to authoritarian retrenchment and the mobilization of local resilience. It also extends recent International Monetary Fund work that connects the geological and technological limits on oil production:

our prediction of small further increases in world oil production comes at the expense of a near doubling, permanently, of real oil prices over the coming decade. This is uncharted territory for the world economy, which has never experienced such prices for more than a few months… we suspect that there must be a pain barrier, a level of oil prices above which the effects on GDP becomes nonlinear, convex. We also suspect that the assumption that technology is independent of the availability of fossil fuels may be inappropriate, so that a lack of availability of oil may have aspects of a negative technology shock. In that case the macroeconomic effects of binding resource constraints could be much larger, more persistent, and they would extend well beyond the oil sector.

Mitchell extends the space in which technological, geological and political economic limits or boundaries to the production, distribution and consumption of cheap oil affect the political functioning of capitalism. Thus, he

traces ways in which the concentration and control of energy flows could open up democratic possibilities or close them down; how in the postwar period connections were engineered between the flow of oil and the flows of international finance, on which democratic stability was thought to depend; how these same circulations made possible the emergence of the economy and its unlimited growth as the main object of democratic politics; and how the relations among forms of energy, finance, economic knowledge, democracy, and violence were transformed in the 1967-74 oil-dollar-Middle East crises.

The idea that our histories of access to and control over fossil fuels are deeply connected to the ways in which the institutions of political and civil society developed is important, not only in helping us to see the limits of our democratic institutions, but also in helping us to visualise the ways in which network infrastructures or networks of governance are used to amplify structural, hegemonic power. For Mitchell the key to developing the idea of ‘the economy’ and of creating finance structures that could be de-coupled from gold in order to maintain the value of the dollar and the power of the United States of America was control over energy.

The carbon itself must be transformed, beginning with the work done by those who bring it out of the ground. The transformations involve establishing connections and building alliances—connections and alliances that do not respect any divide between material and ideal, economic and political, natural and social, human and nonhuman, or violence and representation. The connections make it possible to translate one form of power into another. Understanding the relations between fossil fuels and democracy requires tracing how these connections are built, the vulnerabilities and opportunities they create, and the narrow points of passage where control is particularly effective.

It is therefore important to understand both how specific, historical, energy-economies arise, and the limits that the connections, dependencies and networks of governance that are imposed in order to control those energy-economies by dominant classes. These classes impose control through arrangements of people, finance, expertise, and violence that are assembled in relationship to the distribution and control of energy. The actually existing institutions, values and cultures of civil society flow from that space.

However, it was the move away from coal and towards oil-based economies that enhanced the reality of network governance structures in supporting the power of established groups, because

whereas the movement of coal tended to follow dendritic networks, with branches at each end but a single main channel, creating potential choke points at several junctures, oil flowed along networks that often had the properties of a grid, like an electrical grid, where there is more than one possible path and the flow of energy can switch to avoid blockages or overcome breakdowns.

On one level, oil made power more resilient because of changes in the way forms of fossil fuel energy were extracted, transported, and used. Grid-like energy networks are less vulnerable to the political claims, strikes or the withdrawals of labour of those whose work kept them running. However, this dynamic fluidity in the production and distribution of oil was problematic for corporations with global ambitions but with localised control. If oil could move along pipelines or by sea relatively easily, then ‘petroleum companies were always vulnerable to the arrival of cheaper oil from elsewhere.’ For Mitchell this vulnerability, and the mechanisms imposed by cartels or states for the production of scarcity, like post-war subsidies to Saudi Arabia from the USA, and building domestic markets in the USA based on cheapoil, set further limits to the democratising potential of petroleum.

For Mitchell, it is the perceived democratising potential of petroleum that is key. Access to cheap oil underpinned the dollar and the US economy following the 1967-74 economic crisis, and subsequent narratives of economic control took no account of carbon emissions or renewal and retrieval rates for oil fields or of peak oil. Thus, consumers in the global North were promised a deterministic, progressive future. Oil enabled the global economy to be de-coupled from material production, and to become transactional and inflationary.

Democratic politics developed, thanks to oil, with a peculiar orientation towards the future: the future was a limitless horizon of growth. This horizon was not some natural reflection of a time of plenty. It was the result of a particular way of organizing expert knowledge and its objects, in terms of a novel world called “the economy.” Innovations in methods of calculation, the use of money, the measurement of transactions, and the compiling of national statistics made it possible to image the central object of politics as an object that could expand without any form of ultimate material constraint. In the 1967-74 crisis, the relations among these disparate elements were all transformed. Those relations are being transformed again in the present.

In 1975, Robert Tucker, a Sovietologist at Princeton University who had argued for US isolationism, was quoted in a Congressional report on Oil Fields as Military Objectives: A Feasibility Study as questioning how US cultural power in the world could be maintained without wider military engagements that supported its political hegemony.

Even the few among us who have argued for a radical contraction of America’s interests and commitments have done so on the assumption that the consequences of an American withdrawal would not be a world in which America’s political and economic frontiers were coterminous with her territorial frontiers, and in which societies that share our cultures, institutions, and values might very possibly disappear.

Here then the realities of geopolitical power were amplified through the control of oil and further impacted cultural power and economic security. This is also a key point of Mitchell’s analysis: the collision of peak oil, high energy prices that are affecting economic growth in the global North, and the deleveraging of the transactional economy are all underpinning a new politics of austerity that reframes democracy and democratic institutions, as well as the institutions of civil society, like schools and universities.

If the emergence of the mass politics of the early twentieth century, out of which certain sites and episodes of welfare democracy were achieved, should be understood in relation to coal, the limits of contemporary democratic politics can be traced in relation to oil. The possibility of more democratic futures, in turn, depends on the political tools with which we address the passing of the era of fossil fuel.

PART TWO: on dynamic energy-economies, educational networks, and universities

This argument about the implications of oil shocks on democratic institutions is important for educators because it acts as a rejoinder to accepted narratives of: there is no alternative to economic growth; or that the University must be a seat of entrepreneurialism and employability; or that higher education is simply a motor for economic growth. It forces us to question whether, inside a world of reducing access to cheap, liquid fuels, what kinds of educational futures that are defined by neoliberal capitalism are viable? However, it is also important for educators because it offers a model of analysis for the relationships between: capital as a social relationship; sites of energy production and distribution; governance networks; and structural constraints on the flows of capital and power. This model might work as well for education as it does for energy.

Thus, rather than talk about corporations controlling the flows of oil through technologies for its production, distribution and consumption, educators might reflect upon the mechanisms through which flows of intellectual capital are being privatised, and the ways in which knowledge is being commodified through governance networks like MOOCs. I noted previously in a post on networks, the rate of profit and institutionalising MOOCs that

In this argument the network is placed asymmetrically against the realities of hegemonic power that is catalysed and reproduced in the political and economic centralisation that is so characteristic of crisis-prone capitalist modernity. The reactions of central governments and finance capital to the post-2008 crisis bear witness to this process. For Davies then, the research evidence in the public policy, sociology and public administration spheres point to the fact that

‘coercion is the immanent condition of consent inherent in capitalist modernity. As long as hegemony is partial and precarious, hierarchy can never retreat to the shadows. This dialectic plays out in the day-to-day politics of governance networks through the clash between connectionist ideology and roll-forward hierarchy or “governmentalisation”.’

Technologies are central in this clash, for whilst it is possible for some people to connect globally and ubiquitously, those same technologies form the medium of hierarchical power. The challenge then becomes to analyse how those technologies interact with the everyday reality of interpersonal connections, and to uncover the power relations that they embody. Critically this is a historical project, because network governance theory misreads past and present, ignores that networks are prone to resolving into hierarchies and incremental closure, that they reproduce and crystallise inequalities, and that distrust is common. In this way, the emergence of technologically-mediated network governance enables capital to develop and enculturate ideal neoliberal subjects.

Thus inside and against the university, and inside and beyond the network, there is a move away from higher education being state/publically-funded, state/publically-governed and state/publically-regulated, so that the knowledges, services and structures of universities in the global North are set-up in competition and are being privatised. Alongside this approach, techniques of control and surveillance like student satisfaction scores and research excellence frameworks begin the process of disciplining academic labour and controlling the scarcity or abundance of academic knowledge.

However, as with access to the distribution of energy and fossil fuels, points of vulnerability for existing, ruling groups also exist. Inside the increasingly privatised higher education space, where those existing groups are crystallised inside established universities, those vulnerabilities based on price, value and the rate of profit are realised: in private providers like BPP who are able to offer lower-cost, marketised experiences; inside publishing corporations like Pearson who control access to a range of content and draw-down on a range of analytics and market capitalisation to drive their market share; and inside educational innovations like MOOCs which appear to act like dynamic systems able to channel knowledge against slower-moving, institutionalised spaces.

This latter point seems important in light of Mitchell’s argument about why oil enabled capital to discipline labour and extend the consumer economy, through its fluidity and dynamism, as opposed to the less resilient (from capital’s perspective) coal-based economy. Pace Mitchell one might argue that

whereas the movement of [intellectual capital inside universities] tended to follow dendritic networks, with branches at each end but a single main channel, creating potential choke points at several junctures, [intellectual capital beyond the university] flowed along networks that often had the properties of a grid, like an electrical grid, where there is more than one possible path and the flow of [intellectual capital] can switch to avoid blockages or overcome breakdowns.

This is not to fetishise MOOCs or academic networks or academic commons as the antithesis of traditional institutions, in their ability to work in agile and innovative ways. My point is to question whether allegedly network-driven innovations like MOOCs, at whatever scale, are perceived to be ways of overcoming perceived blockages in the production, distribution and consumption of knowledge, or social or intellectual capital. In this scenario they would form separate mechanisms, beyond special purpose vehicles or private think tanks that directly partner with universities, through which established corporations could partner or sponsor or underwrite knowledge creation in the public domain. The rationale for so-doing would be to co-opt proprietary knowledge from which rents could be taken later or to promote further a specific, neoliberal cultural discourse. Witness the sponsorship of specific MOOCs by particular corporations or philanthrocapitalist foundations.

Where the infrastructures to create such proprietary knowledge lie inside the University, for example inside high performance teams or in high technology laboratories, then the incentives are threefold: firstly, to partner with universities to crack open the space inside which such knowledge is created so that it can be commodified; secondly, the privatised service-industries that lie beyond the university operate as a disciplinary mechanism on those academic workers with commodity or leveraged skills, like those in professional services or in programming or management, as work can always be outsourced or wages reduced; and thirdly, educational or governance networks offer a mechanism for the relatively cheap acquisition of those commodity or leveraged skills. Thus, one positive side-effect for capital as it operates inside and against the university as a publically-regulated and funded space is in the use of these mechanisms for the extraction of value that has been historically and socially accrued through taxation and public governance. Alongside the threats posed to the idea of the university from external educational networks like MOOCs and waves of outsourcing, the threat that social and intellectual capital might also be produced or distributed beyond the University acts as a disciplinary mechanism inside it.

PART THREE: demonstrating for the University

Thus, a set of contradictions is revealed between: intellectual or academic networks and institutions; the material reality of the university and the ideal, public state accorded to it historically; the imposed economic realities of austerity politics and the democratic ideals of academic labour; and the coercion/violence of the state and the university as a space for democratic and public representation. However, we are witnessing a crisis of education inside neoliberal capitalism. This is represented by a clash between an education that is/was framed in terms of public, networked and civic ideals, and the idea of the neoliberal subject, educated through debt with accreditation as a form of individuated accumulation. This forms, as Winternitz noted:

an expression of the underlying basic contradiction of capitalist society; the social character of production and the private character of appropriation and consequently the tendency of boundless, rapid expansion of production on the one hand, the limitations of consumption on the other hand.

The internal contradictions involved in the tendency of the rate of profit to fall find their expression in crises. As a space previously free from the impact of that crisis, higher education now forms a space inside which it might be resolved through privatisation, indenture and commodification. One might go further to argue that in the same way that the crises of the twentieth century were aggravated by the power of monopoly capitalism in controlling basic raw materials, like coal, oil, iron and steel, there is a perceived crisis inside neoliberal capitalism that relates to the control of intellectual capital by universities rather than corporations or entrepreneurs. In order to overcome the barriers to the reproduction of intellectual capital, governments need to create a market for higher education that can overcome or drive down monopoly prices.

Thus, it is possible to view internationalisation agendas or the use of open education projects, either as catalysts for the creation of new markets for the intellectual capital and knowledge produced in the North, or as responses to the slackening of the accumulation of capital in the global North, or as responses to the growing pressure to export capital to/from the global South. This might include the outputs of open education where it catalyses new markets or demand for products and services through which the rate of profit can be maintained. Therefore, enclosing the global South inside the neoliberal education project also enables capital to fight against the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, through outsourcing, the reduction of costs of production, and in the struggle for new markets. However, in so-doing it intensifies those contradictions which catalyse systemic crises. As Marx noted capitalism’s tendency to crisis becomes deeper and more violent as the contradictions and complexities of capitalist production grow. As Winternitz argued

The cure of the evil is not to stop or to retard the development of productive forces, but so to change the basis of economic life that the satisfaction of the needs of the people, instead of capitalist profit, becomes the driving and regulating principle.

At issue then is how to take those open education projects or internationalisation agendas or the work of high performing teams or with high technologies inside the university and to make them public, beyond the rule of money. For Henry Giroux, this matters because our ‘new politics of disposability and culture of cruelty represents more than an economic crisis, it is also speaks to a deeply rooted crisis of education, agency, and social responsibility.’ How do we use the university and the academic labour that is undertaken inside and beyond a range of open/closed networks to do work in public, or to liberate intellectual capital as a form of mass intellectuality? In Raymond Williams’ terms this demands demonstrations. Linking to Mitchell’s questioning of whether we have the democratic structures to help us to manage the political crises that emerge from dislocations to our energy-economies, Williams argued that.

Demonstration then, though only one means, is a necessary response to a society of that kind, which builds official opinion on established lines, and which has reduced previous political channels to instruments or diversions. To go out and speak in one’s own terms, directly, has become a central political need, and it is, of course, a challenge which the system in the end knows it must take seriously… Under a strain like this, it’s time, not simply for those of us who are demonstrators, who want a new democratic politics, but for the society itself, a society more and more openly based on money and power, to change and be changed.

But how this might be effected? For demonstration demands political action in the world, and whilst Williams was arguing for his academic engagement for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, we might begin to discuss how inside-and-against the neoliberal university we demonstrate our ability to co-develop curricula that actively critique dominant narratives of economic growth. This might help to re-define the university or higher education as a state/publically-funded, regulated and governed set of spaces, which in turn support a wider, open educational agenda to dissolve knowledge into the fabric of society as a form of higher learning or mass intellectuality.

For Giroux’s this is pressing because ‘the commitment to democracy is beleaguered, viewed less as a crucial educational investment than as a distraction that gets in the way of connecting knowledge and pedagogy to the production of material and human capital.’ In Mitchell’s analysis this political role is more important because ‘The possibility of more democratic futures, in turn, depends on the political tools with which we address the passing of the era of fossil fuel.’  However, Giroux also holds one of the possibilities for radical change, through the connections between educational institutions and networks that are founded on critical pedagogy. He states ‘Such democratic public spheres are especially important at a time when any space that produces “critical thinkers capable of putting existing institutions into question” is under siege by powerful economic and political interests.’ Thus

Connective practices are key: it is crucial to develop intellectual practices that are collegial rather than competitive, refuse the instrumentality and privileged isolation of the academy, link critical thought to a profound impatience with the status quo, and connect human agency to the idea of social responsibility and the politics of possibility… This is a message we heard from the brave students fighting tuition hikes and the destruction of civil liberties and social provisions in Quebec and to a lesser degree in the Occupy Wall Street movement. If educators are to function as public intellectuals, they need listen to young people all over the world who are insisting that the relationship between knowledge and power can be emancipatory, that their histories and experiences matter, and that what they say and do counts in their struggle to unlearn dominating privileges, productively reconstruct their relations with others, and transform, when necessary, the world around them. Simply put, educators need to argue for forms of pedagogy that close the gap between the university and everyday life.

The university, educational networks and the broader domain of higher education are critical sites of hegemonic power, and critical spaces in which we might develop counter-narratives that speak of a renewed civil society in the face of peak oil and climate change. How we engage academics, student and citizens inside and beyond higher education must form part of a broader emancipatory discourse. We need to find mechanisms for developing a mass intellectuality that might help us co-operatively to address Mitchell’s fundamental questions, which themselves supersede the neoliberal discourse of economic growth.

PART FOUR: postscript

This is why I will be marching for the alternative on October 20, 2012.

some questions on academic identity and the crisis

An informal reading group met last night to discuss Niall Ferguson’s Reith Lectures. The general consensus was that the lectures represent a crisis of hegemonic neoliberalism, with a picture being created of the structures of political and civil society being re-geared for the maintenance of established power relations that are fashioned inside capital. Inside this picture there is no possibility to see beyond determinist ends as Ferguson presents assertions as fact in a rhetorical blaze.

However, the arrow of the evening pointed towards the idea of academic labour in the current crisis, and in particular towards the following questions.

  1. What is the role of the academic in a world that is being refashioned by rent-seeking elites who are energising what Žižek has described as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”: ecological distress (impending ecological catastrophes); economic distress (the global financial meltdown); biological distress (the biogenetic revolution and its impact on human identity); and social distress (social divisions leading to the explosion of protest and revolutions worldwide).
  2. What is the role of the academic in the face of issues of intergenerational justice, or the compact between present and future? These are not simply confined to debts securitised against futures as yet unknown or unborn, in order to pay down our present economic crisis. They are also issues of future access to liquid fuel resources upon which economic growth is predicated and the ability to emit carbon without being poisoned by past emissions. Intergenerational justice is a function of the social pressures that might be brought to bear upon the economic/environmental injustices bequeathed upon our children through greed.
  3. What is the role of the academic in contesting a world that produces a semi-enslaved labour force, through precarity, indentured wage labour, the threat of unemployment, technological surveillance, strike-breaking or the politics of austerity? In the face of the global collapse in real wages and the proportion of global wealth owned by labour, as opposed to capital, what is the purpose of a higher education framed by employability?
  4. What is the role of the academic in the face of securitised socio-economic institutions, and the imperative to maintain the increase in the rate of profit, which then underpins structural readjustment policies? How might the academic act against capital’s demand for reduced circulation time in the generation and exchange of securitised commodities, based in-part on technological innovation and in-part on the collapse of risk inside those securitised commodities?
  5. What is the role of the academic in the face of the hegemonic power of undemocratic, transnational activist networks of finance capital, think tanks, politicians etc.? What is the role of the academic in making a case for reality against theses for finance capital, supported by groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, where the means of production and forces of production are outsourced in order to maximise the rate of profit and value extraction from labour?
  6. What is the role of the academic in the face of the hidden fist of the State that protects the hidden hand of the market? Friedman argues that: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. Markets function and flourish only when property rights are secured and can be enforced, which, in turn, requires a political framework protected and backed by military power… the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
  7. What is the role of the academic in the face of growth that is increasingly being re-spun from credit, witnessed in QE3, and which is unsustainable and lethal to the needs of labour?
  8. What is the role of the academic in the face of conservative politicians who would define the law in the name of private property, rather than human rights? How do academics act against this anti-democracy that seeks a context for property rights that underpins unfettered competition, securitisation and marketisation?
  9. What is the role of the academic where the threat of national defaults in Spain and Greece are presented as a threat to global order? How do academics engage with the mechanics of control imposed by a transnational troika, but which might in-turn be an emancipatory moment for social movements inside those states? How do academics assess the social movements that are generated from protest against austerity, to present democratic alternatives and spaces for manoeuvre? Where are the spaces inside higher education for understanding and engaging with social forces that have historically been the catalyst for democratic change, rather than a supposedly benign bourgeoisie? How might students be involved in this process?
  10. What is the role of the academic in arguing for a resilient education that is diverse, modular and connected into feedback mechanisms? How does this enable universities to become sites where students come to understand the objective conditions that exist inside capitalism? How does this enable students to overcome the truisms that surround the idea of student-as-consumer, in which the driver is developing the individuated skills of the entrepreneur? The risk in the separation and individuation of students-as-entrepreneurs is that the responsibility for failure is handed to the individual rather than being collectively/socially negotiated and owned.

Call for Proposals: TEL, the Crisis and the Response

Call for Proposals: TEL, the Crisis and the Response

The Alpine Rendez-Vous

The Alpine Rendez-Vous (ARV) is an established atypical scientific event focused on Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL). The ARV series of events are promoted by TELEARC and EATEL associations. These took up the legacy of the FP6 NoE Kaleidoscope and Prolearn, and the FP7 NoE Stellar, which sustained them along past years. The goal of the Alpine Rendez-Vous is to bring together researchers from the different scientific communities doing research on Technology-Enhanced Learning, in a largely informal setting, away from their workplace routines. Although originating in Europe, the ARV is open to other continents’ researchers and proposals. ARV is structured as a set of independent parallel workshops located at the same time in the same place. Workshops may last two to three days each, half of the workshops taking place in the first part of the week and the other half in the second part, possibly with a “common day” in the middle. The Alpine Rendez-Vous of 2013 will take place from January 28th to February 1st, in Villard-de-Lans, a village in the middle of Vercors. Breaks and meals are organized in a way that promotes informal encounters between participants from the different workshops.

An informal group concerned about the relationships between TEL research and change, discontinuity and dislocation in the wider world have had a workshop proposal accepted and are now calling for proposals and participation.


The TEL research community has undoubtedly been successful over the last fifteen or twenty years in extending, enriching and even challenging the practices and theories of education within its professions and within its institutions, and through them has engaged in turn with the institutions and professions of industry and government. These have however been largely inward-looking discourses best suited perhaps to a world characterised by stability, progress and growth. These are all now problematic and uncertain, and call for new discourses within the TEL research community and across its borders. The world is now increasingly characterised by challenges, disturbances and discontinuities that threaten these dominant notions of stability, progress and growth. These represent the grand challenges to the TEL research community, challenges to the community to stay relevant, responsive, rigorous and useful.

Earlier discussions (eg purpos/ed,  & e4c, education-for-crisis, had outlined the emergent crisis in broad terms and identified different perspectives and components, including

  • economic and resource crises, including long-term radical increases in economic inequality within nations; youth unemployment across Europe, the polarisation of employment and the decline in growth; sovereign debt defaults and banking failures; mineral and energy constraints;.
  • environmental and demographic crises, in particular, the implications of declining land viability for migration patterns; refugee rights and military occupations; nation-state population growth and its implications for agriculture, infrastructure and transport
  • the crisis of accountability, expressed in the failure of traditional representative democracy systems especially in the context of global markets, the growth of computerised share-dealing; the emergence of new private sector actors in public services; the growth of new mass participatory movements and the rise of unelected extremist minorities both challenging the legitimacy of the nation-state and its institutions
  • socio-technical disruptions and instability, exaggerated by a reliance on non-human intelligence and large-scale systems of systems in finance, logistics and healthcare, and by the development of a data-rich culture;  the proliferation and complexity of digital divides;  the dependency of our educational institutions on computer systems for research, teaching, study, and knowledge transfer
  • the dehumanisation crisis, expressed in the production of fear between people, the replacement of human flourishing with consumption, the replacement of the idea of the person with the idea of the system, the replacement of human contact with mediated exchange, the commodification of the person, education and the arts

and specifically, in relation to TEL;

  • TEL and the industrialisation of education; marginal communities and the globalization and corporatisation of learning; futures thinking as a way to explore TEL in relation to resilience; the political economy of technology in higher education and technological responses to the crisis of capitalism; the role of openness as a driver for innovation, equity and access; digital literacies and their capacity to shift TEL beyond skills and employability in an increasingly turbulent future; connectedness and mobility as seemingly the defining characteristics of our societies; the role and responsibility of research and of higher education as these crises unfold, the complicity or ambiguity of TEL in their development; is the current TEL ecosystem and environment sustainable, is it sufficiently responsive and resilient, how extent does TEL research question, support, stimulate, challenge and provoke its host higher education sector?

TEL is at the intersection of technology and learning and encapsulates many of the ideals, problems and potential of both.  Education and technology permeate all of the perspectives outlined above, some more than others. It is possible however that they could ameliorate some of their consequences or amplify and exaggerate others. TEL has been a project and a community nurtured within the institutions and organisations of formal education in the recent decades of relative stability and prosperity in the developed nations of Asia-Pacific, North America and Western Europe. Some of the critical challenges directly relate to the perceived missions of the TEL project and its community. Contemporary formal education in schools, colleges and universities is increasingly reliant on TEL. The TEL community is however currently poorly equipped either to resist the progress of these crises today or to enable individuals and communities to flourish despite their consequences tomorrow. The transition movement, the open movement and the occupy movement are all parts of wider responses to differing perceptions and perspectives of the underlying malaise.

The Call

The proposed workshop will enrich conversations by bringing in new perspectives and will explore how the different communities can learn from each other, perhaps bringing about more open, participative and fluid models of education. It brings together researchers seeking to articulate these concerns and responses, and develop a shared understanding that will engage and inform the TEL community. It is timely, necessary and unique, and will contribute to a clearer and more worthwhile formulation of the Grand Challenges for TEL in the coming years.

One of the outputs of the workshop will be a special edition of a peer-reviewed journal; other options, such as an open access journal, a book or a website, are possible if there is a consensus.

Please submit an individual or collective two-page position paper, or propose a structured discussion or debate on the role and place of TEL in the light of our analysis. Contributions will be selected by the organisers on the basis of individual quality of the papers and the overall balance and coherence of the programme.


Submission by 17 August 2012


  1. Doug Belshaw, Researcher, Mozilla Foundation
  2. Helen Beetham, Consultant, JISC
  3. Hamish Cunningham, Professor, University of Sheffield
  4. Keri Facer, Professor, University of Bristol
  5. Richard Hall, Reader, De Montfort University
  6. Marcus Specht, Professor, Open University, Netherlands
  7. John Traxler, Professor, University of Wolverhampton, (corresponding organiser)

A presentation on the knowing university and a podcast on positive politics

Next Tuesday I’ll be keynoting the HEA/University of Huddersfield workshop on Enhancing the Quality of Student Blended Learning through Integrative Formative Assessment Methods. My presentation is on my slideshare and is entitled student involvement, assessment and the production of a university experience. The main points that I will make are as follows.

  1. For the student, the academic and the University, assessment for learning is framed and enclosed by a series of external, sector-wide pressures. These are revealed through the instability of the Coalition’s HE reforms and the concern over the privatisation and separation of teaching and learning from assessment, and in the governance of higher education awards/degree awarding powers. This is also revealed in the sector-wide strategies that push employability and the need for assessment of learning, alongside the institutional drive for efficient workflows in assessment, and the drive for commodifying activity and immateriality through learning analytics and data-mining. However, the rise of badges and some form of accrediting open learning beyond the formal education setting is also a threat to recently established HE practices.
  2. We might ask, where the power that academic staff had to manage the curriculum, including assessment for learning, is transferred to administrative functions (in part via technologies that remove power and mental skill) or to the student-as-consumer/customer, what does that process do to academic labour and the idea of the university in society?
  3. HE is framed by disruptions both to the very idea of waged labour and to the precarity of living and working inside austerity politics. One outcome is the prevalence and fear of debt as an instrumentalist, pedagogic tool. This fear and the need to recalibrate HE for debt-driven economic growth then shadows our approach to what HE is for, and for what ends assessment for learning exists. Thus, we are not able to discuss issues of resource availability (capital controls, immigration, liquid fuel availability etc.) or the impact of the accelerated consumption of education, and of the increased consumption/commodification of assessment, on the planet, in terms of emissions. There is some work to be done on education, assessment and entropy or disorder.
  4. The crisis of capitalism, revealed through austerity politics and the (de)legitimation of certain discourses, makes the struggle over assessment for learning inside the university of critical importance. The relationships between energy, oil, economic growth, carbon emissions and education all need to be revealed and discussed. In particular as they frame and impact the idea of assessment for learning inside and beyond the university.
  5. The idea of assessment for learning inside and beyond the university might usefully be discussed in terms of developing socially useful knowledge, or knowing. This is the idea that students and teachers might dissolve the symbolic power of the University into their actual, existing realities, in order to engage with a process of personal transformation that is about more than employability skills. We might use assessment for learning in order to catalyse knowing or socially-useful knowledge, in order to consider the courage it takes to reclaim and re-produce our politics and our social relationships, in the face of disruption.
  6. Academics might engage with the ideas of student-as-producer and pedagogies of excess, in order to create spaces for the production and construction of a mass intellect in commons. At issue is whether assessment for learning can refuse and push-back against the idea that the market and an employability-fuelled education system is the motor for solving social problems. Might socially-defined and produced knowing, achieved through work that is carried out in public and that engages with uncertainty and a wider cohort of disciplines, be a more resilient approach? How might assessment for learning involve and emancipate student voices in the struggle to re-invent the world?
  7. And we might think about ds106, and its focus on learning in public, via shared and collaborative assignments, that can be produced and consumed and distributed and remixed. See this tweet, and this one. The beauty of ds106 (from my narrow, political perspective, and trying not to fetishise it) is in the relationships that might be formed and nurtured over time, reinforced creatively using a range of media (radio, video, text) and in shared programming/a desire to keep the space moving and reflective. These communal actions in the ds106 world underpin individual formations and integrations and perspectives. David Kernohan writes really well about what this means here. If we are interested in assessment for transformation and resilience (modularity, diversity, feedback), we might look to critique MOOCs/the university through the lens of ds106.
  8. Which reminds me that I wrote about resilient/life-wide curricula a while back.

On a separate note, I spoke about the crisis and higher education on a positive politics podcast, that is available here. In the podcast I discuss the struggles of life in the neo-liberal university where life is governed by the logic and interests of money and profit. Dr Gurnam Singh help us to think about very different, democratic, empowering, and critical ways of teaching and learning, and Dr Sarah Amsler talks about the Social Science Centre – an attempt to make real the ideas and values of critical pedagogy and popular education.

A Critical Appraisal of Technology in the University

On Wednesday I’ll be chairing Innovative Learning: Maximising Technology, Maximising Potential. I have written a piece on taking a more critical approach to deploying technology here, and this complements the short presentation that I will make, and which is on my slideshare.

I will make the following points, which connect to two recent journal articles.

  1. Towards a resilient strategy for technology-enhanced learning.
  2. Questioning Technology in the Development of a Resilient Higher Education.

FIRSTLY. At DMU we are engaging with the following questions.

  1. What is the place of technology in the idea of the University?
  2. How do technologies help us to realise or diminish our values, and how do they impact the social relations that emerge around these values?
  3. Can strategy for embedding technology relate it to the broader humane activities of the University?

In addressing these questions we are developing an approach to the use of technologies in the curriculum that supports:

The transformation of learning by staff and students through the situated use of technology.

Our approach has amplified issues around the following [risks].

  1. How do we manage issues around curriculum control and change-management? How do we balance ad hoc curriculum design/delivery in programme teams with a perceived need for strategic/institutional control? In this approach, how do we enable staff digital/technical literacies?
  2. What technology-related support and skills do we retain and nurture in-house? Do we just retain those that enable us to develop our quality/distinctiveness, or just those that are interesting?
  3. How do we manage elasticity of demand and new service-provision? How do we develop technologies that will enable emerging and future web applications? [See Scott Wilson’s recent presentation on this issue]

SECONDLY. We are trying to address or refine a model for the institutional implementation of technology that maps across to work started a Manchester Metropolitan University, under Mark Stubbs. They worked-up a Core/Arranged/Recommended/Recognised model for the use of technology stemming from their VLE Review in 2009.

Core: integrated corporate systems, including VLE, portal, library, streaming media and email, 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, user-generated content tools and synchronous classrooms.

Recommended: recommendations are made with supporting training materials, for connecting key, web-based tools seamlessly 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 integration.

A representation of this at DMU is shown below.

jpg image of the DMU model for educational technology

However, in moving this forward we are now thinking about how we do our work in public, rather than in an enclosed set of spaces. The work of the CUNY academic commons and of the ds106 community has been important for us here, in demonstrating that spaces might be cultivated and opened up in different ways by different communities at different times, and where the rules of engagement are determined through negotiation. This means that governance is also important and is actually negotiated with the academic community, rather than done to them.

THIRDLY. Governance and enclosure. We are having to think closely about what might be termed our corporate and personal assets, but which we might also refer to as personal or corporate data, or research/teaching/learning outputs or resources. A key issue surrounds out-sourcing or hosting, as opposed to in-house developments. Our IT Governance Team are helping us to think about the implications of the Patriot Act in the USA, and how our use of the cloud might be affected.

In particular, we are addressing issues of pedagogy and how they relate to: service resilience; confidentiality/privacy; copyright/copyleft/content distribution; data security/back-ups; control/deletion.  Im portant here is the realisation that

The cloud has its own challenges, not least of which is the fact that the name can lead non-tech savvy folks to imagine that their data is bits of magic floating about in the ether rather than sitting on a server subject to the laws of the land in which it is located. There are concerns about ensuring safety of information. Additionally, there are potentially big problems with ‘offshoring’ corporate assets outside of corporate governance.

So we are thinking about risk-management at a range of scales: does it matter if someone accesses your stuff? [c.f. Dropbox; personal emails subject to FoI, as seen in Leveson].

We are also thinking about corporate governance, including access to services that are marketised? [Google-Verizon and a two-speed internet; costs of accessing data in marketised HE?]

We are also wondering about what happens if the personal circumstances of the academic who is responsible for a specific course or programme change and we cannot get access to core student information, like assessments? [What should be managed in-house or hosted via a contract?]

We are asking whether users and the institution understand that data is being transferred into a service and that we/they have responsibilities? [T&Cs; IP; protected characteristics; indemnities for libel.]

Finally, we are beginning to ask how do we work-up the digital literacies of our staff/students in this space? [We have some emergent staff guidelines and some guidelines for our Commons.]

FOURTHLY. This takes place against the backdrop of a world that faces a crisis. We might view this as a triple crunch of economic crises of scarcity/abundance and finance capital, of liquid fuel availability [including peak oil], and climate change.

  1. There is a strong correlation between energy use and GDP.
  2. Global energy demand is on the rise yet oil supply is forecast to decline in the next few years.
  3. There is no precedent for oil discoveries to make up for the shortfall, nor is there a precedent for efficiencies to relieve demand on this scale.
  4. Energy supply looks likely to constrain growth.
  5. Global emissions currently exceed the IPCC ‘marker’ scenario range. The Climate Change Act 2008 has made the -80%/2050 target law, yet this requires a national mobilisation akin to war-time.
  6. Probably impossible but could radically change the direction of HE in terms of skills required and spending available.
  7. We need to talk about this because education and technology are folded inside this narrative, and because education and technology are tied into narratives of economic growth.

We might then begin to discuss futures and the role of innovative learning in a disrupted world. Facer and Sandford wrote about four principles that underpin futures thinking.

Principle 1: educational futures work should aim to challenge assumptions rather than present definitive predictions.

Principle 2: the future is not determined by its technologies.

Principle 3: thinking about the future always involves values and politics.

Principle 4: education has a range of responsibilities that need to be reflected in any inquiry into or visions of its future.

We are trying to engage with these on our DMU Commons, which serves as an idea of what the University might become in public. This includes thinking about how to situate technologies within critical pedagogy and the communal activities of the institution. This is important because institutional planning needs to focus upon the provision of secure core institutional spaces that enable staff and students to position and become themselves, and to act in the world. Strategies like a programme-of-work that aligns key events, data, processes and technologies may help to develop a blueprint. Such a blueprint needs to reflect institutional values, and legitimise the activities of ‘mavericks’, or those on the boundaries or edges of engagement with institutional services.

Higher Education, crisis and volatility

ONE. The marketisation of higher education is turning University life into a series of tactical engagements designed to extract value from public goods, rather than a set of spaces in which we might be able to confront the crisis. This crisis is enabling capitalism to overcome barriers to value production and extraction, and underpins an inevitable revolutionising of HE. This recalibration of HE is focused on the rate of profit, and a purported need to balance the sector’s contribution to the economy.

However, the extraction of value, or the focus on the rate of profit, is high-risk and catalyses volatility and it neglects the wider, systemic, socio-environmental issues that provide the context in which education-for-growth exists.

TWO. In his work on False Accounting: Why Higher education Reforms Don’t Add Up, Andrew McGettigan analyses volatility, instability and indenture in HE.

The income–contingent repayment loans offered to students are also future–policy–contingent, potentially creating an indentured class of graduates from whom higher repayments can be extracted. In sum, the Coalition has concocted a higher education funding regime which fails on its own criteria. It introduces fiscal instability into the sector and offers the nation minimal savings in return. While the deficit may be slightly reduced, large borrowings are required over the next two decades before the scheme is expected to pay for itself. These expectations may be pricked if adequate graduate repayments fail to materialise – leaving future governments to rectify the situation.

He goes on to state that the debate about HE reform is obscured by economic illiteracy.

the government’s deficit reduction strategy is aimed at slowing the growth of the debt. Reducing expenditure reduces the need for additional borrowing to meet any shortfall between annual income and expenditure. Loans have a lower impact on the deficit than grants – but they affect the debt separately to their contribution to the deficit. This is a very important matter and one that has been systematically obscured from the debate around higher education reform.

He then states that the overall effect is high-risk and based on modelling that makes serious assumptions about growth.

The large–scale move from grants to higher loans brings uncertainty into the heart of higher education as the viability of the loan scheme depends on making predictions about the general shape of the economy and graduates within it for the next three to four decades. Current indications about the graduate premium suggest it will be eroded further except in a small group of professions.

TWO. This connects to Christopher Newfield’s argument about the new proletarianisation. He argues that it is difficult to sustain a positivist argument for economic growth, especially where it is tied to the generalised, emancipatory potential of technological skills in a new economy. In part, this is because under neoliberal capitalism, technologies are used to promote consumption, production gains or to increase the rate of profit. The logic of their use and deployment is for productivity gains, or for workplace monitoring and surveillance and management and stratification, or to catalyse the creation of value by opening up/harnessing new markets, or by stimulating innovations that further valorise capital. Thus, Newfield highlights three different types of knowledge or skill:

  1. Type C is ‘commodity skills’, which are ‘readily obtained’ and whose possessors are interchangeable. This category includes most ‘pink collar’ work that involves skills like ‘typing and a cheerful phone manner’.
  2. Type B is ‘leveraged skills’, which require advanced education and which offer clear added value to the firm that hires such skill, and yet which are possessed by many firms. Computer programmers or network administrators are examples of essential employees who worked long and hard to acquire their knowledge, and yet who are relatively numerous. Ironically, they may have entered the field because it was large: its size may have signalled to them when they were picked a major in college–and to their stability-minded parents–something like ‘the high-tech economy will always need computer support specialists’. Yes, but not any particular computer support specialist, and not at a very high wage.
  3. Type A consists of ‘proprietary skills’, defined as ‘the company-specific talents around which an organization builds a business’. The knowledge manager must nurture and cultivate only the skills that directly contribute to the firm’s propriety knowledge, and stamp out (or radically cheapen) the first kind of knowledge worker, whose skills are interchangeable commodities. Only the star producers–those who create proprietary knowledge–enable the firm to seek rents, and only they are to be retained, supported, cultivated, and lavishly paid.

In an indentured world focused on economic growth above all else, not everyone will enjoy the life-styles of those who produce proprietary knowledge.

THREE. Yet, economic growth is coupled to energy use. The Royal Society Science Policy Centre report People and the Planet argues that growth based on extant socio-economic models is extremely problematic.

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, and is critical to ensuring a sustainable future for all. At present, consumption is closely linked to economic models based on growth. Improving the wellbeing of individuals so that humanity flourishes rather than survives requires moving from current economic measures to fully valuing natural capital. Decoupling economic activity from material and environmental throughputs is needed urgently for example by reusing equipment and recycling materials, reducing waste, obtaining energy from renewable sources, and by consumers paying for the wider costs of their consumption. 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.

Furthermore, in their IMF working paper on The Future of Oil: Geology versus Technology, Benes et. al. note that:

the problem of oil becoming harder and harder to produce in sufficient quantities was an important factor that would have significantly increased oil prices regardless of shocks.

it requires a large increase in the real price of oil, which would have to nearly double over the coming decade to maintain an output expansion that is modest in historical terms. Such prices would far exceed even the highest prices seen in 2008, which according to Hamilton (2009) may have played an important role in driving the world economy into a deep recession.

There is likely to be a critical range of oil prices where the GDP effects of any further increases become much larger than at lower levels, if only because they start to threaten the viability of entire industries such as airlines and long-distance tourism.

a point forecast that implies a near doubling of real oil prices over the coming decade, and an increase in prices over and above the very high recent levels even under a very optimistic scenario, at the lower 90 percent confidence interval. The world economy has never experienced oil prices this high for anything but short transitory periods, and we reiterate our previous statement that this might take us into uncharted territory, where a nonlinear, convex effect of oil prices on output might be a more prudent assumption.

And to add to the volatility Hamilton, in hi Oil Prices, Exhaustible Resources, and Economic Growth,  notes:

Coping with a final peak in world oil production could look pretty similar to what we observed as the economy adapted to the production plateau encountered over 2005-2009. That experience appeared to have much in common with previous historical episodes that resulted from temporary geopolitical conflict, being associated with significant declines in employment and output. If the future decades look like the last 5 years, we are in for a rough time. Most economists view the economic growth of the last century and a half as being fuelled by ongoing technological progress. Without question, that progress has been most impressive. But there may also have been an important component of luck in terms of finding and exploiting a resource that was extremely valuable and useful but ultimately finite and exhaustible. It is not clear how easy it will be to adapt to the end of that era of good fortune.

FOUR. Tom Murphy writes eloquently about energy, and how a growth-fuelled politics traps us.

Many of us have great hopes for our energy future that involve a transition to a gleaming renewable energy infrastructure, but we need to realize that we face a serious bottleneck in its implementation. The up-front energy investment in renewable energy infrastructures has not been visible as a hurdle thus far, as we have had surplus energy to invest (and smartly, at that; if only we had started in earnest earlier!). Against a backdrop of energy decline—which I feel will be the only motivator strong enough to make us serious about a replacement path—we may find ourselves paralyzed by the [energy] Trap.

In the parallel world of economics, an energy decline likely spells deep recession. The substantial financial investment needed to carry out an energy replacement crash program will be hard to scrape together in tough times, especially given that we are unlikely to converge on the “right” solution into which we sink our bucks.

Politically, the Energy Trap is a killer. In my lifetime, I have not witnessed in our political system the adult behavior that would be needed to buckle down for a long-term goal involving short-term sacrifice. Or at least any brief bouts of such maturity have not been politically rewarded.

FIVE. Higher Education is focused on a series of tactical manoeuvres: employability; internationalisation; public-private partnerships; value-added; outsourcing; the REF; student number controls; cash-flow and staffing costs; retention and progression; learning analytics; mobile learning; work-based learning; value-for-money; efficiency; economic growth.

Yet higher education does not exist in a vacuum.

What is to be done?

Presentations about the assault on public education

I’m presenting two linked papers on higher education/the assault on public education in the UK.  I’ll blog what I plan to say here, and link to my slideshare.

The first presentation is at Brighton’s Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics, at their conference, ‘The Problem of “Dirty Hands” in UK Universities‘.

Title: Educational technology and the war on public education

Abstract: This paper will discuss the ways in which educational technologies reflect and amplify the commodification of the University as a set of spaces and practices, and how technological determinism and narratives of technology-as-progress reinforce academic complicity in the processes of marketisation and enclosure of higher education. Such complicity is determined by the uncritical manner in which educational technology is procured and deployed inside Universities, and the ways in which that deployment further commodifies our educational experiences.

Thus, state-subsidised capitalism, revealed through the engagement of private technology providers, outsourced solutions, the enclosure of the web through locked-down technologies, and consultancy in educational technology, will be related to critiques of the neoliberal assault on the idea of the University. In uncovering this relationship, the power that academics have in defining how they can operate in the University, and the place of technology in that struggle, is important. Thus, in suggesting strategies for academic agency or activism, the paper will highlight how using open technologies in public might help to re-inscribe a different set of possibilities upon the University.

This might be viewed as a crack in the Coalition’s assault on education as a public good. At issue is whether students and teachers are able to recapture educational technologies in order to dissolve the symbolic power of the University into the actual, existing reality of protest and to develop alternatives. This might be seen as an attempt by capital to enter, control and enclose what has previously been seen as open source or as the terrain previously set-out and negotiated by hacktivists. However, it does open up a space for academic activists working with programmers and educationalists to challenge the dominant logic of how we construct and re-produce our educational worlds as commonly-defined, social goods, against state-subsidised capitalism and proletarianised work. We might then consider how to re-engage our actions and the technologies we deploy asymmetrically; to refuse and push-back against marketisation, to realise the possibilities of the hacker ethic, and to use technology to describe more social forms of value.

The second is at the Discourse, Power and Resistance: Impact conference, at the University of Plymouth. I will base my talk on this slideshare presentation.

Title: In, Against and Beyond the Neoliberal University

Abstract: This paper will briefly discuss the political possibilities for academic activism in the face of the shock doctrine, or neoliberal responses to socio-economic and environmental disruption, in the UK. The paper will argue that academic activism and occupation offer sanctuaries in which critiques of the idea of higher education can develop. It will be argued that they offer possibilities for academics and students, contributing as scholars to a shared process, to be against the foreclosure of the idea of higher education by the twin pedagogies of debt and the kettle. This process offers spaces in which such scholars can re-conceptualise and negate the alienation of their labour as capitalist work inside the academy. In the face of global disruptions in social access to both historic capitals and liquid energy resources, a radical critique of capitalist social relations inside the University holds the possibility of moving beyond this neoliberal foreclosure, towards revolutionary transformation enabled through processes of self-creation and praxis. It is intended that this brief paper will take 15 minutes and offer 20 minutes for discussion of possibilities for scholars to stand inside the neoliberal University, to be against its enclosure of the possibilities for higher learning, and to move beyond its foreclosure of resilient futures.

For a network of commons

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 16 November 2011

I kept the faith and I kept voting/Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand/For theirs is a land with a wall around it/ And mine is a faith in my fellow man/Theirs is a land of hope and glory/Mine is the green field and the factory floor/Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers/And mine is the peace we knew/Between the wars

Billy Bragg, Between the Wars.

Yesterday the Education Activist Network emailed though a series of YouTube videos about student protests and occupations at UC-Berkeley. These highlighted the increased politicisation of young people, the increased militarisation of our campuses, and the increased bravery of people as co-operative social forces in the face of State authoritarianism. More appropriately, this might be viewed as bravery in the face of the brutality of the transnational global elites that now dominate the control mechanisms of the State. Those control mechanisms include universal access to healthcare, access to employment and education, access to homes, and/or paramilitary-style policing. In each of these areas the political/economic compact of recent years is in crisis, and this crisis is being played out in education.

The nature of transnational elites has been raised in documentaries like Inside Job, in popular texts like Paul Mason’s Meltdown, in academic spaces looking at corporate networks, and in work analysing trans-national corporate power. This revelation of how these elites now dominate our political landscape was clarified at Tent City University last weekend by David Harvey. Harvey argued that it is only people massing together in the streets and in the squares, whose relationships are shared and nurtured and encouraged in-part on-line and in-part through radical educational forums, who can oppose the foreclosure of our (educational) futures and our (educational) spaces. Harvey argued that people acting deliberately and politically in public spaces that were previously enclosed and policed by Capital enables us to recreate and re-produce those spaces as a Commons. In part this is an outcome of the process of occupation. It is only on this network of Commons, something Nick Dyer Witheford has written about for a networked world in terms of the Circulation of the Common, and that Joss Winn and Mike Neary have critiqued in pedagogic terms, where questions of the inequality of wealth and power can be meaningfully debated beyond the trite inadequacies of ‘a better capitalism’.

Education is central to this project of building the Network or Commons of Commons. In education, as Harvey argues, we are witnessing the enclosure of debate about the idea of the school or the university, so that all we are left with are plaintive cries against students-as-consumers. At the same time, through the enforcement of external, marketised agendas of outsourcing, internationalisation (globalisation), employability, attacks on employment rights, and the proletarianisation of working practices, the grip of transnational capital over education (as the life-blood of our social relationships) is tightened. In response, in a range of Universities, for example in Chile and Columbia, in California, and in Bangladesh, students are resisting neoliberal managerial techniques that are solely designed to extract value from those who have least power. In part this is a form of defence. In part though, as the Edufactory Collective amongst others, have argued, this is a way to redefine political engagement through general assemblies, militant research and open education.

This collective, educational response, framed within a connected set of Commons, and operating globally, is central to a critique of the power of transnational global elites, as they turn in on extracting value from our historically-accumulated capitals. The argument here is that states are running to the end of the possibility for printing money (quantitative easing) as a mechanism for recovering from this systemic crisis. Moreover, there are no spaces left outside the system of capitalist accumulation into which capital can flee or from which it can extract value easily. Therefore, in order to increase the rate of profit, or the compound growth at three per cent that is required both to maintain the Global North’s standards of living and to pay-off its debts, the system has to turn back in on itself, in order to self-valorise. So our socially-prescribed, historically-produced goods [or capitals], like access to universal healthcare and state education, which were accumulated in the post-war Keynesian settlement, are now the source of private profit through market mechanisms.

This forms a new, systemic crisis of capitalism based on value-extraction from societies, with huge consequences for the middle classes. It underpins austerity measures and the privatisation of state assets, each of which is driven by transnational flows of capital. As a result, a world of nationally-defined political economic analyses is outdated, in part because the socio-environmental problems we face are global (as the brilliant Tom Murphy shows for energy), but also because of the porosity of borders to capital. In this current moment of the crisis, we see nations inside and outside the Eurozone that are unable to control the damage being wrought by speculative capital, and that are unable to re-construct their economies beyond the organisation of global, capitalist production chains. Thus, we see the mobility of capital, in flowing to tax havens and in drawing on very low labour rates and profits from sale of goods that are produced in countries with poor labour conditions in high income, strong currency economies. Critically, the key players in these speculative relationships and in making the case for and delivering austerity are global elites, who wish to impose deregulated unprotected labour relations.

This focus on the power of what is termed the markets is in reality the power of oligopolistic, transnational banks, corporations and subservient politicians/media. Thus, any focus on national solutions to the defence of national capitals, of an attempt to recapture, for example, the pre-eminence of Great Britain, visited in-part through its education system, becomes meaningless. Or leads us down the route to fascism. This then infects our education systems. It may remain hidden from view, but it shapes our engagement with internationalisation, employability, innovation, research and development, community engagement, personalisation, outsourcing and technologies. It also shapes our open education agendas, our MOOCs, our work on badges, our engagement with work-based learning, our radical alternatives. There is no outside.

However, as Mieksins-Wood noted fifteen years ago:

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… Now capitalism has no more escape routes, no more safety valves or corrective mechanisms outside its own internal logic… the more it maximizes profit and so-called growth – the more it devours its own human and natural substance.

Thus, the real social and political value of our reaction to austerity, revealed in free schools, in tent city universities, in teach-ins and teach-outs, in student-worker occupations, and a million other forms, is their deliberative, educational, open agendas. This is not to dream of them as utopian ideals or fetishise them as anti-capital, but it is to reflect on them as a network of educational commons. They serve as mirrors through which we can look for ways to run down pointless levels of consumption, and to scream against pointless technocratic experiences, and to create more scalable, resilient production and distribution systems that are socially-defined. The idea that under globalisation, in which capital, production, the state, classes and media and culture are ‘without borders’, can be made better and more responsive to our existence in localised spaces is untenable. We require a process of deliberation that is against those who would carry out the logic of a system of global feudalism, where an increasingly powerful minority control/trade/commodify both the scarcity and abundance of resources.

What the process of creating a Commons or Network of Commons through dissent, occupation, protest and refusal has shown us is the courage we share to imagine and re-produce something different. In the face of the increasing extraction of value from our lives, and in the face of the meaningless of a life lived for compound economic growth, and in the face of our powerlessness within the system defined for us by transnational elites, and in face of the use of collectivised force by our elected politicians against us, the educational solidarity of our occupations has shown, as Harvey described, that only people acting and educating as co-operative, social forces can save us now.

Triple crunch and the politics of educational technology

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 4 November 2011

I want to make a brief return to one implication of the ideas fleshed out by Joss Winn earlier this year in a post on the Triple Crunch, which focused on peak oil, climate change and the economic realities of business-as-usual, and then in my response on Triple Crunch and the Politics of Educational Technology. This implication is the role of academics and scholars; it is academic activism.

In his post Joss wrote: “It’s time that a co-ordinated effort was made by the sector to examine these issues in detail, involving academics from across disciplines as well as business continuity managers and VCs”. I concluded that academics and scholars might usefully contribute to story-telling that enables us “to critique in common the ahistorical truisms of liberal democracy, that technology and education can only meaningfully serve capitalist expansion, through discourses of finance capital that are related to value-for-money, efficiency, private/public, and the market.” We used the detail of climate change and liquid fuel availability inside our reality of capitalist social relations, to question the idea of the University.

This morning I read three things that stimulated a return to this question.

1.   The weekly Oil Depletion Analysis Centre’s Newsletter (for 4 November 2011). In developing an analysis of the week’s events that impact on liquid fuel availability, the newsletter highlighted the Euro bailout and Greek politics, persistent Brent crude oil costs of$100/barrel, the UK Coalition Government’s decision to halve the feed-in tariff for solar energy, and a report from Cuadrilla Resources that it was “highly probable” that earthquakes in Blackpool were caused by their fracking activities. ODAC highlighted that:

“The UK today represents a microcosm of the current energy dilemma. Oil and gas production are in decline, energy costs are rising, and the race to avoid the worst impacts of climate change requires drastic cuts in emissions. Shale gas, along with tar sands and shale oil, offer an illusion that business might be able to continue as usual, but these are lower quality resources in terms of the energy they require to produce, pollution, and emissions. They are not the cheap energy sources on which our economy depends, and betting on them risks slowing the transition to a more resilient energy future.”

We might then ask, how are Universities addressing this dilemma in their forms, practices and research engagement?

2.   In a note on #OccupyLSX, Pierce Penniless argues for political engagement and action that is deeply connected to everyday realities. He argues that:

“We are living in an extraordinarily hot political moment, in which people’s politics are changing rapidly – and in which systemic popular dissent is more visible than it has been for a long time. That it is systemic is most interesting: for all the reductive slogans about bankers and their bonuses, the political conversation that emerges in the camp is far more about systemic change than some peculiar bad bankers.”

PP grounds an issue I made around the time of the occupation of the Michael Sadler building in Leeds last November, in arguing for a process of deliberation focused upon re-production of our everyday realities. PP argues that his main point is to encourage experienced political activists to engage. However it might also be written about academics and scholars in grounding, theorising and supporting the development of alternatives. He writes:

“you need to engage this movement, and it won’t be comfortable doing so. I was down there almost continually, and one thing that’s striking is that its representation online bears little resemblance to what’s actually happening in reality. What’s happening is happening there, not on the computer screen.”

We might then ask how are academic and scholars addressing this dilemma in their practices and research engagements? How are we becoming activist? What are we working for?

3.   Etienne Dubuis in Le Temps (in French, but translated at WorldCrunch), picks up on a point that has been increasingly made in Africa, about corporate land-grabs in what the global North terms “developing nations”. In this capitalist accumulation by dispossession universities in the global North are implicated in a process that reveals real-world examples of the impact of the triple crunch:

“The increasing production of biofuels also explains why international buyers are becoming so interested in purchasing agricultural lands, while the 2008 economic crisis also heralded land ownership as a relatively safe investment alternative.”

Whilst Dubois questions “how the benefits should be divided among investors, host states and local communities?” We might also ask how the risks are divided, and aligned with this what is the role of the universities in the global North and their internationalisation agendas?

In trying to open some of these debates up to a trans-disciplinary audience, and to one which is also focused on technology, Joss and I have a paper being published in e-Learning and Digital Media later this month, in which we consider:

the impact that peak oil and climate change may have on the future of higher education. In particular, it questions the role of technology in supporting the provision of a higher education which is resilient to a scenario both of energy depletion and the need to adapt to the effects of global warming. One emerging area of interest from this future scenario might be the role of technology in addressing more complex learning futures, and more especially in facilitating individual and social resilience, or the ability to manage and overcome disruption. However, the extent to which higher education practitioners can utilise technology to this end is framed by their approaches to the curriculum, and the sociocultural practices within which they are located. The authors discuss how open education might enable learners to engage with uncertainty through social action within a form of higher education that is more resilient to economic, environmental and energy-related disruptions.It asks whether more open higher education can be (re)claimed by users and communities within specific contexts and curricula, in order to engage with an increasingly uncertain world.

In the paper we hint at a re-focusing on deliberation; and a need to find spaces for such deliberation. This includes active engagement with the politics of events that is unfolding around us, at Occupy Wall Street, or Occupy Oakland, or in critiquing communiqués, or in delivering sessions at Tent City University as Mike Neary has recently, or at more established community events. This is part of the struggle for alternative ways of producing our realities and distributing our abundance and overcoming scarcity. Thus Joss and I argue for

social relationships that are redefined by educators and students, and [a] focus on people and values that is in turn assembled through open education. In overcoming alienation and disruption, a resilient education underpinned by open technologies and architectures enables us to critique and overcome unsustainable, commodified, institutionalised forms of education. The challenge is to develop such a critique in the face of everything.

This last statement is refracted by the key point that I take from PP’s cry for experienced activists to work within and for what might be at #occupylsx and at the aligned Tent City University. Only I look at it in terms of experienced academics working in similar spaces to help shine a light on what is denied in our world. To shine a light on the denial of a meaningful conversation about alternatives, in the face of the crisis that is revealed in austerity, in climate change, in resource depletion and in peak oil. And which is revealed at first in the Global South, but as ODAC highlights, which is also so much closer to home than we are allowed to imagine in our desperation for sustainability or business-as-usual.

And we might then reflect on the scholarly role given in A Message to Wisconsin’s Insatiable Workers and Students earlier this year:

Teachers, elaborate your teach-ins. Tell your story, encourage everyone you touch to say why collective struggle (not just bargaining) is a necessary part of our position in this world. Talk about your dying grandmother. Talk about your difficult addictions. Talk about history. This law is an attempt to conceal the realities of our daily lives and to liquidate those stories from the future. Reveal this, and make possible the education that was never allowed in school.

NOTE: Third University will be leading sessions as part of Leicester’s Community Media Week this Sunday and Monday, on social media for protesters. The focus will be on safety and story-telling. I will also be helping at a teach-out as part of Tent City University next Wednesday, on the implication of these issues on academic activism. In solidarity.