Is there such a thing as ‘centrist’ higher education policy?

By Jana Bacevic

This Thursday, I was at the Institute of Education in London, at the launch of David Willetts’ new book, A University Education. The book is another contribution to what I argued constitutes a veritable ‘boom’ in writing on the fate and future of higher education; my research is concerned, among other things, with the theoretical and political question of the relationship between this genre of critique and the social conditions of its production. However, this is not the only reason why I found it interesting: rather, it is because it sets out what may  become Conservatives’ future  policy for higher education. In broader terms, it’s an attempt to carve a political middle ground between Labour’s (supposedly ‘radical’) proposal for the abolition of fees, and the clear PR/political disaster that unmitigated marketisation of higher education has turned out to be. Differently put: it’s the higher education manifesto for what should presumably be the ‘middle’ of UK’s political spectrum.

The book

Critics of the transformation of UK higher education would probably be inclined to dismiss the book with a simple “Ah, Willetts: fees”. On the other hand, it has received a series of predominantly laudatory reviews – some of them, arguably, from people who know or have worked in the same sector as the author. Among the things the reviewers commend is the book’s impressive historical scope, as well as the additional value of ‘peppering’ with anecdotes from Willetts’ time as Minister for Universities and Science. There is substance to both: the anecdotes are sometimes straightforwardly funny, and the historical bits well researched, duly referencing notable predecessors from Kingsley Amis, through C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, to Halsey’s “Decline of Donnish Dominion” (though, as James Wilsdon remarked at the event, less so the more recent critics, such as Andrew McGettigan). Yet, what clearly stood out to me, on first reading, is that both historical and personal parts of the narrative are there to support the main argument: that market competition is, and was, the way to ‘solve’ problems of higher education (and, to some degree, the society in general); and that the government is uniquely capable of instituting such a market.

The development of higher education in Britain, in this sense, is told as the story of slow movement against the monopoly (or duopoly) of Oxford and Cambridge, and their selective, elitist model. Willetts recounts the struggle to establish what he (in a not particularly oblique invocation) refers to as ‘challenger’ institutions, from colleges that will become part of the University of London in the 19th century, all the way until Robbins and his own time in government. Fees, loans, and income-contingent repayment are, in this sense, presented as a way to solve the problem of expansion: in other words, their purpose was to make university education both more accessible (as admittance is no longer dependent on inherited privilege) and fairer (as the cost is defrayed not through all taxpayers but only through those who benefit directly from university education, and whose earnings reflect it).

Competition, competition, competition

Those familiar with the political economy of higher education will probably not have problems locating these ideas as part of a neoliberal playbook: competition is necessary to prevent the forming of monopolies, but the government needs to ensure competition actually happens, and this is why it needs to regulate a sector – but from a distance. I unfortunately have no time to get into this argument ; other authors, over the course of the last two decades, have engaged with various assumptions that underpin it. What I would like to turn to instead is the role that the presumably monopolistic ‘nature’ of universities plays in the argument.

Now, engaging with the critique of Oxford and Cambridge is tricky as it risks being interpreted (often, rightly) as a thinly veiled apology of their elitism. As a sociologist of higher education with first-hand experience of both, I’ve always been very – and vocally – far from uncritical endorsement of either. Yet, as Priyamvada Gopal noted not long ago, Oxbridge-bashing in itself constitutes an empty ritual that cannot replace serious engagement with social inequalities. In this sense, one of the reasons why English universities are hierarchical, elitist, and prone to reproducing accumulated privilege is because they are a reflection of their society: unequal, elitist, and fascinated with accumulated privilege (witness the obsession with the Royal Family). Of course, no one is blind to the role which institutions of higher education, and in particular elite universities, play in this. But thinking that ‘solving’ the problem of elite universities is going to solve society’s ills is, at best, an overestimation of their power, and at worst a category error.

Framing competition as a way to solve problems of inequality is, unfortunately, one of the cases where the treatment may be worse than the disease. British universities have shown a stubborn tendency to reproduce existing hierarchies no matter what attempts were made to challenge them – the abolition of differences between universities and polytechnics in 1992; the introduction of rankings and league tables; competitive research funding. The market, in this sense, acts not as “the great leveler” but rather as yet another way of instituting hierarchical relationships, except that mechanisms of reproduction are channeled away from professional (or professorial, in this case) control and towards the government, or, better still, towards supposedly independent and impartial regulatory bodies.

Of course, in comparison with Toby Young’s ‘progressive’ eugenics and rape jokes, Willetts’ take on higher education really sounds rather sensible. His critique of early specialisation is well placed; he addresses head-on the problem of equitable distribution; and, as reviews never tire of mentioning, he really knows universities. In other words: he sounds like one of us. Much like Andrew Adonis, on (presumably) other side of the political spectrum, who took issue with vice chancellors’ pay – one of the rare issues on which the opinion of academics is virtually undivided. But what makes these ideas “centrist” is not so much their actual content – like in the case of stopping Brexit, there is hardly anything wrong with ideas themselves  – as the fact that they seek to frame everything else as ‘radical’ or unacceptable.

What ‘everything else’ stands for in the case of higher education, however, is rather interesting. On the right-hand side, we have the elitism and high selectivity associated with Oxford and Cambridge. OK, one might say, good riddance! On the left, however – we have abolishing tuition fees. Not quite the same, one may be inclined to note.

There ain’t gonna be any middle anymore

Unfortunately, the only thing that makes the idea of abolishing tuition so ‘radical’ in England is its highly stratified social structure. It makes sense to remember that, among OECD countries, the UK is one with the lowest public and highest private expenditure on higher education as percentage of GDP. This means that the cost of higher education is disproportionately underwritten by individuals and their families. In lay terms, this means that public money that could be supporting higher education is spent elsewhere. But it also means something much more problematic, at least judging from the interpretation of this graph recently published by Branko Milanovic.

Let’s assume that the ‘private’ cost of higher education in the UK is currently mostly underwritten by the middle classes (this makes sense both in terms of who goes to university, and who pays for it). If the trends Milanovic analyses continue, not only is the income of middle classes likely to stagnate, it is – especially in the UK, given the economic effects of Brexit – likely to decline. This has serious consequences for the private financing of higher education. In one scenario, this means more loans, more student debt, and the creation of a growing army of indebted precarious workers. In another, to borrow from Pearl Jam, there ain’t gonna be any middle anymore: the middle-class families who could afford to pay for their children’s higher education will become a minority.

This is why there is no ‘centrist’ higher education policy. Any approach to higher education that does not first address longer-term social inequalities is unlikely to work; in periods of economic contraction, such as the one Britain is facing, it is even prone to backfire. Education policies, fundamentally, can do two things: one is to change how things are; the other is to make sure they stay the same. Arguing for a ‘sensible’ solution usually ends up doing the latter.


#CIES2018: “Welcome everybody to the Wild Wild West” – On education in the age of platform capitalism

By Julia Erdelmann

Very early on the second full day of the CIES conference 2018, Susan L. Robertson (University of Cambridge), Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster University), and Eva Hartman (University of Cambridge) invite us to critically engage in the nascent discussion about ‘the jungle’ of digital platforms working around, with, and through us. Discussing familiar platforms, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, GoogleScholar, or Monster, the panellists equip us with a guide to negotiate various way in which to think about ‘platform capitalism’ as a new form of market making in education. Specifically, this session is focusing on the political economy of these platforms in the terms of a new firm; the implications of the dissociation of (academic) knowledge and its management from production; and the effects of platform capitalism on social mobility and stratification looking at the transition from education to the labour market.

Opening this enticing and stimulating debate, Susan provides us with an overview about the role education plays as a key element to kickstart a host of profound changes in the organisation of advanced capitalist and transnational economies, as key social structures have become organised by electronically processed information (algorithms). What is the platform, and what modes of governance are found in the platform economy we can observe in the digital spaces? To think about platforms in laymen terms provides us with a very accessible conceptualisation; that is, platforms are online-mediated digital infrastructures which enable geographically disperse users – or, in our case, economic agents – to interact with each other. The platform itself also operates as an intermediary, as well, as the platform owners often charge fees for their services.

Drawing on Nick Srnicek’s pivotal work ‘Platform Capitalism’, we find out that there is a considerable discrepancy between the promises made by the advocates and providers of the platform and the underlying market mechanisms Susan has analysed: Whereas terms like “sharing, gig economy and the fourth industrial revolution are tossed around, with enticing images of entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility bandied about” (p. 1), a closer look at the political economy uncovers a form of algorithmic governance, working on pop-cultural concepts, such as ‘clicks’, ‘likes’, ‘endorsements’, which is tied to creating new markets and anchored in established capitalist relations. Susan provides us with a differentiated typology of how to understand these platforms, the contemporary academy, and the different knowledge production purposes, encompassing different kinds of relations, worlds, and values made possible. A paper covering Susan’s investigations in more detail is online on the CPGJ web page. A pivotal aspect of this paper relates to knowledge production in the academy, dominated by Elsevier along with Springer, Taylor and Francis, Sage, and Wiley Blackwell (the big 5), who own 50% of the academic publishing market. This example not only demonstrates platform capitalism’s tendency to create monopolies, but calls to attention the labour behind the creation of these new market forms. Although platforms change the scale and scope of knowledge production, they remain experimental and unstable and ultimately have to ‘be made’. Just like established markets, this entails risk calculation, cost analysis, strategy building, and expertise.

To illustrate this point, Janja next walks us through academic digital platforms in more detail and investigates how they are affecting the research process and the social relations among academics. By uncovering the workings of popular academic platforms, such as Google Scholar Citations,, and ResearchGate, we find out that platforms have opened up to incorporate all parts of the conventional research process, from identifying research opportunities, forming collaborations, sharing drafts, discussing ideas, to disseminating results. More than merely providing a digital space, however, these platforms have developed numerical signifiers, which are attached to researchers engaging in these infrastructures. Through providing numerical feedback, platforms urge researchers to participate in a form of competition going beyond fostering academic knowledge production. Setting out new metrics, such as the RGscore, academics are now urged to stay engaged with the platforms, succeeding only if they make continuous use of them. Thereby, these platforms not only aim at generating big data, but also to increase their market value catalysing the so-called ‘network effect’: the more numerous the users the more valuable the platform. Janja maps out three processes she identifies to render the research process ‘platform-ready’: quantification and individualisation; enhancing competition; and re-structuring academic social relations. Ultimately, platform capitalism forms new academic social relations, resulting in a restructuring of social relations outside the platform.

Finally, Eva picks up on this topic of platforms and social mobility to deepen the discussion of how platform capitalism bears the potential of reforming social relations. Drawing on Bourdieu’s capital theory, Eva explores the possibility of platforms to generate as yet unknown information and make it available to employers seeking to fill open positions sustainably with the proper candidate. According to labour market studies, the transition process between formal education and employment acts as a bottleneck for recruitment: We learn that a major challenge to identifying adequate candidates from the position of the employers is the absence of relevant information about the candidate’s social and cultural capital; that is, their ‘soft skills’, communication and linguistic skills, as well as weaknesses. Acting as ‘match-makers’, job boards like Monster, Indeed, CareerBuilder and social networks like LinkedIn and facebook uncover and marketise this ‘hidden’ data, using new evaluative infrastructure with interactive devices such as reviews, ratings, and rankings. These infrastructures bear potentials, as they open up local and regional market spaces to transnational competition and provide candidates with the opportunity to include relevant information to their profile, however, the validation of these profiles remain as problematic as the impact which these infrastructures have in enabling a range of new actors to get a say in the evaluation of the worth of qualifications. Does it really enable a window to re-arrange social stratification according to abilities or does it foster a form of capitalist reproduction according to experienced or otherwise passively assumed social and cultural capital?

Enabled by discussant Tore Sorensen, a dialogue between the panellists and the audience highlighted the problematic of state relations with these newly emerging economic agents and prompts suggestions for further research. How do these platforms play ‘cat and mouse’ with the state and bypass regulation, hence creating a ‘wild west’-kind of market sphere? How do academic platforms foster the establishment of what Fourcade (2017) has termed the ‘ordinal society’, highlighting the individual’s relative position? In which ways can investigating platforms beyond the logics anchored in the political West and linguistic limits of the English language contribute to a variegated and contoured taxonomy of this emerging market sphere? And, how applicable are consequences of the meddling of platforms in the labour market to informal economies?

Taken together, the presenters put the case for a new research programme on platforms in education and what the rise of the platform economy means for knowledge production, circulation, management and consumption.

#CIES2018: ‘Beyond Education’ (or beyond modernity and capitalism)

By Susan L. Robertson

I am sitting here in the first Presidential Panel address for the CIES 2018,  given by the activist and founder of the Universidad de la Tierra, Professor Gustavo Esteva. This is a profoundly moving and confronting speech; Professor Esteva points to those around the world who have been dispossessed of their cultures and economies as a result of the ways in which the Empires of the North historically spread out, and absorbed, all of the diversity of the world into the promise of freedom through northern modern capitalist development,

Professor Esteva asked the CIES audience to engage with him in a dialogue about the failed promise of development, and what this then might mean for a different kind of education. This challenge of the promise of development began with peoples around the world, from Gandhi to Mao to Castro, who sought to  claim a path forward for the sovereignty of their peoples. This meant shaking off the shackles of Empire to enable a way forward for those populations whose oppression and exploitation of their resources has been central to the development of the north.

In describing the deep violence  of the colonising North for those being colonised, Professor Estevea stated, “You cannot begin to have your own dreams; they have already been dreamt’.

What was this new dream? This new dream was now that of capitalism, getting on in life, science and reason. Professor Esteva went on to point out that the promise of the colonisers was that they would; “.share with you all of the scientific knowledge so you can catch up with the developed world”. This promise was to drag whole populations into the modern world; into a programme of development that was always characterised by a population who would be left behind.

To what extent, now, does post-modernity offer a release from this promise? In Professor Esteva’s words: “Post modernity should not be misunderstood as the phase beyond modernity. It refers to the dissolution phase of modernity”. More and more, he argued,  peoples are becoming aware of the truths of the period of modernity; that there cannot be one truth.

But as he argues, we have now entered into a phase of radical pluralism, on the one hand, and anomie on the other. Radical pluralism, if it ignores hospitality, it generates perverse outcomes, such as anomie. In this case radical pluralism now feeds xenophobic populist movements who reinforce their commitment to nation and to capitalism, generating a path that leads to new forms of destruction.

What role might education play? Professor Esteva reflected on the purpose and curriculum of his own university, which offers a different path to development based on the idea of hospitality. This recognises that  others exist; so that they can reveal their own dreams at a time that the world is falling apart.