Pandemic privatization and digitalization in higher education

Ben Williamson and Anna Hogan

The state of emergency in higher education systems around the world during the Covid-19 pandemic has opened up the sector to an expanding range of education technologies, commercial companies, and private sector ambitions. In our new report commissioned by Education International (the global federation of teacher unions), entitled ‘Pandemic Privatisation in Higher Education: Edtech and University Reform’, we examine various ways commercialization and privatization of higher education have been pursued and advanced through the promotion of edtech and ‘digital transformation’ agendas during campus closures and disruptions over the last year. Although we recognize that digital technologies and private or commercial organizations can bring many benefits to HE, they also raise significant challenges with long-term implications for HE staff, students and institutions. Many of these challenges are long-term political and economic matters as much as they are short-term practical matters of online teaching.

The report is detailed and long enough, but even since we finished it in late 2020, the developments we identified have accelerated and expanded. These include investors seeking to capitalize on new visions of teaching and learning, and multisector coalitions coming together to reimagine the future of HE through digital infrastructure and platform-based transformations — ultimately ‘re-infrastructuring’ and ‘platformizing’ universities to operate according to design principles imported by the digital tech industry. These are profoundly political issues about control, power, influence and governance in HE, mirrored by similar shifts of control to technology in the health sector.

Maybe most of the proposed changes associated with so-called digital transformation won’t work out in practice. That may be for several reasons: large-scale transformative proposals are rarely realized in their ideal form, and technologies can always be resisted, subverted, ignored, or simply mobilized in much more mundane ways than their architects intended. But we hope the report at least raises awareness of the changes that many powerful organizations are imagining and seeking to materialize in the very near future. The form, role and functions of higher education may be profoundly reimagined and reconstructed during post-pandemic recovery, and all stakeholders in the sector need to be involved in debates over the sector’s future.

Here is the summary from our full report as a starter for such debates:

  • Pandemic privatisation through multi-sector policy. Emergencies produce catalytic opportunities for market-oriented privatisation policies and commercial reforms in education. The COVID-19 pandemic has been used as an exceptional opportunity for expanding privatisation and commercialisation in HE, particularly through the promotion of educational technologies (edtech) as short-term solutions to campus closures and the positioning of private sector actors as catalysts and engineers of post-pandemic HE reform and transformation. The pandemic privatisation and commercialisation of HE during the COVID-19 emergency is a multi-sector process involving diverse actors that criss-cross fields of government, business, consultancy, finance, and international governance, with transnational reach and various effects across geographical, social, political, and economic contexts. It exemplifies how ‘disaster techno-capitalism’ has sought to exploit the pandemic for private sector and commercial advantage.
  • Higher education reimagined as digital and data-intensive. Diverse organisations from multiple sectors translated the public health crisis into an opportunity to reimagine HE for the long term as a digitally innovative and data-intensive sector of post-pandemic societies and economies. While face to face teaching constituted an urgent global public health threat, it was also constructed by organisations including education technology businesses, consultancies, international bodies and investors as a longer-term problem and threat to student ‘upskilling’, ‘employability’, and global post-coronavirus economic recovery. Framed as a form of ‘emergency relief’ during campus closures, education technologies were also presented as an opportunity for investment and profit-making, with the growing market of edtech framed as a catalytic enabler of long-term HE reconstruction and reform.
  • Transformation through technology solutionism. Education technologies and companies became highly influential actors in HE during the pandemic. Private organisations and commercial technologies have begun to reform colleges and universities from the inside, working as a social and technical infrastructure that shapes institutional behaviours and, as programmed pedagogical environments, determines the possible organisation of teaching and learning. In the absence of the physical infrastructure of campuses and classrooms during the pandemic, institutions were required to develop digital infrastructure to host online teaching. This opened up new and lucrative market opportunities for vendors of online learning technologies, many of which have actively sought to establish positions as partners in long-term transformations to the daily operations of colleges and universities. New kinds of technical arrangements, introduced as temporary emergency solutions but positioned as persistent transformations, have affected how teaching is enacted, and established private and commercial providers as essential infrastructural intermediaries between educators and students. These technologies are enacting significant changes to the teaching and learning operations and practices of HE institutions, representing a form of solutionism that treats all problems as if they can be fixed with digital technologies.
  • New public-private partnerships and competition. New public-private partnerships developed during the pandemic blur the boundaries between academic and industry sectors. Partnerships between academic institutions and the education and technology industries have begun to proliferate with the development of business models for the provision of online teaching and learning platforms. Global technology companies including Amazon, Google, Alibaba and Microsoft have sought to extend their cloud and data infrastructure services to an increasing number of university partners. Colleges and universities are also facing increasing competition from private ‘challenger’ institutions, new industry-facing ‘digital credential’ initiatives, and employment-based ‘education as a benefit’ schemes offering students the convenience of flexible, affordable, online learning. These developments enhance the business logics of the private sector in HE, privileging education programs that are tightly coupled to workplace demands, and expand the role of for-profit organisations and technologies in the provision of education.
  • Increasing penetration of AI and surveillance. Edtech companies and their promoters have increased the deployment of data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence in HE, and emphasised the language and practices of ‘personalised learning’ and ‘data-driven decision-making’. Organisations from across the sectoral spectrum have highlighted the importance of ‘upskilling’ students for a post-pandemic economy allegedly dominated by AI and automation and demanding new technical competencies. AI has also been enhanced through the deployment of large-scale data monitoring tools embedded in online learning management software, surveillance technologies such as distance examination proctoring systems, and campus safety systems such as student location and contact tracing apps. In imaginaries of the AI-enabled future of HE, next-generation learning experiences will be ‘hyperindividualised’ and scaled with algorithms, coupled with digital credentialing and data-driven alignment of education with work.
  • Challenges to academic labour, freedom and autonomy. The professional work of academic educators has been affected by the increasing penetration of the private sector and commercial technology into HE during the pandemic. Staff have had little choice over the technologies they are required to employ for their teaching, resulting in high-profile contests over the use, in particular, of intrusive surveillance products or concerns over the potential long-term storage and re-use of recorded course materials and lectures. Academic educators have been required to double up their preparation and delivery of classes for both in-person and online formats. Classes and events featuring ‘controversial’ speakers or critical perspectives have been cancelled due to the commercial terms of service of providers of online video streaming platforms. The expansion of data analytics, AI and predictive technologies also challenges the autonomy of staff to make professionally informed judgments about student engagement and performance, by delegating assessment and evaluation to proprietorial software that can then prescribe ‘personalised learning’ recommendations on their behalf. Finally, academic freedom is at risk when online teaching and learning conducted in an international context runs counter to the politics of certain state regimes, leading to concerns over censorship and the suppression of critical inquiry in remote education.
  • Alternative imaginaries of post-pandemic HE. Online teaching and learning is neither inevitably transformative nor necessarily deleterious to the purpose of universities, the working conditions of staff, or the experience of students. However, the current reimagining of HE by private organisations, and its instantiation in commercial technologies, should be countered with robust, critical and research-informed alternative imaginaries centred on recognising the purpose of higher education as a social and public good. The appearance of manifestos and networks dedicated to this task demonstrates a widespread sense of unease about the ways emergency measures are being translated into demands to establish a new ‘digital normalcy’ in HE. Educators, students, and the unions representing them should dedicate themselves to identifying effective practices and approaches, countering the imposition of commercial models that primarily focus on profit margins or pedagogically questionable practices, and developing alternative imaginaries that might be realised through collective deliberation and action. 

We hope educators, unions, leaders and others will engage with some of these issues in the months to come. The full report is available to view or download here, or you can access PDF versions of the summary in English, French and Spanish.

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