Sunday 5 December 2010

Student Protests, Universities and the Servitisation of Knowledge

Currently students are protesting in the UK at having their fees increased threefold and a burden of debt to last until they are in their 50s. Most people would put up a fight if someone lumped a £50k debt on them. The students are rightly angry, arguing that there's a principle at stake (more than their own personal loss) - but what is it? Their protest is unfortunately threatened by the inability to focus their fire. However, if they can nail the 'principle' then I think, because they have such self-organising power for collective action, they could have a spectacular victory.

The 'principle' is, I suspect, to do with freedom and equality and establishment's failure to deliver either. There are signs that the activism is moving in this direction. The #UKuncut ( campaign is targetting tax-evading high street stores with the slogan "pay your tax!". That's pretty unambiguous and might have some mileage.

The issue of freedom is I think directly related to education. Universities can be places to go to think and talk freely, away from the pressures of working life. Free talk in working life is rarely that free: there are so many unaskables, unthinkables in most corporations large and small: where the watchword is profit, the doublethink and newspeak will squash the thinking and the intense hours, the high mortgage, the daily commute and the demanding family will squash the will. This is not healthy. University is a place where the human good of expressive freedom can be attained and converted into a social good: although Universities themselves need to continually examine the extent to which they deliver this (students - beware what you wish for - the institution of education is at much at fault as big business!)

The equality principle is not only about the gap between the rich and the poor, but also the comparative freedoms between generations. If freedom is measured by one's ability to control one's destiny through being empowered to make informed choices from a range of options then we can situate the issue of debt with regard to personal control. It is not necessarily true that debt is bad. But only under the conditions where individuals have freedom to choose how much debt they should take on, what they will gain, and how they can manage it. Financial constriction and privation can sometimes yield greater human rewards (just as artistic constrictions can yield greater art); the social responsibility that goes with financial burden can also be good. The proposed loan arrangements for students impose huge debt with little control. This is in contrast to the financial freedoms enjoyed by the parents and grandparents of the current students, where there was plenty of scope for well-judged financial decisions which have paid-off handsomely in their retirement. These control levers are simply not available to the students, and ladling more debt on them will only make things worse.

Part of the blame for this I think is the increasing servitisation of the economy: moving from products to services has meant moving from artefacts which have intrinsic value which can be transferred, to artefacts which have no value to be transferred, but which are merely vehicles for consuming services. It's not just mobile phones (although that's a classic example) - there's an increasing trend to servitise everything from houses to rubbish collection. This servitisation has accompanied the collapse of manufacturing as a major employer, thus many of the jobs which students will end up doing will ultimately be in these 'servitised conversions'. A common feature of these services is the need to establish long-term legal contracts with consumers to ensure sufficient revenue for the service provider: consequently, people find themselves 'trapped' in long-term binding financial arrangements. But servitisation has a further trick, which has much greater impact. For in transferring the intrinsic value artefact to the service-consuming artefact, the intrinsic value has not disappeared. It has been swallowed up by the service providers who leverage the intrinsic value of products to extort greater custom for their services. They consequently have been getting more wealthy. It is not unusual in big cities to find streets where residential houses are aggressively purchased by developers, only for those houses to be demolished and flats (which service contracts) built in their place. In this way, the intrinsic value of artefacts gets transferred to a few. Servitisation may be the single most important driver behind the widening gap between rich and poor.

In the same way, we can consider the intrinsic value of an education. The intrinsic value of education is knowledge. It is knowledge that gives people the flexibility to make informed choices in their lives. I think the universities have succeeded in turning knowledge into a service. It's interesting to see the British Library ( trumpeting the 'value of knowledge' whilst selling 'services' to 'discover' it. Universities similarly sell services to discover knowledge in the form of courses. But a learning service is not knowledge, nor does it always deliver knowledge - as many dissatisfied consumers of learning services will testify. Indeed, learning services in the form of assessments and lectures can actually work against the discovery of knowledge. What learning services do deliver is the maintenance of the institution which keeps the service running. In this sense, the University's servitisation of knowledge is comparable to the servitisation of products by big business. The end-result is that Universities get more wealthy and powerful.

Educational institutions are large employers and economically important in their local communities. In a post-manufacturing economy, there is a requirement to generate need for the services that the institutions provide. Thus, it is increasingly hard to find employment in any of the service industries without having first consumed 'learning services' of one kind or another. In such a situation, does it matter who pays for it? If the need has been manufactured by society, and individuals can't get on in the world without consuming learning services, they have no choice but to stump up and pay their £50k. The students know this - that's why they're upset. So what can they do about it?

The issue centres on the intrinsic value of knowledge and the flexibility with which it can be accessed. The problem is that knowledge ultimately is discovered within the individual, not transferred by an institutional service. Universities have servitised knowledge but they have been able to do this because the service industries demand consumption of learning services as a condition of employment. The learning services the universities offer are very inflexible and expensive. The universities consider that their offering has to be like this to guarantee their revenue. But knowledge comes through care, space, communication, access to top professors, activity with peers, reading, etc. Not to mention a certain degree of suffering (but not too much!). So why don't the Universities ask how an individual might:
a. become knowledgeable
b. make their way through the world
c. contribute to the sustainability of knowledge for following generations
... without having to consume the existing services of a university?

The resistance to such thinking results from the pathology of universities in wishing to maintain themselves and their services. But it's only by a trick that Universities have swallowed knowledge and servitised it. Their wealth has been given to them by the service economy because it is in the broader economy's interests to maintain the educational services sector. But carrying on like this will lead to the enslavement of the future generation and possibly a worrying de-privileging of knowledge in society. Is there a way out?

Maybe we should have a fresh look at those aspects of the acquisition of knowledge:
1. care
2. space
3. communication
4. access to top professors
5. reading
6. activity with peers

I don't think this can all happen online. But technology can facilitate human contact that is necessary for much of it. Ironically, the protesting students taste of solidarity might be the best education they get! Maybe the protesters should consider forming their own university?

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