Pimp your university

In recent decades university scholars have been introduced to a new language game, the language of capitalist markets, as part of neoliberal university doctrine, intensified by a pandemic shock doctrine, the transfer of teaching to an online format rapidly and on a massive scale. Neoliberal university doctrine and pandemic shock doctrine represent the neoliberal ideology that Pierre Bourdieu defines as based on an “economistic cult of productivity and profitability (p. 68).

As Bourdieu notes, it “ratifies and glorifies the reign of what are called the financial markets, in other words, the return to a kind of radical capitalism, with no other law than that of maximum profit, an unfettered capitalism without any disguise, but rationalized, pushed to the limit of its economic efficacy by the introduction of modern forms of domination, such as ‘business administration,’ and techniques of manipulation, such as market research and advertising.” (Bourdieu, 1998, p. 35.)

In the spirit of the neoliberal ideology, as Richard Hall has put it, universities have “been re-engineered in relation to the law of value, and the process of subsumption situates the University inside a transnational geography of accumulation, the very idea of the University is emptied of political, democratic content, and instead reorganised around surplus” (Hall, 2021, p. 39).

If there are losers in the universities’ new normal, there are also winners in the unfettered radical capitalist of the post-Covid world of online teaching and learning, and the biggest of them are big tech companies (Teräs et al. 2020).

Naomi Klein, the inventor of the term shock doctrine (Klein, 2007), has a dark vision of the future: “Public schools, universities, hospitals, and transit are facing existential questions about their futures. If tech companies win their ferocious lobbying campaign for remote learning, telehealth, 5G, and driverless vehicles – their Screen New Deal – there simply won’t be any money left over for urgent public priorities, never mind the Green New Deal that our planet urgently needs. On the contrary: the price tag for all the shiny gadgets will be mass teacher layoffs and hospital closures.” (Klein, 2020.)

In Finland, the former self-proclaimed information technology and learning superpower, all higher education institutions are building a shared digital learning platform or an ecosystem. The project’s goal is to launch “a new era of learning where each of us can learn more easily and flexibly, thus accumulating the expertise needed in a constantly changing world” (https://digivisio2030.fi/en/frontpage/). The project consists of at least four issues that need critical attention.

The question of equality. It is not said who are we who can learn more easily and flexibly and, more importantly, why and for what purposes. It is easy to assume, though, that easy and flexible are euphemisms for online teaching materials that are reachable 24/7. The project takes for granted an atomistic individual with enough material and cultural possibilities to find the needed learning contents and pay for them. Until now, Finnish higher education has been financed from tax funds and has been free for students. In addition, top-down -models of online learning, such as Digivisio 2030, can increase epistemic injustices (Santos, 2014, p.153), the destruction of all those knowledge and wisdom that does not represent the official and standardized view of the university re-engineered by the neoliberal order.

Individualism of the learning process. The project’s vision of future learning utilizes the individualist-competitive spirit of radical capitalism: “The competition for experts is getting tougher,” and there is a constant need to adopt new skills in working life (https://digivisio2030.fi/en/future-of-learning/.) In other words, eat or be eaten; you are either an eater or food. The individualist assumption does not consider fellow learners comprising a learning group but quite the reverse: learners are each other’s enemies.

Passive learners as customers. The learning services are based on an idea of an individual who makes their choices rationally from “education offering that meets their situation, schedule, and competence needs” (https://digivisio2030.fi/en/new-services-developed-in-digivisio-2030/). Thus, higher education is defined as a financial transaction between a customer and supplier. The pact does not include learning groups. Moreover, it is believed in the project that “Learning and expertise will take forms that we are not yet able to imagine in the face of the future.” Thus, it is assumed that people are passive recipients, not beings who can participate in history-making.

The power of digital machines. There is a danger that the new vocabulary alien to education (learning ecosystems, competence needs, AI-based guidance services) and digital teaching and learning practices will lead to a reintroduction and reinterpretation of what Paulo Freire titled the banking model of education (Freire, 2005): there are those who know and teach and those who are ignorant and taught. The future can be even worse: digital machines (algorithms) can make part of the teachers useless and replace them – a long dreamt utopia for some, a nightmare to others.

What is the point of such supposedly critical remarks, of critical analysis in general? It is said that people who live by the sea no longer hear the waves. The same can happen to words we use. As Russian Victor Shklovsky wrote, if stated repeatedly, “we no longer hear the words we utter, and as a consequence, perception has withered into mere recognition” (Shklovsky, 1917). Thus, the aim of critical analysis resembles that of the technique of art: “to make objects ‘unfamiliar'” (ibid.).

References

Bourdieu, Pierre (1998). Acts of Resistance. Against the New Myths of Our Time. https://monoskop.org/images/1/1d/Pierre_Bourdieu_Acts_of_Resistance-_Against_the_New_Myths_of_Our_Time_1998.pdf

Freire, Paulo (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum.

Hall, Richard (2021). The Hopeless University. May Fly Books. https://mayflybooks.org/the-hopeless-university-intellectual-work-at-the-end-of-the-end-of-history/

Klein, Naomi (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Metropolitan Books.

Klein, Naomi (2020). How big tech plans to profit from the pandemic. Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/may/13/naomi-klein-how-big-tech-plans-to-profit-from-coronavirus-pandemic

Santos, B. (2014). Epistemologies of the South. Routledge. https://unescochair-cbrsr.org/pdf/resource/Epistemologies_of_the_South.pdf

Shklovsky, Viktor (1917). Art as Technique. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/modules/fulllist/first/en122/lecturelist-2015-16-2/shklovsky.pdf

Teräs, M., Suoranta, J., Teräs, H., & Curcher, M. (2020). Post-Covid-19 Education and Education Technology ‘Solutionism’: a Seller’s Market. Postdigital Science and Education 2, 863–878. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00164-x

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