Worlds of Education

“Post-pandemic reform of higher education: Market-first or purpose-first digital transformation?”, by Ben Williamson and Anna Hogan.

published 9 February 2021 updated 1 July 2021
written by:

Educational technologies have become central to higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state of emergency in tertiary systems worldwide has enabled private edtech companies, global tech businesses, and the networks of promoters backing them, to define the post-pandemic future of the university.

Our new report for Education International, ‘ Pandemic Privatisation in Higher Education: Edtech and University Reform’, offers a detailed examination of the various ways in which commercialisation and privatisation of higher education were pursued and advanced through the promotion of edtech and ‘digital transformation’ agendas during campus closures and disruptions in 2020. The emergency of the pandemic itself has opened up higher education to privatised emergency technology solutions.

In the report, we argue that while there is nothing inherently wrong with private industry involvement in higher education—distance education models and online learning technologies may offer significant benefits to universities—it does raise some significant issues about private power and influence to drive changes in ways that reflect specific assumptions about the values and purposes of higher education.

One key value and purpose driving private edtech expansion is monetary. For many private organisations in the business of education, the pandemic has already proven extremely valuable. The edtech market intelligence agency HolonIQ has calculated that the total venture capital investment in edtech exceeded USD $16billion in 2020 alone, which it described as financial backing for ‘a vision to transform the way the world learns’. The pandemic has been treated as a catalyst of edtech capitalisation, with investors seeking prospective future cash flow from products promising to transform education. The idea that market valuations, private capital and technological innovation are key factors in the transformation of education, the ways a technological ‘vision’ is attracting consensus amongst various constituents, and the materialisation of such a market-centred imaginary in policy and practice settings, are the key issues explored in our report. In this brief post introducing it, we explain how some of these emerging dynamics of marketization and privatisation in higher education are advancing.

Re-imagining the university

During the pandemic, higher education internationally became the focus of intense ‘reimagining’ by sprawling webs of think tanks, consultancies, sector agencies, edu-businesses, financial organisations and technology companies, as part of both a longer history of multisector HE reform efforts and recent projections of the ‘ digital transformation’ of higher education.

The Learning and Teaching Reimagined Initiative launched in the UK in October 2020 exemplifies the transformative imaginaries that have circulated and gained traction over the past year. In a report entitled Digital at the Core, the initiative projects a strategic vision for post-pandemic higher education reconstruction and ‘data-empowered universities’ in the UK that involves the datafication of all activities and data-driven decision making; the ‘unbundling’ of education into discrete components for rebundling as new edtech platform products by market suppliers; and the selection of ‘personalised’ educational content based on individualised data analytics. Being ‘digital at the core’ also means universities being connected to interoperable cloud and data systems provided by giant infrastructure partners—such as Salesforce or Amazon Web Services—in new public-private partnership arrangements.

Platform universities and cloud campuses

In the book The Platform Society, Jose van Dijck, Thomas Poell and Martijn de Waal make the point that global technology businesses have begun making significant in-roads into education. They are doing so through the provision of platforms for teaching and learning, and cloud and data infrastructures to enable seamless connectivity, interoperability, third-party platform integrations, and data flow across systems. We can see this coming to fruition in higher education under emergency pandemic measures, as disruptions on physical campuses have led to the creation of novel ‘platform universities’ and ‘cloud campuses’ that exist in private, global, digital infrastructures.

The technical partner in the Learning and Teaching Reimagined initiative, Salesforce, for example, has promoted its Education Data Architecture for higher education as a ‘360-degree’ infrastructure for collecting, analysing and using student data. It combines student information, learning management, and other institutional systems, as well as third-party plug-in apps available through the Salesforce AppExchange, into one interoperable system—the Salesforce Education Cloud. The Salesforce Education Cloud is also ‘ infused with Einstein’, the company’s machine learning and predictive ‘artificial intelligence’.

The new infrastructures of the platform university or cloud campus represent the materialisation of the vision of the digitally-transformed, data-empowered, and artificially-intelligent university that has now taken hold in education systems such as the UK. The contemporary university is being both ‘platformised’ to operate through an ever-increasing market of edtech platforms, and ‘re-infrastructured’ to operate through large-scale global connective cloud and data infrastructures.

This is all enabling edtech and cloud providers to seek profitable deals and partnerships with institutions, while advancing a transformational imaginary that will define the operations and purposes of higher education during post-pandemic recovery and reconstruction.

Digital transformation of higher education is far more than a technological project—it is a fundamentally a political project being pursued by powerful multisector coalitions. Jose van Dijck and colleagues argue that new platform and infrastructure transformations of education are fused to a ‘political agenda where formerly defined public and government functions are administered towards yielding private profits,’ with public funding increasingly lured toward platforms that capitalise on ‘data-based, technology-intensive forms of teaching and learning, at the expense of investments in human-based, labor-intensive pedagogical and didactic skills.’

Alternative post-pandemic imaginaries of higher education

The privatised, highly-capitalised future of higher education calls for concerted efforts among higher education unions, university staff and students to ensure they have a voice in any proposed digital transformation of their institutions. Digital transformation may profoundly affect teaching and learning in universities far beyond recovery from the current emergency. Yet those most affected by such changes currently have little involvement in negotiating the future of the sector. Important initiatives such as The Post-Pandemic University network demonstrate the significant expertise and experience within the sector to develop alternative, purposeful, and democratic futures of higher education in a collegial, dialogic and deliberative fashion.

Technology businesses, edtech companies and investors, as well as consultancies, agencies and political centres are driving a techno-economic digital-first transformation agenda that stands to increase universities’ dependency on private platforms and infrastructures, expand student and staff surveillance through data and monitoring, and insert automated Artificial Intelligence technologies into pedagogic routines. There may be benefits to be gained from increasing technology use in higher education if it is negotiated with university staff and students based on genuinely educational purposes and values, rather than dictated by market values, business interests, and reformatory political assumptions about the value of higher education in a post-pandemic economy.

Rapid digital transformation of the sector driven by market valuations, the efforts of technology businesses to increase their market dominance in education, and the desires of investors for future cash flow, risks being profoundly undemocratic and potentially damaging way to approach the future of higher education. Instead of educational futures as market-led ‘digital-first’ transformations, they should be led by ‘ purpose-first’ considerations of pedagogy and curriculum development, and sectoral debates over the critical role of higher education in meeting the complex challenges of the future.

To access the full report: Pandemic Privatisation in Higher Education: Edtech & University Reform, by Hogan, A. & Williamson, B. (2021), please go here. The executive summary can be found here.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.