Worker power needed to curb the long-term trends of de-skilling and degradation of work



We recently described the University of Exeter’s brazen attempt to retain all pre-recorded material (e.g. lecture recordings) in perpetuity. Such a move would cripple educators’ ability to organise (if they went on strike, for example, their digitally recorded spectres could effectively function as strikebreakers), and complete the transformation of education into a mass-produced commodity.

The prospect of automation raises questions over the broad direction of Higher Education. By contextualising this latest incident within the longer-term changes in the education sector, we can see that the future looks dark for this sector without a major change of course.

In summary, it’s clear from the shamelessness of their proposal that the university administration is completely detached from the workers. This separation between workers and decision-makers emerges from a deep-rooted market-based ideology, and is often experienced by workers as bureaucracy. This separation explains why introduced technological changes serve neither educators nor students.


Neoliberal takeover of education

The ideological framework underlying changes to education in the past 40 years is neoliberalism: the ideology of free-markets, austerity and globalised capital. Initially imported to and imposed on the United Kingdom by Margaret Thatcher, it’s most commonly associated with the privatisation of public utilities and the total evisceration of the working class by crippling our ability to organise. The only thing of value in this ideology is economic incentives, and its underlying view of human nature is bleak: a Hobbesian notion of constant unrestrained competition. Operating under a neoliberal paradigm, new technologies are developed to reinforce market-based competition.

Neoliberalism plays out differently in education than it does in other sectors. Successions of right-wing governments have devastated and sold-off one government provision after another, while simultaneously increasing their control over education. Why? In the free market paradigm, policy-makers change laws and regulations to maximise some quantity (normally the economic value created). However, education is naturally resistant to quantification: its purpose is to provide people with the skills and knowledge they need for life and to enrich their lives with new perspectives. Measuring the education’s success is therefore as impossible a challenge as quantifying the fullness of life itself. To commodify education, the state first had to create the very quantities which would form the basis of new markets. [Aside: The creation of markets by the state is not new or surprising; most markets started in similar ways. Money, for example, first emerged as a medium of exchange to supply militaries in the ancient world.]

The implications of neoliberal ideology in education parallel many events in the history of capitalism.


Automation and de-skilling in industrial capitalism

This trend in education follows a pattern that’s not new at all. Technology and economies of scale are used to de-skill and degrade work, which concentrates wealth in the hands of the rich and powerful. At the same time, the elites secure their power by fencing off education and skilled work to maintain exclusive rights to creative labour. This process establishes pernicious hierarchies with corrosive effects on society. We’ll illustrate this with two examples.

Example 1: Technological innovations in the early 1800s resulted in the de-skilling of textile workers which reduced their collective bargaining position. Combined with a harsh economic climate following the Napoleonic wars, these changes resulted in horrific working conditions in textile factories across England: textile work had become more dangerous and less well-compensated. Resistance to these conditions erupted into a full-blown rebellion which swept across England between 1811-1816. Those responsible were the Luddites, and they’ve been much maligned in history as machine-breakers who were indiscriminately opposed to technology.

Far from the revisionist account that they were a backwards people, the Luddites were a militant labour movement that aimed to improve the conditions of the working class. To the extent that Luddites used sabotage, they were highly targeted: they destroyed machines in factories where employers were known to exploit their workers in the most egregious ways. Overall, they aimed (and often succeeded) to obtain a better bargaining position through direct action. Ultimately the state crushed the Luddites militarily, establishing a ruling class of factory and mill owners who could exploit and degrade workers without limits.

Example 2: The 1950s to 1960s era in the cold war saw an explosion in public funding for Higher Education in the United States, especially in the physical sciences. Cuts to public funding from 1970 forced a generation of newly minted PhDs in physics and engineering to find work in capitalist enterprises, displacing previous workers who had less formal education. This had grave long-term consequences in finance: the new elite class of highly skilled quantitative analysts (“quants”) developed technological innovations in the calculation of risk.

The new elite quants came to dominate all the creative labour in banking, leaving only frustrating and unimaginative work for the remaining workforce. The technological innovations of this new elite enabled the automatic pricing of various financial instruments that had previously required estimation by mid-level bankers. Such bankers had worked in their own communities, and drew upon their skills, intuition, and knowledge of their communities in making loans; these connections were obviated by the new quants coming out of Wall Street.

Banking had previously offered a fig-leaf of social mobility, being available to anyone with a high school diploma, but this option was degraded by an elite technical class. The decisions of this new class would reshape society for the worse. The unfettered transfer of power from the productive areas of the economy to finance (“financialisation”) ravaged workers’ pensions, squeezed wages, pillaged public services and deepened inequality. Moreover, the opaqueness of the new mathematical models employed in finance disguised assumptions about risk being made, making it comically easy to disguise unrepayable debt through mathematical trickery. This ultimately resulted in the global financial crash of 2008, whose dire consequences fell on the working class rather than the elite bankers who caused it.

Both examples show how new technologies displace existing workforces in favour of a wealthy and highly skilled elite. In one example we see immediate degradation and deprivation and a militant labour response; in the other, we see the disastrous long-term corrosive effect that a new and unchallenged elite technical class has on society.

Now this pattern is repeating itself in the education sector.


Transforming education into a commodity

We’ve seen two examples of how technologically driven de-skilling produces social harm. These examples don’t show that technology is bad per se, but that the changes don’t necessarily serve the workers and can have disastrous consequences as a result. Returning to education, we must ask: are new technologies being used to improve conditions for workers and the education delivered, or are they being used at their expense for the benefit of managers and the state?

The practical implications of neoliberal ideology in education are perfectly illustrated by the changes to schools. Market logic was imposed on schools by introducing the following changes:

  • A national curriculum, especially one that emphasises the easily quantifiable (and disciplining) rote-learning over more subjective (and subversive) qualities like critical thinking.
  • Standardised testing, which create standard metrics from which schools can be compared. This was further marketised by having the tests administered by private exam-boards.
  • Hiring armies of administrators and managers to establish vast bureaucracies, whose purpose is to ensure everything is properly represented and quantified.
  • Massively increasing teachers’ workloads by overwhelming them with admin, because rendering education in paperwork is the only way to make it legible to the freshly created bureaucracy.
  • Creation of the national inspection agency Ofsted, to rank schools through bureaucratic surveillance and new rating systems.
  • “Open enrollment” and “local management” policies, which tied school funding to the number of enrolled students forcing them to compete for consumers i.e. students.

The net result is that schools are run like businesses. It’s now even standard practice for schools to have business managers. The newly created metrics allow schools to be compared, and schools are forced to compete with eachother for funding by maximising their (perceived) success. In the last decade of austerity, budgetary pressures have heightened this competition and students themselves now experience an increasingly competive culture. Late-teens have reported more psychological distress in the same period, and exam pressure has become a significant factor in teen suicide.

Crucially, these new metrics do not truly measure education, but rather simply how it’s rendered and made legible to the new bureaucracies; this new system values “symbols of achievement over actual achievement”. There’s something to be said for accountability, and these changes did improve education in some limited ways. However, taken together they create accountability only through market forces, which perniciously introduces competition as the fundamental model for all human behaviour. Moreover, there is something important that’s completely missed by this new surveillance apparatus: the vast amount of resources and labour invested in creating it. Instead, these could have been spent on actually improving education by directly providing more resources for educators and students alike.

How does this all relate to technology? The new digital technologies introduced in the same period were integrated into schools to serve the needs of the new administrators. Teachers were forced to do increasingly more admin duties, all with the aim of making their primary labour (i.e. teaching) understandable to a computer and thus the new class of managers overseeing their work. We therefore see how technology facilitates the creation of a new elite managerial class, experienced by workers as bureaucracy and surveillance. This parallels changes in other sectors throughout the history of capitalism.

Let us now consider Higher Education, which has recently succumbed to similar forces.


Ever-expanding bureaucracies

Political and technological changes in Higher Education parallel those made in schools.

Bureaucracy has become ubiquitous. These Kafkaesque nightmares place impenetrable layers between workers and management, establishing a social hierarchy; managers who don’t do the work are automatically superior to anyone who does meaningful work. This separation reduces accountability, making management unanswerable to their employees. The new class of administrators, often with inflated executive salaries, are resource black holes in an already scant and exploitative funding landscape. Moreover, university executives like to routinely make the lives of education workers more precarious with occasional policy decrees. We opened with their latest edict: for online teaching material to be stored in perpetuity.

Higher Education has been commodified. In 2010 the Browne Review started from the assumption that students choose education to maximise their economic returns over the course of their careers, rather than from any desire to understand the world. This ideological choice became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the resulting policy decisions would profoundly reshape Higher Education until few people could imagine an alternative to market realities or to the idea that individuals make major life decisions like little economists. Tuition fees were infamously increased to £9000 for British nationals, and (outrageously) to tens of thousands for international students. Strictly speaking only the maximum was raised, so universities were under no obligation to charge this much. However, the simultaneous decrease in direct public funding ensured that this cap was saturated almost immediately.

Educators were subjected to market forces. With universities driven to economise their costs, the teaching staff has been increasingly casualised; fixed term and hourly payed teaching contracts are now commonplace. The new class of managers oversee this system, ensuring educators are drowning in new forms of paperwork and are under constant surveillance. The controversial Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) primarily quantify student satisfaction and salaries post-graduation. By tying funding to the outcomes of these reports, the universities are insidiously incentivised to placate students into becoming “happy consumers of their product”. This has the additional effect of sidelining humanities and the arts, which have become critically underfunded making them increasingly the domain of the wealthy.

Critical feedback between educator and student (ideally in each direction) is crucial for creating a constructive environment for education to take place; in the long-term, we can expect the new market incentives to degrade this in favour of “the customer is always right”. It’s now fairly common to hear students on campuses say things along the lines of “I’m paying over 9 grand to be here – I expect to receive a first”, and they have a point. For the time being, lecturers tend to be appauled by and resistant to this new paradigm; however, denial is not the same as meaningfully resisting these changes. Teachers are under pressure to provide more feedback than before, requiring more time per student – normally unpaid. With more students, a casualised workforce and more feedback required per student, the teaching workloads have become unmanageable.

The net result has been no obvious improvement in public finances, but now millions of students are saddled with unrepayable debt and universities have become ensnared in market forces.

A culture of competition also pervades academic research, undermining research quality through the “publish-or-perish” model. New metrics create perverse incentives and diminish research quality. Further surveillance and new metrics in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) ensure organisation along market principles. The market-based incentives ensure that there are only a few “winners”, with e.g. funding concentrated in just a few individuals which further entrenches a social hierarchy. Everyone else is forced into increasingly precarious contracts. Universities go to great lengths to protect those who bring in a lot of grant funding, and so antisocial and abusive behaviour goes unchallenged. Workers report that constant competition has created an unkind and aggressive culture, where bullying is commonplace. Enormous workloads and precarious conditions have produced an epidemic of poor mental health in Higher Education staff.

From the comfort of their ivory towers, it’s easy for university administrators to see their increasingly casualised workforce as nothing more than numbers in a spreadsheet. Within this context, we can be sure that new policies on technology won’t be introduced for the benefit of staff and students, but for the purpose of transforming Higher Education into a mass production commodity at their expense.

Dismantling these harmful social hierarchies necessarily entails a transfer of power to workers. Worker organisation is therefore much needed to fix Higher Education.


The role of unions in all of this

We now returning to the issue we started with. The University and College Union (UCU) is the main entity representing educators across campuses in Higher Education. In certain limited cases, traditional unions like the UCU are able to make a strong challenge on particular issues. However, the UCU on their own don’t appear capable of addressing the wider issues facing education that we’ve highlighted. While they have lots of good people, they’re structurally limited in their ability to organise workers:

  • The UCU is a mainstream (“service”) union, where the majority of its members seem to join as an insurance policy rather than out of any interest in organising for worker power.
  • The UCU is dominated by the interests of faculty members, many of whom (particularly grant-holders) are essentially managers. This means they have a vested interest in the status quo.
  • The UCU is almost as bureaucratic and undemocratic as Higher Education itself. Motions appear out of the blue to rank-and-file members for voting, i.e. without a participatory process of deliberation. The separation between workers and leadership leads to disastrous negotiating positions, particularly at the national level.
  • Students are not at all represented in the union. In particular, postgraduate students do the same core labour as members of faculty: they research and often teach; however, they’re not meaningfully represented within the UCU. The UCU rarely (if at all) campaigns on issues affecting postgraduate students, such as their exploitation by senior members of faculty and the resulting epidemic of poor mental health.

Without a meaningful democratic process and clear channels of communication between reps and the rank-and-file membership, mainstream unions like the UCU are structurally limited in the actions they can take. In practice, striking is the only real tactic left available to conventional unions, even though striking is one of the least effective forms of direct action and should generally be a method of last resort.

Industrial unionism is much needed to address the deep problems in education. The IWW focuses on rank-and-file organising with an industrial strategy that opposes hierarchies; this makes us an anti-bureaucratic union that promotes workplace democracy. We at the Education Workers Industrial Union believe that technology should be used to improve the conditions of educators and the education they deliver. As an anti-capitalist union, we oppose market-based solutions to social problems. As a solidarity union, we oppose competition as a model for all human interactions. As an industrial union, we oppose the division and alienation of all workers.

In practice, IWW members (“Wobblies”) in Higher Education often practice a dual-carding strategy; they are frequently members of both the IWW and the UCU. In the latter, Wobblies present a militant faction that are deeply involved in rank-and-file organising, and work to build enthusiasm for direct action and democracy in both workplace and union. Our focus on direct action and guiding principle of solidarity puts IWW members in a strong position to meaningfully reforming the UCU into a force capable of achieving real systemic change.