UK universities, COVID-19 and the edtech peril

The current crisis and its proposed solution via online emergency teaching has accelerated systemic processes already underway for UK universities under Brexit. While online education has radical and egalitarian potentials, emergency online teaching under present conditions threatens to invite in edtech corporations to dictate priorities as a contingency becomes a norm. Mariya Ivancheva warns that without serious rethinking and resistance, the UK higher education sector faces little option but to remain a tool of extraction and redistribution of public money to the private sector.

With the global spread of coronavirus and declaration by the World Health Organization of a COVID-19 pandemic on 11 March, universities in many countries have been pushed into fully digital modes of class delivery. As of 12 March, in the US alone over 100 universities had moved their teaching online. Since then, there is barely a country that has not seen the conversion of at least part of their courses to remote learning. Private education firms have since been inundated with requests from universities to step in and aid with online education delivery. And while the UK government and some senior managers of HEIs were initially reluctant to impose measures of social distancing and close their institutions, individual universities started taking the initiative themselves.

By 23 March, when lockdown and social distancing rules were finally introduced, most universities had shifted their classes online and closed most of their campus facilities, with exception of services facilitating essential labour. Since then, there has been a discussion around the lack of access to devices, secure internet connection and calm space and time for study for students coming from poorer families, living in volatile environments, and those with caring responsibilities, or with disabilities. Yet, the question of how going online will impact on academic labour in the long term, has still not been fully considered.

Not letting a good crisis go to waste

Given the criminal response of the government, that has by now cost Britain over 50,000 lives, these measures taken by universities are commendable. Yet, going online has also accelerated processes already underway in a sector which has for long been struggling with marketisation, austerity and casualisation especially since the 2008 crisis, and over which the threat of Brexit reducing EU research funding and students was throwing a shadow. Now, with the impending and unprecedented new economic crisis, fears of drastic drop in the intake of fee-paying overseas students for next academic year, and the government’s refusal to commit to £2 billion ‘bailout’ of the sector, the prospects for speedy recovery are at best bleak.

While the push to move online has meant that many students will be able to finish the academic semester and year, the assurances for staff have been much less generous. Reliant on over 50% precarious workers in teaching-only, often hourly paid and zero-hour contracts, universities have offered some furlough schemes, but a growing number are now discussing scenarios of disposing of the services of those most vulnerable. Meanwhile, edtech corporations, previously approaching individual universities through the backdoor, are now seen as ‘first aid’ or even ‘palliative’ care providers. In the current context, it is pivotal to understand how engaging with such schemes would mean further casualisation and outsourcing of academic labour, and be absolutely detrimental to the public university.

The troubled waters of marketised HE

The last decades have seen a huge redistribution of public monies to private providers. The public now bears the triple burden of education through taxation (research budgets and university running costs), paying toward study costs (student tuition, living costs and student loan repayment), and by bearing the risk of student loans (repackaged as debt and sold on to private investors). Entering public-private partnerships on terms favourable to the private side, university management teams have claimed that they benefit the ‘public good’ by investing in infrastructure and services, creating jobs and growth: a smokescreen for unsustainable exponential expansion, financialisation, and infringement on workers’ rights through even less securities and protections.

For example, academic pensions were privatised through the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), part of a leaked offshore registered tax scheme. UK universities, rated highly by rating agencies with the premise the state would bail them out, were also allowed to borrow hundreds of millions to invest in the construction of private dorms, committing to an exponential increase in student numbers and often feeding off-shore registered private corporations in a market as big as £45 billion in 2017 already. Soulless dormitories, leisure services and facilities welcome the students, while counselling services and face-to-face contact with faculty in crammed lecture halls are a scarce commodity for students experiencing a mental health epidemic.

With fees capped at £9,000 per year for undergraduate studies, and some MA-level degrees charging foreign students over £20,000 per year – not counting food, accommodation or leisure – student debt has risen to £121 billion in student loans.  These loans are of course becoming increasingly difficult to pay due to the prevalence of precarious, low-paid jobs in the post-graduation labour market.

Last but not least, research funding still comes predominantly from public sources as the EU or national research councils. Human and financial resource investment into cyclical competitive applications with low success rates, is encouraged as ‘industry-academia collaboration’ that often benefits the private side through patents, cheap research labour and the right of private companies to veto publications.

Edtech moving in

Meanwhile, edtech corporations have taken a bigger role within universities, instrumentalising two paradigm shifts of the neoliberal free-market ideology applied to higher education as well as other public services. ‘User-’ (or in education ‘learner’-) centredness has technically meant increased burdens on the public for the development of the private sector and the individualisation of risk and debt. For instance, job training has shifted from employers to universities with a continuous shaming of academics for not being ready to train workers in the skills needed for the future job market: a task never before expected from universities.

The second paradigm used by edtech companies to make themselves relevant to universities is that of ‘solution-centredness’. The same solution is invariably offered: ‘digital disruption’: the disruption of the university institution as we know it. In response to the demand of egalitarian educators for democratisation or for revolutionising the exclusive university now subservient to power elites, edtech corporations worth $billions are presenting themselves as the solution via digital technologies. They step into a long tradition. Distance learning through technological advancements – letters, radio, audiocassette and video recordings – have been used historically to reach ‘atypical’ student populations: workers, women, people in remote locations, with disabilities or caring responsibilities. Open education – free webinars, mega open online courses (MOOCs), freely available education resources and open code software etc. – were initially part of a radical paradigm of widening access.

Yet, under the current scenario of going online in a highly marketised university sector, technology is mostly used to opposite ends. Before the COVID-19 pandemic some universities were already engaged in MOOCs, free and credit-bearing short courses, and full online degrees involving public-private partnerships with online program management (OPM) companies. OPMs represent a sector of around 60 providers worldwide within the broader edtech market estimated at $3 billion, but expected to reach $7.7 billion by 2025 – which might even increase with the effects of the pandemic. The business model usually entails OPMs getting 50-70% of course fee revenue and access to profitable big data, in return for giving back some start-up capital, risk absorption, platform, marketing and recruitment aid. A difference between OPMs and other players in the edtech sector offering digital devices or services, is that OPMs offer partly what is considered the ‘core business’ of universities: curriculum design, teaching and student support. A second difference is that unlike other private education providers, OPMs use brands of existing universities in order to sell their product without being too apparent.

Normalising casualisation and inequality

The OPM sector is particularly important to observe in the UK as this model relies on heavy academic workloads and precarious outsourced labour, and has potential to circumvent organised resistance. Many MOOCs, short courses and full online degrees in partnership with OPMs are designed and offered as part of universities’ usual offer: soaring academic workloads are intensified through online teaching without extra remuneration, despite it being pedagogically different and practically more time-consuming than classroom teaching. With COVID-19 turning emergency remote teaching into ‘online education’ this process could be further normalised.

Durham University has tried to set a dangerous precedent which will very probably not remain alone. It entered an agreement with Cambridge Education Digital (CED) to offer fully online degrees from autumn 2020 without staff consultation, but under assurances from CED that staff only needed six hours of training to design and deliver such degrees. At the same time, OPMs have already absorbed many third-level educated workers, often out of PhD and in precarious employment, to offer student support as deprofessionalised insecure poorly paid ‘gigs’, similar to Deliveroo or TaskRabbit. Not unionised under the same union as other academics, COVID-19 will ensure that these workers – often women and academics from black or minority ethnic background who are at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring and promotion –will become ever easier victims of cuts. It also means that they will be used – as temp agency academics have been in the past – to break the picket lines of protesting academics. This system feeds directly on the polarisation of academics benefitting those eligible for research grants, and who extract research from precarious researchers and replacement teaching from teaching-only staff: practices legitimised under EU and national research council funding, and research-based rankings and audits.

With COVID-19 the OPM model of outsourcing core activities and labour to the private sector, could be accelerated even further through a bigger structural change anticipated by harbingers of the death of public higher education. The huge cost of going online – recently estimated at £10 million per 5-6 online courses for a single university and £1 billion across the sector – means many universities will not be able to afford to offer online courses. Furthermore, OPMs do not work with just any university: they prefer to work with already established brands. In this conjuncture, and under the current peril of students not willing to move to the UK fearing the pandemic, many smaller and less globally visible universities might lose a significant amount of students and the funding that comes with it.

Yet, the cry for regulation and a cap on numbers that would allow redistribution throughout the sector might fall on deaf ears. A blog post by Jo Johnson, former Minister of Education and brother of the UK Prime Minister, expresses a cynical view of the future of UK universities. His formula is simple: the government should refuse the call of lower ranked teaching-heavy former polytechnics, which rarely have partnerships with OPMs or offer online courses. According to Johnson, they are to die a natural death or offer vocational courses, which they did offer before being turned into universities in 1992. Research-intensive Russell Group universities, already offering online courses in partnership with OPMs, would expand, through their globally known brands, absorbing all students and revenue. What such a vision does not spell out is what would happen with laying off teaching staff. It is not difficult to speculate that the new mega-universities will increasingly depend on ‘student support’ and teaching from OPM-hired outsourced academics in the form of deprofessionalised precarious ‘gigs’.

Arenas of struggle and resistance

This scenario is ripe for resistance, but resistance is ever more difficult. Over the last six months members of the University and College Union spent 22 days striking. One of the two disputes of this longest sustained industrial action in the sector focused on pensions, while the second one united four demands: for lowering workloads, a sector-wide salary increase (decreased 20% over the last decade), against casualisation, and for the abolition of the 21% gender- and 26% racial pay gaps. Employers, represented by Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, have so far not made significant concessions to strike demands. The COVID-19 crisis made strike action redundant, and higher workloads, pay cuts and casualisation are now presented as the only sector-wide solution to the pandemic and economic crises.

In this conjuncture, the new push online has to become yet another central arena of struggle for the unions. Yet, research – a key tool for academic and other unions – might be challenging: a lot of contracts between universities and OPMs are made without staff consultation and are not available to the public. Besides, research results can be considered harmful for the brand of OPMs. Still, now more than ever a sector-level audit and regulation of university-OPM contracts and edtech procurement is due, paying particular attention to academic labour and student data use by edtech corporations. While trying to stop layoffs, UCU would also need to make itself available to academic workers in the outsourced programs, with the fight to insource teaching staff as a possible horizon. And while all this might look like a very British problem, the perfect storm happening in the UK higher education sector is bound to soon spread to other contexts.

by Mariya P Ivancheva

Originally published on 21 May 2020 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.

Mariya Ivancheva (University of Liverpool) is an anthropologist and sociologist of higher education and labour. Her academic work and research-driven advocacy focus on the casualisation and digitalisation of academic labour, the re/production of intersectional inequalities at universities and labour markets, and on the role of academic communities in processes of social change, especially transitions to/from socialism. Mariya is a member of the LeftEast editorial board and the LevFem and PrecAnthro collectives. Follow her @mivanche.