The Uberfication of the University

The Uberfication of the University

Gary Hall (Coventry University)

Talk about being careful what you wish for. A recent survey of UK vice-chancellors identifies a number of areas of innovation with the potential to transform UK higher education. Among them are ‘uses of student data analytics for personalised services’ (the number 1 innovation priority for 90% of VCs), ‘uses of technology to transform learning experiences’ (Moocs, flipped classrooms etc.), and ‘student-driven flexible study modes’, leading not least to the ‘demise of the traditional academic year’. Responding to this survey, an editorial in the Times Higher Education laments that, ‘the UK has world-leading research universities, but what it doesn’t have is a higher education equivalent of Amazon or Google, with global reach and an aggressive online strategy.’ Yet one wonders whether any of those proclaiming the merits of such disruptive innovation have stopped to consider what a higher education institution emulating the expansionist ambitions of Amazon and Google would actually mean for those currently employed in UK universities.

We can see the impact aggressive, global, for-profit technology companies have on the organisation of labour by looking at those data analytics businesses that are associated with the sharing economy. Emerging from the mid-2000s onwards, the sharing economy is a socio-economic ecosystem that supplies individuals with information that makes access to things like ridesharing and sofa surfing possible on a more efficient and expanded basis. As such, it’s often portrayed as bringing community values back into the ways in which people consume, and as helping to address environmental issues – by reducing the carbon footprint of transport, for example.

However, certain aspects of the sharing economy are also helping to enact a significant societal shift. It is a shift in which state regulated service intermediaries, like hotels and taxi companies, are replaced by information and data management intermediaries such as the start-ups Airbnb (a community marketplace for renting out private lodging and other kinds of accommodation) and Uber (an app that enables passengers to use their mobile phones to connect with a taxi, rideshare or private car).

In this respect, the sharing economy is one of the ways in which neoliberalism has been able to proceed with its programme of privatisation, deregulation, and reduction to a minimum of the state, public sector and welfare, even after the financial crash of 2008-2009. For by avoiding pre-emptive government regulation, these profit-driven sharing economy businesses are operating according to what can be understood as a post-welfare model of capitalism. Here there are few legislative protections for workers, and hardly any possibilities for establishing trade unions or other means of generating the kind of solidarity capable of challenging this state of affairs. It’s a situation that often leaves those providing services for these companies without a host of workers’ rights. As Mike Bulajewski notes, the list includes ‘the right to have employers pay social security, disability and unemployment insurance taxes, the right to family and medical leave, workers’ compensation protection, sick pay, retirement benefits, profit sharing plans, protection from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin, or wrongful termination for becoming pregnant, or reporting sexual harassment or other types of employer wrongdoing.’

All of which goes a long way toward explaining why in the March 2015 budget the government declared it is planning to make the UK a global centre for the sharing economy. Hence also one of the other names associated with this aspect of the sharing economy: ‘platform capitalism’. Indeed, the for-profit sector of this socio-economic ecosystem is almost the neoliberal ideal. It creates a situation in which the general population not only aspires to own their own homes – the vision Margaret Thatcher sold to the British working-classes in the 1980s with the right to buy scheme – they also have the opportunity to become private capitalist entrepreneurs themselves. And in the case of Airbnb, one way they can do so is precisely by trading underutilized space in their now privately owned homes. As Airbnb’s CEO, Brian Chesky, puts it, previously ‘only businesses could be trusted… Now, that trust has been democratized – any person can act like a brand…. It means… people all over a city, in 60 seconds, can become microentrepreneurs’.

The information and data management intermediaries of the sharing economy may create jobs, then, but ‘it’s a new kind of job’, as Chesky acknowledges. He calls it a 21st century job, though really it’s closer to a 19th century Victorian job. For these for-profit companies, and the microentrepreneurs who labour for them, are operating in an open market that’s relatively free from the power of state regulators, the labour movement and trade unions, to not only put a limit on the maximum hours those employed in these new kinds of jobs work, but also to specify the minimum wage they receive, the number of days off they need, and the paid holidays and free weekends they’re entitled to.

Production and control, profit and risk, are thus not shared in this sector of the sharing economy at all. It is the networks of users who help build the platform and provide the aggregated input, data and attention value that generates a market. It’s the owners of the information and data management intermediary who take the profits generated by financializing, corporatizing and exploiting the ’sharing’ of goods and services between the users and microentrepreneurs. These owners also control the platform, software and data, deciding pricing, wage levels, work allocation, and preferred user and labourer profile.

Research on the sharing economy by McGregor, Brown and Glöss shows a certain ‘homophily’ occurs, by which it is often ‘similar “types” of people [who] provide and use these services (in terms of class, education and race)’, especially when a rating system is employed. Uber, for example, enables both customers and drivers to rate one another, and suspends drivers if their scores are not high enough. Finally, it is the microentrepreneurs (who can now be potentially ‘any person’ rather than a specific set of employees) who labour to provide services in the market created by the platform on a freelance, on demand, and frequently precarious basis; who take the risks associated with having lost their rights, benefits and protection as employees; and who, according to this research, often face ‘increased surveillance, deskilling, casualisation and intensification’ of their labour too.

Such concerns are only too easy to push to the back of our minds when we’re trying to find a cheap place to stay for a weekend break, or call a taxi to take us home from a friend’s place late at night. It’s perhaps only when we think about these information and data management intermediaries from the perspective of a worker rather than a user, and consider their potential to disrupt our own areas of employment, that the implications of the shift to a post-welfare form of capitalism they’re helping to enact are really brought home. So what is the potential affect of this transformation in the organisation of labour on higher education?

In April of this year, LinkedIn, the social networking platform for professionals, spent £1.5 billion purchasing, a supplier of online consumer-focused courses. Although it doesn’t address the sharing economy specifically, a report of this deal by Goldie Blumenstyk published shortly afterwards in the Chronicle of Higher Education under the title of ‘How LinkedIn’s Latest Move May Matter to Colleges’, was very quick to draw attention to some of its potential implications for higher education. Of course, with its University Pages  and University Rankings Based on Career Outcomes, LinkedIn already has enough data to be able to provide the kind of detailed analysis of which institutions and courses are launching graduates into which long-term career trajectories, that no traditional university can match.

But what the Chronicle piece makes clear is that, with its immanent transition into being both a social network and an actual provider of education, such data could now be used to develop an extremely successful data and information intermediary business model for higher education – if not by LinkedIn then by some other platform capitalist company. (, say, which has already signed up over 22 million academics who between them have added more than 6 million papers.) Such a model would be based on providing ‘transparent’ information on a fine-grained basis to employers, students, policy-makers and governments. This information would indicate which of the courses, classes and even teachers on any such education ‘sharing economy’ platform are better at enabling students to obtain a particular degree classification or other educational credential, make the successful transition to a desirable career, reach the top of a given profession, and so achieve a high level of job satisfaction and salary.

But it doesn’t end there. The Chronicle report also tells of how LinkedIn bought a company called Bright in 2014. Bright has developed algorithms enabling it to match job positions with applicants according to their particular achievements, competencies and skill sets. And it wouldn’t be difficult for a business with the kind of data LinkedIn now has the potential to gather to do much the same for employers and students – right down to the level of their salary expectations, extracurricular activities, and ‘likes’. This business could charge a fee for doing so, just as many dating agencies make a healthy profit from introducing people with compatible personalities as deduced by algorithms. They could then charge a further fee for making this information and data available on a live basis in real time – something highly desirable in today’s ‘flexible’ economy, where many employers like to draw from a pool of zero-hours workers available ‘on tap’.

More ominous still, given that it would be able to control the platform, software, data analytics and the associated ecosystem, it’s clear that such a global platform capitalist higher education business would also have the power to decide who could be most easily seen and found in any such alternative market for education (much as Google’s does with its page ranking, the European commission having decided in April 2015 that Google has a case to answer regarding possible abuse of its dominance of search through ‘systematically’ awarding greater prominence to its own ads). Understandably, perhaps – especially following the recent fuss over MOOCs – Blumenstyk’s analysis of LinkedIn’s acquisition of shies away from arriving at any overly exaggerated or pessimistic conclusions as to what all this may mean for higher education and its system of certification and credentialing.

Nevertheless, if a company like LinkedIn took the decision to provide this level of fine-grained data and information for its own unbundled, relatively inexpensive online courses, but not for those offered by its more expensive market competitors in the public sector, it would surely have the potential to be at least as disruptive as Coursera, Udacity, FutureLearn and co. have proven to be to date, if not considerably more so. For the kind of information about degrees and student final destinations and ability to react to market changes any traditional bricks-and-mortar university is capable of providing on its own will appear extremely unsophisticated, limited and slow to compile and deliver by comparison. And, lest the adoption by a for-profit sharing economy business of such an aggressive stance toward public universities seems unlikely, it’s worth remembering that Google maintains its dominance of search in much the same way. In the words of its chief research guru, Peter Norvig, the reason Google has a 90-95% share of the European market for search is not because it has better algorithms than Yahoo and Bing, ‘it just has more data’. Indeed, one of the great myths about neoliberalism is that it strives to create competition on an open market. As the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, co-founder of Pay-Pal and early Facebook investor, emphasizes in his book Zero to One, what neoliberal businesses actually want is to be a monopoly: to be so dominant in their area of operation that they in fact escape the competition and become a market of one.

Of course many of those who work in higher education already have contingent, precarious positions as a consequence of neoliberalism’s insistence that universities operate increasingly like businesses. According to Sally Hunt, secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), ‘more than a third of the UK’s total academic workforce is now on temporary, fixed-term contracts’, with a recent UCU survey of 2,500 casualised staff  identifying a third of those in universities experiencing difficulty paying household bills, and as many as a fifth having problems finding enough money to buy food.

If an higher education equivalent of Amazon or Google along the lines sketched above did come into being, it would disrupt the public university still further – only this time by means of an innovative, profit-driven, ‘sharing economy’ business operating according to a post-welfare capitalist model, just as Airbnb is currently disrupting the state regulated hotel industry, and Uber state regulated taxi companies. Increasing numbers of university workers would thus find themselves in a situation not dissimilar to that facing many cab drivers today. Instead of operating in a sector that’s accountable to state regulators, they would have little choice but to sell their cheap and easy-to-access courses to whoever’s prepared to pay for them in the ‘alternative’ education market created by platform capitalism. They too would become atomised, precarious, freelance microentrepreneurs. As such, they’d experience all the problems of deprofessionalisation, intensification and surveillance such a post-welfare capitalist economy brings. Is that what UK vice-chancellors actually want?


Gary Hall is Research Professor of Media and Performing Arts at Coventry University.

[This article was re-posted on 06/08/2015, because an earlier draft had been uploaded in error]

Image: Marcus Henkel CC-BY-2.0