Platform capitalism and the future of international education

Platform capitalism and the future of international education

Martin Henry

Platform capitalism has emerged from the mist as a spectre on the horizon of late capitalism.  There is growing hype around artificial intelligence, manipulation of data and the growth of platforms in defining life and work in the twenty first century.  As Srnicek points out in his book Platform Capitalism  this new spectre is historically grounded in economic movements in operation since the second world war. It has not appeared from nowhere and is not merely a digital mirage. It is a conscious attempt by private companies to increase profit margins and to chase the run of capital, whilst adopting the most recent technological innovations for online use. Put simply platform capitalism is the use of virtual platforms to control and manipulate data for pecuniary gain.

Public sector bodies and transnational organisations, like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), are also chasing platform technologies to increase their visibility, through fog lights if you like, and to profile themselves in the competitive struggle for resources. The OECD was set up after the second world war as an organisation focused on economic and social health in order to ensure war did not happen again. Into this environment universities, which are being constructed more and more by government policy in Britain as private companies, are thrust and expected to survive and thrive. This positioning of public organisations in the platform era has meant a commercial face being turned to students.

I suggest the economic model of platform capitalism has further developed the move towards enclosure for pecuniary gain and away from quality education as a basic right. In particular, I argue the transition from school to university, the OECD construction of Quality Teacher TM and the conditions platform capitalism provide for universities to construct ‘digital’ students as a source of capital in the modern era need to provide greater protections for students and teachers. Sorensen and Robertson argue that Quality Teacher has been trade-marked by OECD as a particular construction of how teachers should be.  Students and teachers thus become treated in the current arrangements as capital rather than as participants in education, teaching and learning.

This reductionism is further exacerbated by OECD’s Global Positioning System (GPS) which provides comparative data across OECD countries. This platform gathers OECD data from a variety of sources in order that countries can be compared with each other and positioned globally. The tertiary education reviews completed within this platform focus specifically on social and economic outcomes. This limited view of education further feeds the capitalist construction that uses data as a resource to be mined. This data set can be critiqued in terms of the relevant theories of platform capitalism.  I am not arguing that data is bad, but that approaches that reify economic models limit education’s potential. Methodologically, as Srineck points out, platform capitalism has significant internal fissures that inevitably lead to a disembodying of student and teacher and a tendency for the university to move away from their role as nurturers of student learning and growth and guardians of knowledge, towards a position where students and teachers are seen within the data gathered around them as crops to be harvested.

Education systems in this comparative environment have come under increasing pressure to homogenise, with PISA and other data driven policy drivers suggesting a ‘best way’ of doing education. This in turn has put limits on countries’ abilities to have local solutions, often to controversial effect. This trend has been mirrored in the university sector with unprofitable courses being shut down and pressures increasing to get students through courses in order to maintain student numbers. This education marketplace looks only set to expand.

As Frank Pasquale points out, it is plain for all to see how corrosive platform capitalism has become. This fast growing and problematic economic narrative has also nudged orgainsations like the OECD towards embracing Artificial Intelligence as an inevitable new development and has led many to fear that working conditions will continue to decline, just as the experience students have of education is on a downward trajectory. Attempts to halt the decline has inevitably led to values-based work that takes a more utilitarian shape, focused on molding together a transnational ball of resilience and transformative competencies. In OECD 2030 these are listed as creating new value; reconciling tensions and dilemmas and; taking responsibility. It appears that under platform capitalism the former is diametrically opposed to the latter two. Ironically at the same time the OECD and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have come out with clear positions on the importance of collective contracts in providing just conditions for workers. This is to be encouraged and marks a counter to the atomisation and individualism that characterised early platform capitalism.

While it is true the OECD and the ILO now argue that collective bargaining is good for companies and for productivity, more has to be done to safeguard workers in this time of economic change. Governments are beginning to realise that platforms cannot be allowed to grow exponentially unwatched and unregulated. Rather they should insist that workers’ rights are protected and people’s data safeguarded from manipulation. It is perhaps the time to begin to debate whether platforms working in and around education should be owned by countries. Or, at the very least, regulated in order provide protection from educational data being sold off to the highest bidder for commercial purposes. If we fail to achieve this not only will we be stumbling around in the mist, but we may also be descending into the swamp of rampant commercial interests shaping educational data in their own image.


Martin Henry is the research coordinator at Education International. His work focuses on professional issues, professional standards, the future of learning, technology and pedagogy, teacher identity, the status of teachers, breadth of learning, Technical and Vocational Education and Training and Early Childhood Education and Care. He works with OECD, UNESCO, ILO, G7, G20 and other transnational bodies to represent the teacher voice. 

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