Technology, Markets, & the New Political Economy of Higher Education

By Slaughter, Sheila; Kittay, Jeffrey et al. | Liberal Education, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Technology, Markets, & the New Political Economy of Higher Education


Slaughter, Sheila, Kittay, Jeffrey, Duguid, Paul, Liberal Education


Our 1997 book, Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University, led us to begin thinking about technology, markets, and the new political economy of higher education. There's little research in this area. Nearly all the research that looks at technology and work considers private commercial enterprises ranging from manufacturing and industrial concerns to diverse financial and information services. In large part, there is a dearth of research on higher education because the bulk of courses offered with the new technology by nonprofit and for-profit institutions of higher education have developed within the last five years, with the majority appearing in the last three years.

Most studies that deal with higher education from the 1990s onward describe Internet distance education or compare educational effectiveness between conventional and Internet classrooms. Often, this research is badly designed and lacks theoretical or conceptual frameworks. It does not deal with how faculty labor is organized, with curricular products for academic e-commerce, nor with the ethics and values issues raised by on-line education.

At the University of Arizona, my research group is planning a study that will look at how e-commerce interacts with e-pedagogy. Because it's in process, I can't share the results with you, but I will share some of our working hypotheses, which are based on extensive review of interdisciplinary literature dealing with organization of academic work, distance education, and markets. I think it's particularly important to look at these things, because venture capitalists are starting to look to higher education, teaching, and learning, in the same way that they identified the profit potential of the health care industry in the 1980s.

Marketizing higher education

Venture capitalists and for-profits are primarily interested in higher education because it organizes markets for whatever e-products they want to sell. Colleges and universities are interested for the same reasons: They hope that e-education will provide profit centers for the institution. At the same time that institutions are contemplating increased engagement in e-education, faculty and a wide variety of academic professionals are looking to carve out niches and profits for themselves with regard to Internet learning. So, if we are thinking about distance education, courseware, and software, for-profits, institutions, administrators, and faculty all are interested in getting a piece of the action.

Colleges and universities began to grapple with these issues in the 1970s and 1980s around professional development, which, at that point, took place via television and tapes. The Internet makes it more exciting, more viable. Through professional education in engineering, medicine, nursing, law, and other fields close to the market, universities employed non-academics to develop work-for-hire programs owned by universities and serving as profit centers. This paved the way for universities and other types of professionals-professionals who were not faculty-- to become involved in Internet education for profit or as a profit center.

The introduction of venture capital and the creation of for-profit education almost always depends on universities forming partnerships with private corporations. In other words, it is rare for private corporations to act on their own. There are, of course, exceptions like the University of Phoenix. But, for example, Columbia University and the University of Chicago have associated with UNext.com, a relationship that is further complicated because UNext's head is a trustee of the University of Chicago.

What we want to know about the Internet and the World Wide Web is whether they are hastening the marketizing of higher education. By marketizing we mean organizing faculty work, developing curricular products, and targeting student populations so as to incorporate market values into educational activities and generate new revenue streams for institutions via for-profit educational enterprises. …

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