Universities go online during the pandemic: who reaps the profits?

Over the last few months, universities across the globe have been pressed to go online as a way of continuing their activity under lockdown. Even after the current reopenings, university life in many countries continues virtually.

Apart from guaranteeing essential educational activities, going online has been commended as an opportunity to reduce the abysmal academic carbon footprint, and as a way to democratise access to spaces like international conferences that were previously financially and geographically prohibitive to academics and students from the Global South.

This argument is by no means new: it has a long historical lineage in discussions about distance, adult and open education. Whether by postal service, radio and cassette devices in the early days, or, more recently, through increasingly sophisticated online platforms and digital devices, these forms of education have frequently been hailed as “revolutionising” higher education, and praised for offering flexible low-cost options to “atypical” student populations who cannot pursue full-time residential degrees: women, people with caring responsibilities or disabilities, and workers.

Yet, as we saw from a recent post in Corona Times on the digital divide in Zimbabwe’s higher education, and from other articles from the Global North, going online in the current situation exposes widespread inequalities, and can deepen already existing divides between north and south.

Access to devices, internet and skills is scarce in certain contexts, where going online reveals the gaping cracks of multiple inequalities at the intersection of class, race and gender. Internet pricing is uneven and taxing, as is the need to find safe and quiet spaces in which to work. This makes online teaching and learning out of reach for many students, but also for some faculty members living in precarious or volatile conditions.

But beyond crucial questions about access, there are other structural reasons for being wary of the current push towards digitalisation. The pandemic brings into stark relief the increasingly threatened public function of universities, and the ongoing marketisation of the higher education sector. Digital learning is one route through which universities are being transformed from entities serving a public good to providers servicing specific markets.

In many countries, dwindling resources for public higher education are been reallocated to a small number of private educational technology (EdTech) corporations. The latter offer expensive digital learning “solutions”, which are a way to extract profits while benefiting from public resources, and ultimately reproduce and often deepen existing inequalities. Rather than uncritically embracing the “digital revolution” as a panacea for higher education ills, what we need is a radical rethinking of this unequal system.

Our findings from research we carried out in 2017-2018 as part of a bigger research team working on the digitalisation and marketisation of higher education in South Africa and the UK*, can shed some light on the current debates.

One of the issues which working within this project brought home to us was the extreme social polarisation we witnessed within the span of the fieldwork. The fancy offices of EdTech corporations based in metropolitan hubs in the Global North and offering digital learning products were in stark contrast to the underfunded universities in peripheral areas of South Africa, where state support in the form of students’ stipends was often significantly delayed, leaving some students sleeping rough or going hungry for weeks.

As part of our research we spoke to CEOs and account holders of online program management providers (OPMs), a business label for companies that provide services for online higher education. This market of around sixty operators worldwide is assessed at over $3 billion in 2019. Before the pandemic, it was projected to reach a $7.7 billion annual revenue in the next five years, but now this sum might increase. Over the same period, the fast growing EdTech corporate sector as a whole is expected to double to $341 billion in size, and the online degree global market is forecast to rise from $36 billion to $74 billion.

These companies offer services such as content creation, online platforms and assistance in creating degree programs to generally highly ranked institutions, often in English-speaking countries – the Global North/South distinction is not as relevant in this case, as countries such as South Africa have highly ranked and historically privileged universities.

While OPMs’ rhetoric is all about “revolutionizing” and “disrupting” higher education, linking education and employment through “hands-on” skills and “learner-centred” approaches, their managers confess that they almost exclusively offer courses and degrees in partnership with prestigious higher education institutions.

Senior managers from UK and South African public universities are tempted to, and increasingly do, partner with OPMs. The business model for the OPMs is simple: for up to 50-70% of revenue from shared online courses or degrees, and for access to huge amounts of student data, OPMs offer as little as some start-up capital and services like marketing, recruitment, and digital platforms – all assets and functions which most universities already have in-house or through subcontractors. The teaching and administrative labour usually comes from academics and university workers, but some OPMs also hire academically trained tutors who perform task-based precarious labour.

Senior managers often explain their motivation for these investments by describing public universities as businesses, academic staff as too focused on their research and not in tune with employability demands, and increasing needs of expansion beyond spatially limited campuses.

Unlike senior managers at highly ranked universities, those at teaching-intensive historically disadvantaged universities feel left out, as OPMs do not recognise their courses or degrees as potentially profit-making. Much of what is “sold” here is the brand of prestigious institutions – a valuable asset in a competitive graduate labour market – rather than academic quality or social value.

The other dimension that is often obscured by enthusiastic discourses about digital learning is the significant labour needed to make online degrees work – as many academics are now realizing in the transition to the online classroom pushed by Covid-19, doing online teaching is not an unproblematic transfer of traditional classroom methods to the digital. It entails a significant amount of often invisible labour to make the online classroom work.

Even before the global pandemic prompted mass adoption of online teaching and learning, academics at universities partnering with OPMs had to deal with monopoly purchases of software and hardware often without their involvement, while doing unpaid “shifts” teaching online courses.

What is more, it is increasingly the most vulnerable and casualised early career academics, who disproportionately bear the burden of these transitions – increasingly as precarious workers with low prospects for permanent jobs.

In the UK, for instance, over half of the teaching is done by overworked, underpaid, often female, staff. Academic employees are also doing more unpaid pastoral care work in situations of reduced university services for a growing population of students, who are themselves made precarious by rising student debt, and are facing a mental health epidemic also spurred by the prospects of unemployment.

In South Africa, even accounting for the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, post-apartheid higher education has been dreadfully underfunded, and, until recently, university student fees have been steadily on the rise. Governments have continued cutting public services and deregulating the economy to benefit private companies. This not only excludes the most socially vulnerable groups from higher education, but also dooms those who go through university to a sense of inadequacy as learners who do not feel the university is theirs in the first place.

Thus, it was mostly black students in historically disadvantaged institutions who told us they would consider taking online options, if it led them to well paid jobs.

Even if most of them were previously not familiar with such options, or worried they would turn out to be another Ponzi scheme (like the many fly-by-night for-profit colleges that sprung up after the country’s transition to democracy in 1994), the online option would still save them fees, rent, and travel.

Many of them cannot afford these expenses, and the government stipends for low income students are not enough. This is yet another vignette showing the post-apartheid university sector continues to be ridden by highly classed, gendered and racialised structures, while the machinery of corporate profit continues to make gains unabated.

These concerns in the UK and South Africa informed the demands of South African students in the #FeesMustFall protests (2015-2017) and of the mass academic strikes of the UK University and College Union (2018-2020). These struggles for a more just and humane university will certainly not end here.

They are also a powerful reminder that there are no easy shortcuts to address the massive inequalities that the higher education sector is experiencing worldwide. Digital solutions adopted as emergency measures to continue educational activities in the middle of the pandemic, are unlikely to bring much respite – if anything, they will probably exacerbate the pre-pandemic trends discussed here.

Recent history shows that previous crises in higher education have served to entrench contingent educational technology choices as permanent. Going online as a way to circumvent campus occupations during the #FeesMustFall crisis in South Africa, as well as subcontracting academics from outsourced services to cross picket lines in the UK, also served the purpose of helping the expansion of EdTech corporations, while bypassing protesters altogether and often building all-encompassing digital infrastructure used for surveillance of dissenting voices.

As anthropologist Divine Fuh poignantly said in a recent opinion piece in the South African magazine Daily Maverick:

Those who insist that we must absolutely return to normal and continue with business as usual must ask themselves if our past omissions are what they want to return to, or should we free ourselves by imagining a new social contract.

The problem is not so much whether we should go online or not. Whatever options we undertake to safely continue higher education activities during the pandemic, we should use the current moment to reinvigorate the struggle for the abolition of a capitalist world system based on neocolonial extraction and on the reproduction of old racial and class inequalities within and between countries.

Favouring EdTech corporations at the expense of academic staff and students is certainly not a move in the right direction.

*We carried out this research when we worked as postdoctoral fellows of the Unbundled University research project. The views presented here are our own and do not reflect those of the project team at large.

Mariya Ivancheva is an anthropologist and sociologist of higher education and labour at the University of Liverpool. Her research and activism focus on the casualisation and digitalisation of academic labour, the re/production of intersectional inequalities at universities, and the role of academics in processes of social change, especially transitions to and from socialism. Mariya is a member of the LeftEast editorial board and the LevFem and PrecAnthro collectives. Her Twitter handle is @mivanche

Rebecca Swartz is a historian in the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State, South Africa. She has researched and published on histories of colonial education in the British settler colonies. Her first monograph, Education and Empire: Children, Race and Humanitarianism in the British Settler Colonies, 1833-1880, was published by Palgrave in 2019. She is currently working on histories of childhood in nineteenth century South Africa. Her Twitter handle is @HistosaurusBex

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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