Earlier this year an Art History student at Concordia University (Montreal) posted a tweet that went viral within the academic community. After watching a pre-recorded lecture given by his professor – François-Marc Gagnon – the undergrad Googled the historian for his contact details. That’s when he discovered Professor Gagnon had been dead since 2019:
For many academics, the incident was a morbid metaphor for the dark undercurrents sweeping higher education today. With so much course material now being delivered online, who owns the intellectual property and can it be used in perpetuity? Moreover, we know that academia is currently one of the most overworked professions in modern society, but isn’t this taking it too far? Now even death will not release you from your duties.
University officials apparently didn’t bat an eyelid when squeezing yet another semester’s work out François-Marc Gagnon after his death. It captures the dirty flipside of the edtech trend that’s transforming higher education, concealed behind a new wave of corporate buzzwords: blended learning, hybrid instruction; digital scaffolding; synchronous and asynchronous learning; micro-credentials and so-on.
Senior administrators and university executives have embraced this ‘learnification’ of pedagogy and its digital platforms because the cost savings and labour intensification it permits are significant. But they are not the primary drivers of this ideology. During the launch of my new book Dark Academia: How Universities Die (on Zoom, of course), panellist Will Davies identified who was: management consultants. While funding apportioned to academic staff is dwindling at an alarming rate, not so for the army of consultants who’ve been quietly disseminating business logics behind the scenes for some time, building a new vision of tertiary education that’s terrifying.
While Aaron Ansuini was tweeting about his dead professor in January 2021, consultant giant PwC published a report on the future of universities, ‘Covid-19: Recovery and Improvement’. Its release went largely unnoticed, but certainly would have been closely read by university managers. Collating and analysing the views of 34 CFOs (Chief Executive Officers) in UK tertiary institutions, the report asks a striking question: ‘what are the positive changes that have been made in response to the pandemic and what plans are there to embed these going forwards?’ No sentimentally to be found about the devastating human costs of the Coronavirus! Instead – and in PwC’s words – university executives should be ‘embracing the positives’ stemming from the crisis. But what are they exactly?
Unsurprisingly, the rapid shift to online learning was flagged as a key advantage of Covid-19 according to CFOs. Whereas such a monumental change was unimaginable before the pandemic (it would require endless consultation and almost certainly provoke opposition from unions), here it happened overnight. And even better, did so with the goodwill and cooperation of academics. The report urged that this ‘Digital Acceleration’ and ‘Blended Tuition’ be quickly embedded by universities and leveraged to further reduce costs, increase efficiencies and market agility. Now it’s easier to see how the sad episode of Professor François-Marc Gagnon could ever occur.
But this learnification of universities is only the tip of the iceberg, PwC suggest. The speed and ease by which it was accomplished reveals deeper lessons that university leaders must glean from the pandemic, painting a dark picture of what academia may soon look like.
The first lesson concerns labour productivity. According to the PwC report, the pandemic has engendered ‘a mindset shift within the workforce away from a model of presenteeism to a renewed focus on more beneficial productivity metrics.’ Fearful of losing their jobs, constantly online and already consummate self-regulators, academics have found themselves in roles completely expunged of ‘wasteful’ activity. Of course, what PwC deems ‘wasteful’ you and I might call being human. Regardless, no more idle chatter around the water caller for us!
Second, the impact of Covid-19 has helped wake academics up to the cold financial realities of tertiary education, something neoliberals have been trying (and largely failing) to achieve for years. No longer perceived as an alien and malignant force imposed from the university C-Suite, what we might call the ‘CFO-mentality’ is today shared and accepted by all employees, from overworked adjuncts to erstwhile union militants. In short, academic consciousness has been financialised the report happily insists. As one CFO remarked:
We have seen a greater focus on financial performance amongst all teams. Particularly within our academic departments who are starting to appreciate the need to consider the financials of each course, embed the positives of our transformation and take on responsibility for cost management.
And third, and perhaps most worryingly, the pandemic revealed to senior executives that unilateral top-down decisions, involving minimal consultation, will be condoned by academics. As one CFO commented, ‘before, higher education was like an oil tanker, change was slow… The speed that we responded and adapted to Covid-19 has given us confidence that we can continue to transform our operations.’ PwC interpret this as a major victory for university executives, heralding a new governance paradigm. This could consist of, for example, ‘establishing structured ‘gold command’ meetings to expedite decision making, with less consultation required.’
The PwC report is pure fantasy at one level, simply reporting back to CFOs what they wanted to hear. Nevertheless, it will probably still affect the tone with which senior managers approach their institutions, including the rollout of edtech. Although it may have once harboured the promise of democratising higher education, online platforms are now an unequivocal agent of commercialisation and labour intensification in universities. Hence François-Marc Gagnon still toiling from beyond the grave. This dark learnification, with its surfeit of corporate jargon, is symptomatic of wider changes to the employer/employee relationship. We are now reaching a critical turning point in this respect. And perhaps, the worst is yet to come.
Peter Fleming is the author of Dark Academia: How Universities Die (Pluto, 2021). He is Professor of Organisation Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. He is also the author of The Mythology of Work and The Death of Homo Economicus (Pluto, 2015, 2017).
Photo credit: Amelia Seddon