Tag Archives: neoliberalism

The Marketplace of Ideas: How does the Commodification of Higher Education affect Freedom of Information?

Liberalisation. Neoliberalism. Privatisation. Managerialism.

Whichever terms one uses to describe recent phenomena in education, it is clear that the landscape is changing. In the United States, the student loans crisis and the rapid growth of the for-profit education sector have garnered widespread media and political attention. Here in the UK, the introduction of student fees south of the border has been highly controversial, as has the increasing reliance on external partnerships to generate research funding. I can’t address all of these issues at length within this post, but instead want to focus on the recent debate over whether universities should be subject to freedom of information (FOI) legislation. That this debate is even taking place demonstrates the shift towards marketisation and the increasing importance of commercial activity within the modern university.

In the Times Higher Education article, Chris Cobb argued that FOI undermines competitive practices. He reasoned that if universities were included in Schedule 1 of the Act due to the high level of public funding received, then this arrangement needs to be re-examined now that public funding has been reduced and the private sector plays a larger role. Moreover, private companies can make information requests to gather intelligence about university operations or to create mailing lists to be sold for profit. Although the s.43 exemption allows for withholding information if it is likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any party, Cobb argued that savvy requesters are still able to eke out information that harms the university’s competitive standing. His argument is based on the assertion that universities are not public authorities and should not be treated as such under FOI if they are to remain competitive in an international market.

Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel countered this argument, noting that most people appear to be in favour of FOI until if affects them. He listed a number of cases in which FOI legislation has helped to shed light on dubious practices in universities, including boosting marks to increase pass rates and the use of zero-hours contracts for university staff. The latter seems particularly relevant in light of recent stories about the conditions endured by FE lecturers on precarious contracts. Frankel concluded that FOI is important in ensuring accountability and maintaining public trust.

Alice Bell wrote a response in which she detailed her own experiences of trying to obtain information under the FOIA. She wanted to know more about Cambridge University’s collaborative research with Shell, but was refused access to the information she requested as disclosure would have put the University in a “commercially disadvantageous” position. The University went on to explain that due to the reduction in public funding, it needed to diversify its funding sources and therefore must maintain commercial confidentiality to remain competitive.

In order to understand this debate, we need to consider some fundamental questions regarding the nature and value of higher education. Cobb’s argument appears to be based on an understanding of higher education as a private or individual good. In this view, students are consumers in an educational marketplace who must choose which institution is the best investment for their own futures. This way of thinking helps to contribute to the reduction in public expenditure on education, meaning that universities must continue to compete with one another for an ever-shrinking pool of funding. External partnerships can help to bring in more funding, but it means that universities (and departments within universities) become more commercially driven and compelled to operate more like businesses.

The debate over whether or not universities should be subject to FOI is really about the role that universities play in society. In recent decades, we have been encouraged to think of education as an individual good, but should we accept this? Is education not a social good, meant to enhance not just the career prospects of individuals, but also society as a whole through research and teaching? I argue that universities need to subject to FOI, not only to follow the ‘public pound’ or to ensure that workers are treated fairly, but because of the implications of accepting that universities are now businesses. To say that universities should no longer be covered by FOI legislation so that they can remain commercially competitive is to accept the commodification of higher education, but these neoliberal developments can and should be challenged.

“Transparent Spying is Still Spying”

This is the first of what I intend to be a series of posts regarding my thoughts from the 2014 IFLA World Library and Information Congress. Although today is only my second full day at the conference, I already have enough material to last about a month. There’s definitely plenty of food for thought, which is appropriate considering that the conference is being held in Lyon, a city known for its culinary delights.

Among the sessions I attended was the Committee of Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression’s (FAIFE) panel: Mass Internet Surveillance and Privacy – how does it affect you and your library? Panelists included Marco Pancini (Google), David Greene (Electronic Frontier Foundation), and Louise Cooke (FAIFE/University of Loughborough). The session included a brief talk from each panelist, but the remainder of the session was devoted to audience Q&A. Some interesting points were raised, including Marco Pancini’s suggestion that Google provide more information about the number of requests in receives in relation to user surveillance. David Greene then outlined the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, which were developed by the EFF and other civil society groups.   These guidelines are based on international human rights law and provide a framework for determining whether surveillance practices are compatible with human rights law.

What I found most striking about the session was the number of times transparency was mentioned. It was mentioned by both the panelists and the audience in a variety of contexts, and it is one of the 13 Principles. Louise Cooke argued that since surveillance cannot be eliminated, more transparency is required so that we can at least know what data is being collected and for what purpose. I want to explore this point in a bit more detail, as it relates to a chapter I am currently working on for my PhD thesis on the conceptual underpinnings of the Freedom of Information (FOI) movement. In the chapter I argue that “transparency” is frequently touted as a solution to a host of sociopolitical issues (e.g. corruption, economic growth, and sustainable development), but the concept is nebulous and lacks the analytical framework necessary for any empirical study of its impact on these supposed outcomes. I  found it interesting that transparency was being presented as a way to potentially make surveillance more palatable as I argue in my chapter that transparency has been used to legitimate privatisation.

During the Q&A, a fellow audience member argued that “transparent spying is still spying.”* That is, Cooke’s pragmatic suggestions appears to legitimate, rather than circumvent, the spread of the surveillance state. This raises a number of questions regarding transparency. First of all, what is transparency anyway? Even if policymakers and academics were to agree on a singular working definition (spoiler alert: they can’t), how can we be certain that transparency is the solution? Criticism of the recently released US surveillance transparency report reveals that transparency initiatives do not always provide sufficient information. In fact, top-down transparency initiatives can be examples of what Irene Sandoval-Ballesteros calls “public relations transparency,” which allows governments to use the language to transparency to mask “business as usual.” Promises to increase transparency are frequently made, but then practical steps to actually ensure public access to information are not taken.

Furthermore, what are the implications of relying on private companies like Google to cooperate in the reporting of the surveillance activities of states? Are voluntary disclosure mechanisms really adequate? Although legislation like the recently proposed Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013 would provide more legislative teeth, it would only apply to data collected on US citizens and permanent residents. Whilst I appreciate the arguments put forward by Cooke and US Senator Al Franken (one of the sponsors of the aforementioned Act), I think there is a danger in relying on a philosophically and practically unwieldy concept like transparency as a solution to mass surveillance.


* The title of this post is a direct quote from a fellow audience member. Unfortunately, I did not catch the name or the affiliation of this person, so if anyone knows please let me know so that I can provide credit.