Migration, the University, and What the Hell is a Knowledge Economy?

I tend to go to work relatively early – not out of any conscientiousness, simply because I wake early and get bored.  While much of the day the corridors and stairways thong with students and faculty going about their ‘knowledge work’, the early morning presents a different kind of labour.  I greet the cleaners, the silent bodies of our public buildings, clearing away the debris left by student and staff alike, making the place ready for another day of knowledge-intensive activity.  There is a sense in which my articulated identity as a knowledge worker, of an academic identity construed in large part by identification with epistemic communities, is quite separate from that of the cleaners I say hello to.  I am forced to contemplate the nature of this encounter, and in particular my privileged position.  I encounter something more than just different functional roles – after all there is a symbiotic relationship here whereby their work makes my work more feasible and comfortable and my work makes it possible to employ them. I find myself entering into an international division of labour, and a very hierarchical one at that.

It has become a truism of late capitalism that we are ‘in’ a period of the ‘knowledge economy’.  The engine of economic growth is seen to be characterised by the ‘added value’ that accrues from human capital, particularly in the form of continuous innovation.  At its most sexy the knowledge economy is represented by bright young things working in high tech companies.  Look at the image below:

story_best-company-to-work-for-fortune-2013_image_726x726

The photo is taken from the Google website and comes with the following caption:

We think Google is a great place to work, but don’t just take our word for it. Fortune awarded Google the number one spot in its 2013 list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.” This marks our fourth time at the top and the honor reflects our ongoing efforts to create a unique workplace and culture.

We are used to these images.  Bright young things excited and animated, often clustered together in open plan spaces, thinking ‘beyond’…But we do not see the invisible workers that make all that brightness possible.

Office Cleaners

Higher education (and often the term ‘university’ is used) is identified as both a major contributor to the development of the knowledge economy and as a beneficiary of the knowledge economy discourse.  Documents such as Ireland’s ‘Building Ireland’s Knowledge Economy‘ position higher education as a major site for basic research that contributes to an innovation environment.  The ‘Hunt Report‘, which still frames the reform of Irish higher education, contextualises the need for systemic change in terms of the NEED for Ireland to develop as a knowledge economy and innovation society.  Therefore Irish higher education MUST become more aligned with economic goals.  Universities and other institutes of higher education are corralled into a national mission of increasing the stock of human capital and producing the research that will lead to innovation and economic growth.  We are all familiar with the narrative.

Semiotically higher education seeks to achieve a careful balancing trick.  It wants to allude to the status that comes from connections with ‘heritage’ whilst also projecting themselves as leading edge.  But that will have to wait for another time.

We can perhaps view higher education as not just producing knowledge and skill-rich workers but as KNOWLEDGE-INTENSIVE ORGANISATIONS, indeed KNOWLEDGE-INTENSIVE COMPANIES.

I think this is appropriate for many reasons:

  • Higher education is increasingly positioned as a kind of service industry for the wider economy
  • The policy thrust for greater academic-industry links constructs higher education professionals as involved in using their disciplinary knowledge to support product development and problem solving in industry and wider society
  • There is often a kind of ‘client’ relationship at play
  • The ‘knowledge’ that higher education often deals with, produces, and applies is expert, specialist or esoteric in character.

In conceptualising higher education in this way I am particularly influenced by Mats Alvesson’s discussion of ‘knowledge intensive firms’ and his more recent look at higher education in his book “The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education, and Work Organization” (I am currently reading this and may write on some of its themes).

Alvesson warns us that apparently self-evident terms such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowledge work’ (let alone ‘being’ a knowledge worker) are ambiguous.  So if the terms by which we seek to portray ourselves are problematic, what about the things we do, the activities we engage in?  To what extent can we be secure that they ARE knowledge (let alone knowledge-intensive) activities.  He suggests that the language and the actions take on a persuasive character, that they work to both convince ourselves and wider publics of the importance and specialness of what we do and who we are.

Work by Alvesson and others resonates with the wisdom expressed in Buddhism about the non-essential nature of all phenomena.

As I walk through the doors and encounter those cleaners I am clear that ‘I am because they are’.  My status as a knowledge worker requires that there are others who are designated as non-knowledge workers. In a kind of zero sum game my fortune is directly at the expense of somebody else’s lesser fortune.  These cleaners are an effect of the expansion of the European Union, the partial welcoming of ‘workers’ (units of human capital) from Poland, Latvia, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, places poorer than here.  So, despite being relatively well educated they take on cleaning jobs, they keep our hotels and cafes and restaurants going.  They are (in this ‘service’ position) because I am (able to accrue symbolic and monetary benefit from my association with ‘knowledge’).

When I think about my job, what do I actually do?

Knowledge work is made up of non-knowledge activities especially as imagined in the knowledge economy.  It is made up of the cleaners who maintain my office space, the cooks who prepare my dinner in the canteen, the bus drivers, the shop assistants, the porters, the builders who constructed this building, the workers who make sure that clean water arrives in my tap each day, the often third world children who probably sweated away to make my clothes, the Bangladeshi sailors who made it possible to ship goods across the world for me to consume.  I am because they are.  I make tea and coffee – all of which requires the labour of people I will likely never meet and who often could only dream of the luxury I call normal living.  They are because I am.

They are because I am – I am because they are.

What exactly is this thing called ‘knowledge’ that makes my work, my identity and the institutions I work in so special when it and I are so completely dependent on non-knowledge activities?  There is a deep ethical quality to these questions.  What should my role as a knowledge worker be in the face of the fact that ‘they are because I am’?

Ambition Drives Policy – Or When Policy is Morally Bankrupt

Recently I wrote about the pretence at rational planning that is the current state of Irish higher education reform.  The official policy discourse gives the impression that the flurry of activity that sees the presidents of Institutes of Technology meeting each other, the production of guidelines on criteria for Technological University status (that not quite a ‘real’ university status that IoTs may be granted) by Simon Marginson, and update reports by the Higher Education Authority are somehow the stuff of deliberative democracy.

My claim is that they are nothing of the sort. 

The reality is that as soon as the Hunt Report was published, with its well rehearsed arguments for institutional rationalisation (read budget cuts), Technological University status, and regional higher education clusters, ambitious presidents and registrars of IoTs quickly got into action.

Suddenly there were rumours of potential amalgamations between this IoT and another, of regional amalgamations.  Month by month it seemed these rumours changed, morphed.  What was a ‘definite’ love match one week was cast asunder the next.

It is important to note that all of this occurred in the absence of any real legislative framework.  Indeed, it still does.  It is an example of POLICY WITHOUT POLICY.  Instead, the process on the ground has been driven by ambition.  For all the attempt to put a rational gloss on things, the BIG players on the field call the shots their way.  For instance, the long held ambition for a ‘university of the South East’ (a dream thwarted by the OECD report) has framed the actions of at least one institution.  Others who may or may not come under the orbit of institutional merger in that region are bit players.  Hardly deliberative democracy.

Similarly, the changing elements of a possible regional fix in the North West has, it has been privately reported, been partly driven by a mixture of personal ambition and antipathy.

In a climate of fiscal restraint – OK, let me be blunt about this, in a climate of raiding the public sector purse to pay for the criminal mistakes of the private sector, the running around trying to either get in on a bigger players act, or desperately trying to secure some presence in the new future for non-university tertiary education, has involved massive transactional costs.  This is not just in the money (public money) spent on meetings, but the serious discontent amongst ordinary lecturers about their and their institution’s futures.  This sees itself in petty actions and in ill-health.  Ordinary lecturers are not participating in the discussions about their futures.  These are held by those higher up the institutional food chain.

This could have been different.  The HEA could have organised a more meaningful process.  The relevant government minister could have sought to legislate in a way that actually asked serious questions about what kind of higher education system a small open economy and country like Ireland could have.  But they didn’t.  I don’t know why.  Some might say it is the result of incompetence.  Some might say it was political ineptitude.  Some might say it was both.

What is clear, is that what is happening lacks any compassionIt is ethically moribund.  It is a moral embarrasment.