The on-demand university

by Lizzie Richardson, Sociological Studies

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Universities are now finally fully on-demand. After years of waiting, marked by VPNs, MOOCs, VLEs and many other acronyms of which I’m probably not aware, the university is henceforth always on, a platform for research and teaching that is available wherever and whenever it is needed. Not only are online lectures accessible for bingeing at all hours of the day, but now even attendance at seminars does not require leaving your room! And, if the seminar is boring, you can just log off, perhaps feigning a problem with your connection if you’re feeling polite. Academics meanwhile have been largely undeterred by the brakes put on their research through this new modus operandi because they have been able to delight in the pleasures of back-to-back meetings without even leaving their desks. No time to stop and think about things when you need to click through to the next call.

Terms and conditions do apply, most notably fees. The cost of on-demand access depends on the type of university user and the subscription package opted for. Student users have to pay a sum annually or per term. Staff meanwhile pay through their labour which is quantified differently according their perceived skill level. Some staff have ad hoc arrangements rather than subscriptions, where they provide a lot of their labour for a fixed period of time with no possibility of a renewal of access to a given university.

And all this is thanks to digital technologies. Because of data, the cloud, video conferencing and other magical things, it is now possible for the university to be enacted virtually, with little reliance on a physical location. 

Or is it? Although it is difficult to challenge the veracity of the increased quantity of online provision of university business of all sorts over the past few weeks, it is nonetheless important to question firstly the extent to which digital technologies have caused, or at least enabled, this change; and secondly, whether this means that the physical structure – perhaps we could call it “the place” – of the university no longer matters.

The social constitution of the on-demand university

Sociologists and anthropologists have long treated with caution any claims that technology has a causal power. Not only is the agency of a technology socially constituted – meaning it exists in and through relations to other human and non-human actors – but also any technological capacity to act is by no means inevitable, rather occurring as part of wider socio-political conditions and decisions.

This social constitution of technology is apparent with the on-demand University. The switch to “online” for many UK universities was certainly not a complete break with the past but rather rapidly, and often informally, built upon the foundations that had been laid for well over a decade.

The digital devices and technology that have facilitated the on-demand condition intensify wider structural changes – along the lines of the ‘commodification’ or ‘marketisation’ of higher education in the ‘neoliberal university’ – in which teaching and research must be packaged into bitesize chunks for easy consumption. The speed with which academics were prepared to move to on-demand functions must be understood within this context, where logics of feedback, student recruitment, and measures of research power have been internalised as motives for action. Academics in the UK have long been complicit in changes to the institutions in which they work that weaken their working activities and status whilst others profit.

In the constitution of such working activities and their social status, anthropologies and sociologies of workplaces again can teach us that technology is not a neutral actor. Technologies do not in any simple sense mediate or automate a pre-existing task but they change what that work is and how it is collectively understood. Following Suchman (1995), technologies make work visible in ways that alter its social significance and so its role in the composition of society.

In the scrabble to move work online, academics have not been able to articulate in any meaningful way the implications of the increased scope and scale of these technologies for their work, or the role of the university as an institution in and (optimistically) for the future. With good reason, many colleagues have been admirably committed to continuing to provide education for students in ways that persist in exceeding the basic commitments enshrined in the ‘customer-service provider’ relationship. Some have equally admirably had the wherewithal to engage in designing or even undertaking important research that will address the pandemic and its diverse ongoing consequences.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that a refusal to move work online by academics has not been seriously considered as an option. Whilst it would be comforting to believe that this emergency situation brought about a change to academic labour that otherwise would have been unthinkable, past evidence does not really suggest this is the case. The institutionalisation of other technologies, including devices for measuring and quantifying research, has been met with grumbling and swearing but ultimately an acceptance that has changed how academics undertake and do research and teaching, with positive and negative implications.

Placing the on-demand university

So, at the heart of the problem with the move to on-demand are the questions of what universities are and should be, questions that have historically been bound up with the physical presence of these institutions. That universities are claiming to continue to function somewhat normally but largely out with their physical infrastructure undermines the importance of the place of the university, a claim that is not incidental to their wider social role.

As a student trained to foreground place and space as a means of making sense of social relations, and now as a researcher focused on the implications of workplaces for the social role of work, I would not intuitively agree that place is not important. It is difficult to disagree though, that a straightforward understanding of the university as a place for research and study has been challenged through the switch online. However, dig a little deeper and unearthed is an augmented sense of place – one that extends beyond co-presence in a specific location – that has long been important to UK universities.

From a business point of view, the location of universities has been important as a branding tool that helps attract students and sell degrees. In this way, the university has already been separated from its ‘original’ location for many years, as the wonders of internationalisation mean that degrees from various UK universities are awarded around the world with many of these graduates never visiting the cities from which their certificate bears the name. Research itself of course has also had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the physical place of the university. Many forms of academic work can or sometimes must (such as field research) be undertaken away from the university. Although physical spaces of the university such as laboratories and libraries remain essential for aspects of research, the possibilities of holding academic office but rarely setting foot in the physical office have been heightened by the digitisation of much published research and of information and communication technologies.

Conclusion

The on-demand university is not an inevitable result of the pandemic, nor of the contemporary digital technologies that are involved in its constitution. It intensifies a condition where the how – the performance and its measurement – of research and teaching are privileged over where or what. This arrangement of the University is occurring because, as much as it might feel like these changes are externally enforced, academics and others are actively participating in its configuration. Perhaps this transformation is no bad thing. But academics risk this being the future of research and teaching without seriously considering (and attempting to collectively imagine or enact viable alternatives to) the wide-ranging implications for themselves and, more importantly, the wider methods of institutionalising research and learning in society.

References

Suchman, L., 1995. Making work visible. Communications of the ACM 38, 56-64. 

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