Higher Education: From Craft-Production to Capitalist Enterprise?
First Monday
Read related articles on Colleges and universities and Education

Ever cheaper computers and faster internet connections may facilitate the commoditization of higher education as David Noble and Michael Margolis have argued in these electronic pages. But the same technology - if its deployment is guided by university faculties rather than by capitalist enterprise - can be a tool which will improve the quality of higher education as well as make higher education accessible to more students. The author argues that in this struggle between the drive of capital and the values and institutions of higher education the outcome is far from inevitable.


Nothing demonstrates the socially irrational aspects of capitalism as well as the development and deployment of new technologies. David Noble, in "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education" [ 1 ], looks at how microchip-based technologies may be used to accelerate the commercialization of higher education. I would like to add to some of Noble's points by examining the contrasts between the promises and the perils of these new technologies with respect to higher education.

The use to which any new technology is put depends on who controls it. To a skilled cabinet-maker, a laser-guided router is a tool which assists in the creation of better cabinets. To a profit-seeking firm, it is a machine which reduces the costs of production by requiring less labor per cabinet or by allowing the replacement of skilled labor with lesser-skilled labor - cheaper, of course - for some of the procedures of cabinet-making.

Much of the history of capitalism can be written as a sequence of invasions in which the control of production in industry after industry shifts from crafts persons to capitalist enterprises [ 2 ]. In most of these industries we can identify a critical point - usually based on a newly available technology - at which the successful invasion of craft-based production began. As one of the last centers of craft-based production, higher education has enjoyed an anomalous position within the capitalist economy. Capitalism needs us as a producer of an educated labor force. So legislatures fund us - within obvious limitations - and some individual capitalists earn the esteem of their peers by funding various aspects of higher education or even founding entire universities

However, we have only retained this independence because higher education has not yet become completely susceptible to the methods of command and control typical of capitalist enterprise. The faculty still have a governance role at most colleges and universities. Aside from the large lecture hall with section meetings conducted by teaching assistants, there have not yet been many ways to exploit economies of scale in higher education. There have been few technological developments other than printing and the copy machine that have had much effect on how university faculties and students produce education. As in the first universities of medieval Europe, higher education is still a labor-intensive product in which the labor force itself must be highly educated. Capitalists have needed the universities and colleges to provide them with engineers, managers and other professionals. Capitalists have earned profits supplying goods and services - from construction to textbooks to computers - to these educational institutions. But there has been no profit in producing higher education itself. It has become part of the necessary infrastructure of capitalism, rather like a road system, and its operation has best been left to the state.

This is about to change. The accelerating power and falling prices of computers; the Internet; computerized data banks; the proliferation of basic computer skills within the college-age population: all are factors making higher education ripe for invasion by capitalist enterprise. It is now possible to earn a profit providing higher education, or at least something that will pass for higher education in the eyes of its "consumers." Online education, in particular, may become capital's major beachhead in its incursion into this new territory.

Marx traced the process by which simple tools - under the control and often even the ownership of crafts persons - evolved into machines and systems of machines which were under the control of capitalists [ 3 ]. But the modern computer is both tool and machine. As higher education is presently organized, the computer on my desk - even though it is owned by my employer - is a tool which enhances the quality of my work. Neither I nor the administrators of my college expect the computer to either make education cheaper or to reduce the number of hours per quarter that I work. Its purpose is to make our product better, not cheaper or faster. However, if the corporate organizational structure should come to dominate higher education, that same computer will become part of a system of machinery with the primary purpose of reducing the cost of the product.

One may well ask: why shouldn't higher education be produced more efficiently? When the power loom displaced hand-loom weaving, society gained cheaper cloth. The success of capitalism in revolutionizing the means of production was even praised in several oft-quoted paragraphs of The Communist Manifesto. And 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter saw the ever-cheaper commodity as capitalism's major accomplishment:

"It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls for steadily decreasing amounts of effort" [ 4 ].

Firms were able to make these goods more cheaply by reducing the amount of labor required to produce them. This relentless paring of labor from the production process still goes on, of course. The major difference between the present time and the recent past is that the microchip and its associated technologies have enabled the paring of mental labor, as well as physical labor, from the production of goods and services. Many of those who actively embrace the new technologies look forward to the elimination of all tedious forms of work. Wired editor Kevin Kelly puts it rather bluntly: "Any job that can be measured for productivity probably should be eliminated" [ 5 ].

And therein lies the difference: we cannot even define, let alone measure, the output of higher education. All we can measure are inputs: credit hours taught, faculty-student ratios, etc. If we define a goal very narrowly, such as teaching keyboard skills, we can measure the output. But we call that training, not education. Unfortunately, those who do not understand the difference between education and training believe that output can be measured. It is no accident that the movement toward computer-mediated education is coming at the same time as state legislatures are mandating measurable "outcomes assessment" as a condition of funding for higher education. If the new technologies could really make higher education less expensive, then society could afford more of it. As a professor, I would regret that this advance comes at the threat of my livelihood; as an economist I would praise any opportunity for society to get more for less. The threat of the new technologies is that profit-seeking firms will use them to bring us something that is called higher education but is in reality training toward very narrow goals.

But capital does not yet have a clear path. Higher education is still in the sphere of craft production and the crafts persons continue to have a voice in how this production takes place. Professors look to the new technologies for opportunities to improve the quality of our work and to provide better access to educational materials for our students. And computer-mediated education offers us quite a bit:

  • Physical location will no longer be a primary criteria for students selecting courses. A student looking for a Survey of Economics course, for example, will be able to surf the Web and examine syllabi in order to pick the course that best meets his or her needs. This also benefits the professor as more of the students will be committed to the course from the beginning.

  • Students can be linked in new ways. When their papers are posted electronically, they can read each others papers - the professor can direct a student who has trouble with concluding paragraphs to look over some papers with good concluding paragraphs. This would be a cumbersome process if we tried to accomplish it through copying and physically circulating student papers.

  • Updating of materials becomes simpler and faster as more sources become available online. The professor can quickly put a link to a New York Times article in the lesson. The student can easily access a particular chapter of Capital from the Marx-Engels Archive or a chapter of The Wealth of Nations from the Archive of the History of Economic Thought [ 6 ]. And they can all access them at the same time, unlike the copies of these books that the professor has put on reserve at the library.

  • The tedious part of managing a course can be automated and improved. The student can get a response on exams which provides links to the appropriate materials. Grades can be calculated automatically. This leaves more time for commenting on student papers, reading essay answers more carefully, or for any of the more important aspects of teaching.

  • Students can fit more of their coursework into convenient times. The worker with rotating shifts and the salesperson who has to travel can take online courses.

  • Educational opportunities for the hearing-impaired or mobility-impaired student and/or professor are expanded.

The profit-seeking firm sees these technological breakthroughs in a completely different light:

  • There is a global market for a product which has virtually no transportation costs.

  • No classrooms are necessary. Instructors will work out of their homes, so they don't even have to be provided with offices. Except for some specialized software, the equipment required is strictly off-the-shelf. All of these factors reduce the start-up costs and the risks.

  • The production of education can be broken down into sub-assemblies. High-cost labor can be used only where necessary - for course design, course updating, and development of specialized software. Standardization of the product allows for a more extensive division of labor. The actual instructors will only have to meet the minimal requirements for accreditation and can be paid very little. Since the instructors will be, for the most part, following a script, this work can be carried out by high-turnover labor, much like McDonald's or Taco Bell.

  • Every activity in the virtual college leaves an electronic trail. All work can be monitored and quantified: the time an instructor takes to answer a student e-mail; the percentage of each instructor's students that continue to enroll in the college; or any deviations from the approved script in the instructor's answers to student questions. It will even be feasible to pay instructors on a piecework basis instead of by the credit hour.

Today's institutions of higher education - whether state-supported or private non-profit - are facing a new threat. For the first time in our histories, we face potential competition from the for-profit private sector. Driven only by the quest for profits, these firms do not share our ethics, our values, or our concept of what constitutes good higher education. Since the instructor can be anywhere, these education firms will not be restricted by local labor markets: they will be able to hire instructors at very low pay rates [ 7 ]. Accreditation may pose some temporary problems, but online colleges will be able to shop around to find the region with the loosest accreditation policies.

Where this ends is far from inevitable. The relentless drive of capital to spread its tentacles into every area of human life is a powerful force. But the traditions of higher education have deep roots, some going back 700 years or more. While we often decry institutional inertia when we want to introduce new courses or programs, this resistance to change becomes our ally when we find ourselves threatened by forces from outside of our institutions of higher education. Among the many possibilities of how this will unfold, two potential scenarios stand out: one leads to the dismantling of higher education as we know it today; in the other we use the new technologies to improve higher education and keep the for-profit schools at bay - at least until the development of artificial intelligence software that can displace most college professors.

The first scenario could lead to the takeover of lower- and middle-level higher education by private firms, leaving only the top research institutions functioning as traditional universities:

  • Private colleges start by 'cherry picking.' They go for our older students, many of whom are employed by firms that pay their tuition. They concentrate on the programs with the largest number of majors, such as education and business. Phoenix University, which accepts only students who are 23 or older and are employed, is already pursuing this strategy.

  • In some of the programs that are most susceptible to standardization, these firms will be able to undercut the fees charged by state-supported institutions, even though these fees only cover a small part of the total cost. Community college students in Washington state currently pay $250 to take a five-credit course. The student fees cover about 20 percent of the cost of the state's community college system. A for-profit college that is totally online might charge $200 while paying the instructor $1,500 [ 8 ]. With an average class size of 20 students, there will be $2,500 per course to cover the other costs and provide profits.

  • The state-supported colleges begin to look like high-cost operations when compared with the private virtual colleges. We lose students from our highest-enrollment programs, so we lay off some part-time instructors. They end up working for less pay at the new private colleges. But the fixed costs of the public colleges are not reduced, and our per-student cost increases.

  • The large corporations that have tuition-reimbursement programs start complaining to the legislatures that they are paying twice - once through the taxes that support the public colleges and again when they pay tuition for their employees at the for-profit schools. Soon there is a movement afoot to finance most of the state's higher education through a voucher program - and the vouchers can be used to pay the for-profit colleges as well as for the traditional colleges.

The second scenario is far more palatable. But bucking the current tide of capitalist expansion will require much foresight and some favorable luck:

  • The public colleges establish ourselves as providers of online education before the for-profits get very far with their plans.

  • Our online programs become hallmarks of quality in online education. We make it clear that our purpose is not to cut costs - although we do save some money in brick and mortar - but to provide an alternative format for quality education.

  • We use veteran faculty, but only faculty who wish to teach via the new technologies. Faculty who do not choose to use these technologies are protected from force or coercion by collective bargaining contracts with clauses similar to those of York University described by Noble.

  • The for-profit virtual colleges make serious mistakes. Too many of their green instructors cannot adequately answer student questions. The scripts developed by their course designers are too rigid and not updated often enough.

  • Tradition and inertia provide us with some breathing space. In the minds of much of the public, the existing core of state-supported and private non-profit universities, colleges and community colleges are the providers of education. We have respected 'brand names' that will make it harder for the upstarts to undercut us simply by offering cheaper credit hours.

If we try to ignore the new technologies, we will be swept away by those who harness this electronic force. We must recognize that the information technologies are powerful tools that, in the hands of skilled crafts persons, can improve the quality of the service that we produce. If we fail in this endeavor, we will meet the new technologies as labor-displacing machinery which will assist capital in its conquest of one of the few remaining fields of craft-based production.


About the Author

Kit Sims Taylor teaches economics - in person and online - at Bellevue Community College in Bellevue, Washington. Links to his other articles on the economics of information technology can be found on his home page at http://dev.bcc.ctc.edu/econ/econdept/kst/Kstpage.htm#newtech.
E-mail: kitaylor@bcc.ctc.edu
URL: http://dev.bcc.ctc.edu/econ/econdept/kst/kstpage.htm


  1. Published in Monthly Review (February 1998) and in First Monday volume 3, number 1 (January 1998). Michael Margolis provides a scenario by which higher education becomes a commodity in "Brave New Universities" (First Monday, volume 3, number 5 (May 1998)).

  2. For the purposes of this paper, I am subsuming professionals in general - and college professors in particular - under the category of crafts persons.

  3. Capital, Volume I, Part IV, Chapter XV, "Machinery and Modern Industry."

  4. Joseph A. Schumpeter, 1975. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Third edition. New York: Harper & Row, p. 67.

  5. Kevin Kelly, 1997. "New Rules for the New Economy," Wired, volume 5, number 9 (September).

  6. The Marx/Engels Archive is a valuable source as well as a good example of how a Web-based resource can be organized. The McMaster University Archive of the History of Economic Thought which provides electronic access to the full texts of most of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century classics of political economy.

  7. In the Puget Sound region of Washington state at present, community colleges are able to hire part-time instructors at about $2,000 to $2,400 for a five credit-hour course for one quarter. A part-time instructor teaching the equivalent of a full-time load - by teaching at several colleges at the same time - earns $20,000 per year or less. Some private institutions in the region pay even less: $1,000 to $1,500 for a five credit-hour course.

  8. This has not happened yet. But as more firms enter the business of computer-mediated higher education we can expect to see some price competition, particularly among firms that market their courses primarily to companies that are willing to pay their employees' tuition.'

Contents Index

Copyright © 1998, First Monday

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2020. ISSN 1396-0466.