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Can the COVID-19 pandemic accelerate the uberfication of the university?
Author: ​Lesley le Grange
Published: 09/11/2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a migration to online learning and teaching. But could it also accelerate the uberfication of the university? This is the question Prof Lesley Le Grange (Department of Curriculum Studies) tries to answer in an article for Mail & Guardian's Thought Leader (6 November 2020).

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

​Lesley Le Grange*

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused mayhem in the world, affecting all spheres of social life. Lives have been put at greater risk, economies have plummeted into recession, personal freedoms have been curtailed, many sport and related activities have grinded to a halt, and so forth. Schools and post-school institutions have been closed during lockdown periods, making contact tuition impossible.

The upshot of the latter has been a migration to online learning/teaching. However, authentic online learning/teaching is not possible in times of crises (such as COVID-19) and what might at best be achieved is “emergency remote teaching".

Post the COVID-19 pandemic, universities are likely to increase investments in online learning/teaching capacities and in South Africa, historically advantaged universities will lead the race. The others would have to catch up. Moreover, private companies are likely to gear themselves up to offer support to universities through new partnerships that are forged or existing ones that are expanded. All of this could hasten the university's path to uberfication.

In his book, the Uberfication of the University (2016), Gary Hall discusses the sharing economy and platform capitalism as key ideas to understanding uberfication. Having started as an alternative economic model in the early 2000s, the sharing economy is defined “as a peer-to-peer (P2P) based activity of acquiring, providing, or sharing access to goods and services that is often facilitated by a community-based on-line platform." It is part of a much larger socioeconomic ecosystem that uses computing and satellite technology to coordinate workforces. In so doing global supply chains are created that make possible 'just-in-time' manufacturing through use of low-wage labour and the exploitation of outsourced workers.

Associated with the sharing economy is platform capitalism. Platform capitalism refers to a range of platform-based based companies that make hardware and software infrastructure available for anyone to operate on. In his book, Platform Capitalism (2016), Nick Srnicek identifies five types of platform-based businesses: advertising platforms (e.g. Google & Facebook), cloud platforms (e.g. Salesforce), industrial platforms (e.g. GE & Siemens), product platforms (e.g. Rolls Royce & Spotify) and lean platforms (e.g. Uber & Airbnb). Lean platforms are the ones associated with the sharing economy and operate on a business model of minimal asset ownership.

Many hoped that the financial crisis of 2008/2009 would have resulted in the weakening of neoliberal capitalism. It did not. In fact, post-2009 neoliberal capitalism has morphed into an ideal form, a for-profit sharing economy linked to platform capitalism. Rather than producing a crisis for neoliberalism, in wake of the 2008/2009 financial crisis, we have seen the buttressing of neoliberalism through increased privatisation, deregulation, the reduction of the state and further erosion of welfare systems. Gary Hall opines that it is significant that both Uber and Airbnb were founded during the financial crisis, respectively in 2008 and 2009.

It is important to understand the growth of online learning/teaching in the context of the neoliberal university, so as to gain a sense of its role in the uberfication of the university and why increased migration to online learning/teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate this development.

Platform pedagogy is often only referred to as online learning (leaving out the teacher part), placing emphasis on the learner who is viewed as the customer in the educational transaction. The learning that happens in this transaction is 'just-in-time' in a similar manner to which the Uber service is a 'just-in-time' one. Like the Uber driver, the lecturer becomes an on-demand worker. And if the lecturer is to receive positive reviews from students in order to do well in the neoliberal university's performance review system then he/she should display friendliness to students akin to the friendly chatting with which the Uber driver engages customers.

Platform companies such as LinkedIn and are in good positions to become such intermediary businesses for higher education. With respect to Academia-edu, academics already provide the company with free information by uploading their scholarly writing and information onto its platform without the company being transparent about what it will do with such data in the future. As Sarah Bond writes:

At first glance, looks like a win-win situation. The platform allows users to create a profile, upload their work, tag certain interests and then to tap into large networks of people with like research interests among the almost 47 million users from around the globe. But looks--and names--aren't always what they seem.

The context in which the possibility of the uberfication of the university and its acceleration due to the COVID-19 pandemic should be understood is the neoliberal university. In South Africa and across the world the contemporary university is characterized by increased marketisation and bureaucratisation. Managerialism has crept into all forms scholarship, teaching, research and community engagement. We have witnessed the public university become a state-aided university as subsidy revenue from the state declines. In the neoliberal university academic staff members are increasingly subjected to forms of surveillance, including through performance management systems.

Neoliberalism provides the backdrop for why the uberfication of the university might be accelerated as a consequence of COVID-19 pandemic. Post the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that universities will expand migration toward online teaching/learning. An expansion of platform pedagogy within the neoliberal university and the migration of the for-profit sharing economy and platform capitalism into the arena of education, makes the uberfication of the university probable, if unchecked. Just as Uber has benefits for the customer, so too the uberfication of the university may have benefits for the student (client/customer).

However, when uberfication is looked at from the perspective of the academic then it means deprofessionalisation, diminished rights and benefits, insecurity of tenure, etc. Uberfication of the university is not inevitable, but the potential for uberfication is already embedded in our actual social, educational and technological situation. Lines of escape from uberfication is possible, but these need to be invigorated through active construction of counter-narratives to uberfication. 

*Lesley Le Grange is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Curriculum Studies at Stellenbosch University. This article is based on his recent paper in the South African Journal of Higher Education (2020).