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Digitalisation, Assetisation and the Future of Value in Higher Education

by Rob Cuthbert

Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster) led a seminar hosted by the SRHE South West Regional Network/International Centre for Higher Education Management at Bath University on Wednesday 19 February 2020.

The SRHE South West Regional network, convened by Rajani Naidoo (Bath) and Lisa Lucas (Bristol), never disappoints, and this seminar was the perfect antidote for a windy wet Wednesday in the West, with a brilliant presentation by Janja Komljenovic, co-Director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Evaluation at Lancaster University.

The presenter declared her research interests in digitalisation and marketisation, and made a convincing case that these things should be seen as two aspects of the same HE phenomenon: digital infrastructure is “the hidden architecture of HE”, citing Ben Williamson (Edinburgh). An introductory tour d’horizon of educational technology in its manifold apps and applications in HE showed us the range of the possible, but this was no more than scene-setting, creating a platform for what was to come. Higher education has conceived of markets as if they were driving commodification and making the value of HE no more than something that can be measured in a price. Komljenovic wants us to achieve a radical reframing, in which commodities give way to assets, and price gives way to rent. Market-making in HE is, she argues, a process of assetisation, not commodification, drawing on a wide range of sources from many disciplines, not least Kean Birch’s ‘Towards a theory of rentiership’.

Assets differ from commodities in many respects, but in particular they change the way we should think about ownership, monetisation and value. Digital assets can indeed be owned, but are more likely to be licensed or rented out than to be purchased outright. Some have argued that digital data are the ‘hot’ 21st century product that occupies the place in the global economy which oil had in the last century. But the analogy is deeply flawed: monetisation of HE assets involves subscription not pricing, and the uses to which assets may be put are subject to contractual restrictions, quite unlike the buyer’s freedom to do as they please with a barrel of oil once purchased. And value is not backward-looking, bought and paid for, it must have a future orientation – higher education is not something that can be banked, its value lies in its potential to deliver in the future. Hence one direction for research is to explore the nature and value of emerging HE assets, who owns them, who can charge for their use, and on what terms.

Dynamic experimentation means that edtech may be oversold. Something touted as the new disruptive technology can prove to be overly ambitious when held up to the light, with the latest disappointments being MOOCs’ original claim of free access to high quality education and, it seems, the blockchain university. Digitalisation is different, and it indeed calls for new ways of understanding the higher education enterprise. The seminar challenged us to reconstruct our understanding of what a higher education market might mean in a digitalised world, to rethink what we understand by ‘value’, and to re-examine what we understand by ‘university’ – and whether the university itself is a sustainable platform for whatever HE may become in the 21st century. What a treat.

Rob Cuthbert is the editor of SRHE News and Blog.