Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Property, commodities, markets and knowledge in the 1980s. A start, anyway.

I’ve been reading about property (Carol Rose, 1994, Property and Persuasion. It was due back at the library so I had to read it) and commodities on the edge of the market (Margaret Jane Radin, 1996, Contested Commodities), Gifts (Mauss and some other guy called Carrier I think on material culture and gifts and commodities), re-reading my notes from 1980s newspaper research, reading Windows onto Worlds, discussion around the Dawkins reforms and re-reading some of Marginson especially on markets in education. Lots more economics than I generally go for but it is all in aid of trying to think about what happens to university-based knowledge in the 1980s, which is not all together clear (or singular, annoyingly).

Marginson (1993) declares knowledge to “inherently” be a non-market product in that one person’s learning doesn’t prevent or take away from anothers: his version of knowledge, I guess, tends “naturally” towards a public or commons. This is a part of his generally balanced language that shows the inconsistencies in government arguments for applying fees to higher education. But of course the arguments the Hawke/Keating government used in introducing HECS were a furphy: the point was to convert higher education from a system of public service institutions into a marketplace. International fees were to give universities the opportunity and incentive for entrepreneurial behaviour, but local fees in the form of HECS were to commodify education without reducing participation.

But we know all this and the boring new right values behind the policy. To me, this is the end of the story, when Dawkins weighs into changes already taking place in higher education and ironically uses state power to confirm and place some hard edges around a new higher education free market. But it is more like a free-ish market, for government has its cake and eats it too by collecting the fees from students themselves and redistributing it, plus some, to universities, getting both a free market and a regulated public service in one.

The much harder bit, if we can stop the policy formation and the easy gossipy history surrounding it from distracting us, is what happens to knowledge?

If education is commodified, is knowledge? Does education become the “packaging” for knowledge, the “product”? Marginson suggests that artificial scarcity contributes to the creation of positional goods: but scarcity without fees was also artificially created with quite different meanings around them. And it has always been culturally and financially advantageous to study medicine, before we would describe a higher education marketplace and education as a positional good. Commodifying education requires more than this. It requires economic discourse applies consistently to education and continual confirmation and perpetuation of a belief that education is a product. It is language, text and behaviour, as well as fees, scarcity and advertising, that commodifies education. But what of knowledge?

Research commercialisation, which is also grasped fairly firmly in the 1980s, gives a clearer opportunity for knowledge to be commodified. This was also a way of addressing the “relevance” problem universities were perceived to be having. As was the Australianisation of the curriculum looked for in the Windows onto Worlds report: a non-commodifying attempt at demonstrating relevance which was sadly unsuccessful (in that more economic measures to promote “relevance” were still demanded from both within and without the system).

So what exactly was being commodified? Everything in sight, I suspect, and in different ways. Education was commodified, given explicit exchange value: degree in exchange for fees, which a rational person will pay having weighed up the cost-benefit of future employment, status in society blah blah blah. It was also packaged as a new export good and marketed internationally with surprising success (and dollars that addicted the system). This meant academic services in the form of teaching was further commodified as exchangeable labour, quite different to the uniqueness of the authoritative academic of days past. In some ways, an elitist position that deserved to be lost. No longer protected by the formerly powerful academy, academics were to belatedly become commodity and seller in one: like all in Benjamin’s city (including himself) a new type of whore - but with what consequences for knowledge? Research services also commodified and many of the outcomes of research – knowledge – commodified in explicit ways. Even where knowledge could not be commercialised as a product, it was quickly understood to be property with a new need for explicit ownership for which policies begin to be developed.

The ownership of knowledge slips from those with academic authority, to those with money – whoever can pay. The way this functions in a market is, I suspect, a little different to the way normal commodities work, but that is for another day.

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