'The Uberfication of the University'

Author discusses new book on the relationship between the "sharing economy" and the erosion of faculty rights.

September 21, 2016

How much do Uber, Airbnb and other elements of the "sharing economy" explain the state of higher education? Quite a lot, according to Gary Hall, professor of media and performing arts at Coventry University, in Britain. He outlines his views in The Uberfication of the University, a short book (55 pages) published as part of the University of Minnesota Press Forerunners series on new ideas. Hall responded via email to questions about his book.

Q: Many of the trends you reference (reliance on adjuncts who lack job security, state disinvestment in higher education) predate Uber and the sharing economy. How do such trends relate to the sharing economy?

A: You’re right, many of the trends I refer to in The Uberfication of the University did not originate with the corporate sharing economy. I’m thinking here of those predatory and parasitical practices whereby we are increasingly being transformed into atomized, precarious individuals operating in an environment in which we’re being gradually divested of employment rights, public services and a social safety net. They include the outsourcing of work to independent contractors, freelancers and temps in order to circumvent labor laws that set minimum standards. Such trends are of course present in many other areas of the economy and society. (A recent inquiry by the government’s business select committee into working practices at Britain's largest sporting retailer, Sports Direct, likens them to those of a "Victorian workhouse.")

What I’m interested in is how neoliberalism has not become unviable after the financial crash of 2008, but has actually intensified in many respects. The reason for focusing on the emergence of the for-profit sharing economy over this period is because it’s one of the places where the implications for workers of such an intensification are today most apparent. We could even go so far as to categorize this change in terms of a transition to an übercapitalist society. Übercapitalist, in that this historically specific version of neoliberalism, whereby social democracy, the welfare state and public sector (i.e., universities, hospitals, prisons, the police, armed forces, postal service) are either weakened, cut back or dismantled so as to allow for the enlargement of the market and further generation of profit, is seemingly ever more powerful; and that Uber, a technology firm that enables passengers to use an app on their smartphones to hail a taxi, ride share or private car, provides one of the most characteristic and frequently cited examples of this intensified form of free market capitalism.

Uber has thus been held up by Fortune magazine as “emblematic of the dynamic, thoroughly modern global corporation,” and as possessing the archetypal business model for the 21st century, having become a “global brand largely on the strength of its intellectual property and without a need to manufacture anything or maintain many fixed assets.” And, to be sure, the fact that the prefix “über” means “advanced,” “irresistible,” “higher,” “superior,” “more powerful,” does enable it to capture something of the intensification of neoliberalism in the years following the crash of 2008 as we move further and further away from postwar ideas of democratic capitalist economies that are centrally planned and balanced by national governments.

At the same time I’m aware there’s a risk of overkill at the moment, with everything from housing to health care apparently in the process of being überfied -- to the extent it’s become something of a dad joke. However, my association of these trends with a business that, contrary to many predictions, could actually turn out to have quite a limited lifespan (say, if there’s a widespread introduction of driverless cars owned and controlled by another company, such as Google or Tesla), is designed to render my use of the terms “überfication” and “übercapitalism” much less grandiose and bombastic -- and certainly more speculative and teasing -- than similar-sounding theories, such as “supercapitalism,” “hypercapitalism” and “neurocapitalism.”

Q: Proponents of the sharing economy say that it gives the power (and cash) to the individual Uber driver, Airbnb proprietor, etc. Why have adjuncts not had this experience? Is there any way to make the sharing economy work for them?

A: It’s important to be aware that the information and data management companies of the sharing economy are not all the same. Each has its own particular ways of operating and organizing itself. More and more of those who are laboring for Airbnb by renting out space in their homes are increasingly well-funded professionals who own multiple properties …. It is not possible for such professionals to create profitable businesses opportunities in quite the same way by owning and driving multiple vehicles for Uber. Moreover, for all that the technology firm stresses its drivers have the potential to earn more than regular cab drivers, many of Uber’s “independent contractors” have been found to be working for less than the minimum wage.

Of course, driving for Uber may offer more control over the number of hours worked and when. It may thus be a form of microentrepreneurship that is particularly attractive to students, the old and those with child-care responsibilities. However, such flexibility has to be put into context: as I show in the book, freelancers in the corporate sharing economy still have to operate according to the conditions set by their respective platform’s owners. It is also the owners who decide on pricing and wage levels, work allocation, and preferred user and laborer profiles. And of course it’s the owners who take the lion’s share of the profits, resulting in former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich describing this economic model as less of a sharing economy and more of a "share-the-scraps economy."

Adjuncts have not yet had this experience because the sharing economy business model has not yet been introduced into higher education to any significant extent. However, if for me übercapitalism can be understood as a regime of subjectification designed to produce a specific form of self-disciplining subjectivity -- namely that of individuals who function as if they are their own freelance microenterprises -- then we can say that elements of überfication are appearing in higher education. For example, just as Uber’s “surveillance capitalism” uses finely grained data to acquire deep knowledge of consumer behavior, so many higher education institutions already collect large amounts of data on student grades, attendance, library use, movements around campus and participation in online learning forums and virtual learning environments.

JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) in the United Kingdom is even involved in hosting a national learning analytics service, which will collate data from a learning records “warehouse” and use this information to help understand which methods of teaching work best, and highlight when students are experiencing difficulties. Yet one of the features of this JISC national learning analytics scheme also concerns:

  • The development of an app for mobile devices that will allow students to track their own progress and, if they wish, the progress of their peers.
  • A screenshot of the app shows a Facebook-style newsfeed displaying how one student might have spent seven hours in the library over three days, while another might have spent six hours in the lab in a single day, and another might be in the top 10 percent of their class for an assignment.

It is just this kind of performance monitoring, rating and surveillance, enabled by the development of mobile phones and apps, that I’m referring to when I say that übercapitalism is in the process of transforming us all into self-preoccupied, hypercompetitive microentrepreneurs of our own selves and lives.

Q: In higher education, do the professors who land research grants or launch spin-off businesses fit the theory of the entrepreneurial individual of the sharing economy?

A: In The Birth of Biopolitics, Michel Foucault writes of the neoliberal “homo oeconomicus [economic man] as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings.” I would say that those professors who land research grants and launch spin-off businesses are perhaps closer to being entrepreneurs in this sense. What I’m referring to in relation to übercapitalism and the sharing economy is an intensification of this state of affairs whereby we are encouraged to become atomized individuals who develop our personalities as brands and endeavor to generate social, public and professional value by acting as both a microentrepreneur and microentrepreneur of our own selves and lives.

In the context of higher education, think more in terms of those subjectivizing features that are used by Academia.edu and other academic social networks to help users develop their profiles as “personal brands” in order to emphasize their individual difference and specialness: the kind of thing academics have to do more and more in a competitive market both to get jobs and to hang on to them. I have in mind such features as real-name policies, personal pictures and biographies, not to mention Academia.edu’s analytics dashboards and quantifying deep analytics.

Moreover, the mode of production is shifting more and more from publishing texts intermittently in centralized entities such as journals and even websites, to the generation of a high-volume, fast-paced flow of content over a range of dispersed media -- Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WhatsApp, Snapchat. Transforming their identities into a recognizable personal brand, often by using humor, lifestyle, controversy, the cultivation of celebrity and other means of gaining attention may therefore be one of the main ways left for authors to manage perceptions of their work, and to prevent it from being merely a series of atomized texts that are posted online and then reblogged, shared and reused by others in a manner that challenges traditional notions of authorship, originality and copyright.

Given the way in which many higher education institutions, in the face of increasing market competition, are already using YouTube, Instagram and Twitter to reach both current and prospective students, there is even the possibility that in order to be able to teach and research in the future, some academics may have to sell their whole way of life, just as many celebrities are now charging subscribers a few dollars a month to access their own, personally branded, app-based mobile media channels. By cutting out the intermediaries of the “old media” in this way (book publishers, press, TV, magazines), these celebrities are providing their fans with “direct” access to their “real” lives by detailing their carefully curated fitness and lifestyle tips, the superfoods they eat, as well as offering advice on clothing, hair and makeup, and highlighting the glamorous people they know and exotic places they travel to, all as an extension of their brands and personalities. It is not so much the products celebrities are marketing and selling with these channels, then, as their own selves. They are their own jobs.

You would be forgiven for thinking this is hyperbole. Yet the University of Salford in Britain is already reported to have “two profiles on the dating app Tinder, encouraging school leavers to ‘start a lasting relationship with us this September’ and to ‘swipe right to find the course of your dreams.’”

Q: Many young people seem to embrace parts of the sharing economy -- even as some of them complain about lack of resources for higher education. What do you make of that?

A: As I say, the greater degree of autonomy and flexibility offered by many instances of the sharing economy may suit some people. However, übercapitalism is about more than the way we work. It acts even on those elements of life that used to be beyond the control of the corporation: our sociability, our personalities. Companies such as Uber and Airbnb are concerned not just with what we do but with who we are, in other words. This is why I argue that affirmatively disrupting übercapitalism will mean affirmatively disrupting the microentrepreneurs of our own selves and lives we are becoming. This applies to the ways in which we work, act and think as teachers and researchers, including how we create, publish and disseminate our work.

Q: What do you believe higher education should do to resist the "überfication of the university"?

A: The second part of my project focuses on data commonism (which is distinct from both platform cooperativism and venture communism). I’m going to be arguing that universities should adopt a CopyFarLeft approach in order to construct an information and data commons with which to disrupt the disrupters of übercapitalism and the corporate sharing economy. At the moment universities act as fairly mediocre businesses, for all they are under pressure from neoliberal national and regional governments to adopt the values and practices of for-profit corporations in the belief that doing so makes them more effective and efficient. When it comes to research, for example, they clearly have a “product” the corporate sector is keen to exploit commercially. And universities are being encouraged by governments worldwide to make this product freely available to businesses on an open-access, open-knowledge, open-data basis for precisely this purpose.

Yet at the same time universities are being pushed to act as for-profit businesses in other aspects of their operation in order to compensate for the withdrawal of public funding at the hands of the very same neoliberal governments. In this respect, CopyFarLeft represents a strategic way for universities to adopt a far more “businesslike” approach toward the knowledge and research they generate (and to stop using public funding to provide free information, data and labor for parasitical for-profit businesses such as Academia.edu and LinkedIn). CopyFarLeft does so by allowing universities to insist that any for-profit business wishing to privatize, commercialize and commodify their research must pay a decent price for it (rather than getting it cheaply or indeed for free as is all too frequently the case now), while also ensuring this research and data remains openly available and free to use in the public sphere.

Adopting such a CopyFarLeft approach could thus enable universities to affirmatively disrupt those privately owned for-profit companies such Academia.edu that have a business model resting on their ability to parasitically trade off publicly funded education, research and labor. This model will provide universities with a means to render themselves far less vulnerable to disruption at the hands of both neoliberal governments and any future higher education equivalent of Uber or Airbnb.


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