Openness as counter-narrative (#OMDE)

Higher education throughout the ages was always shaped by political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal frameworks. Often faculty long for a time when no-one meddled in what and how they taught, but also forget how and what they taught a number of years ago was also shaped by the dominant discourses of the day. Maybe the impact of political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal frameworks was less obvious, or maybe we were just more oblivious of their impact? What no one will dispute however, is that the impact of these frameworks and forces are increasingly complex and dynamic.

The debate and current drive in some sectors of higher education and broader society towards re-establishing knowledge as a common good and open educational resources (OER) is also embedded, uncomfortably so, in these different frameworks, whether political, economic, etc. In my opinion, we should not forget how the discourses of neoliberal market ideologies and political interference shape and impact on our attempts to open up education. As such the opening up of education is a major counter-narrative to the increasing corporatisation of higher education as traditional government funding regimes are re-evaluated and cut, higher education becoming a privatised offering in the broader neoliberal market ideology landscape and increasing concerns about the disappearing of education and higher education in particular as a “moral and political practice” (Giroux, 2003, p.88)

Barnett (2000, p.409) reflects on the many challenges facing universities in the 21st century and state that the interrelationship of these different forces result in an era of supercomplexity resulting in substantive, ideological and procedural changes in knowledge production. Knowledge produced in higher education institutions “has no [longer] particular status” it simply takes its place and its chances amid the proliferating knowledges that society has to offer”. The legitimacy higher education institutions had in earlier eras has irrevocably changed. The knowledge produced at universities “can simply be understood as a set of language games of a rather privileged set of occupational groups (‘academics’) that reflects their interests and marginal standing to the rest of society”. The future of higher education has furthermore been changed procedurally in the sense that “the university can now only secure its future by becoming entrepreneurial and by marketing its knowledge wares in forms of academic capitalism”. This results in the hegemony of the performative character of knowledge. “…what was once part of the hidden curriculum of higher education – the creeping vocationalisation and subordination of learning to the dictates of the market – has become an open, and defining, principle of education on all levels of learning” (Giroux, 2003, p.185).

Giroux (2003) therefore accuses higher education to have sold out to the highest bidder. “In an age of money and profit, academic disciplines gain stature almost exclusively through their exchange value on the market, and students now rush to take courses and receive professional credentials that provide them with the cache they need to sell themselves to the highest bidder” (Giroux, 2003, p.182). Giroux (2003, p.183) continues stating that faculty “are now defined less through their scholarship than through their ability to secure funds and grants from foundations, corporations, and other external sources”.

Though it is possible to disagree with Giroux’s (2003, p.191) claim that higher education has sold out to the highest bidder in an attempt to “calibrate supply to demand”, but there is indisputable evidence of the increasing privatisation of higher education.  Masson and Udas (2009, p. 260) states, in the context of the US,  that the “number of accredited non-profit institutions decreased by more than 3 percent, while accredited for-profit institutions grew by over 60 percent”. The increase in for-profit higher education institutions can be attributed to, amongst others, the increasing globalisation of neoliberal market ideologies, pervasive technologies, the customisation of adult education in response to employer needs, the growing phenomenon of students as customers, increasing collaboration between major corporations and higher education institutions, and concerns that traditional higher education do not supply market-ready graduates (Morey, 2004).

It is important to note that the “basic values and assumptions underlying these two types of institutions [non-profit and for-profit]  are dissimilar, thereby driving decisions about curriculum, the nature of faculty, research and service functions, institutional governance, admissions, services and the like” (Morey, 2004, p.143). Despite the difference in the “basic values and assumptions” as highlighted by Morey (2004, p.143) there are increasing signs that non-profit higher education is accepting and institutionalising many of the so-called “distinct” features of for-profit institutions such as the separation between instructional delivery of the course from the design of the course (Morey, 2004, p.145), the move to instructional and measurable outcomes (Morey, 2004, p.144), course content being prescribed by corporations and outside accrediting institutions (Morey, 2004, p.145), increasing collaboration between public non-profit and for-profit corporations (Morey, 2004, pp.146-147).

In contrast to the increasing closing of public higher education as “moral and political practice” (Giroux, 2003), Wiley and Hilton (2009, p.1) propose that “Openness is a fundamental value underlying significant changes in society and is a prerequisite to changes institutions of higher education need to make in order to remain relevant to the society in which they exist”. Exploring the complex “supersystem” of higher education, Wiley and Hilton (2009) state that there is an alarming disconnect between higher education and broader society or “supersystem”. The major six disconnections, according to Wiley and Hilton (2009, pp.1-5) are the move from analog to digital, the move from tethered to mobile, from isolated to connected, from generic to personal from consumers to creators and from closed to open. The move to digital implies a move away from the notion of offering higher education in geographically-defined spaces to offering educational opportunities anywhere, anytime, any place. “People are more connected to people, content is more connected to content, and systems are more connected to other systems than ever before” (Wiley & Hilton, 2009, p.2). The affordances offered by technology furthermore enables mass customisation and result in the “cost barrier to producing and distributing information and culture” disappearing (Wiley & Hilton, 2009, p.2). There is an increase in free sharing “on a scale never before seen” (Wiley & Hilton, 2009, p.3).

Despite the dramatic and pervasiveness of the impact of these changes; “higher education has largely ignored these changes in its supersystem” (Wiley & Hilton, 2009, 3). While higher education had the monopoly on knowledge production in eras past, it no longer does. Not only has higher education lost its monopoly in knowledge production, but higher education has also lost its monopoly on “access to teachers, tutors, and others who could answer student questions and support them academically in their learning” (Wiley & Hilton, 2009, p.6). Where university libraries “once held the monopoly position in collecting and providing access to high-quality research materials and guarded this access carefully by only permitting students and faculty access to its collections”; the university’s monopoly status as provider of access to high –quality research has vanished” (Wiley & Hilton, 2009, p.6). Wiley and Hilton (2009, p.7) also point to the fact that universities lost their monopoly on setting the criteria for and accrediting expertise.

In the light of the above, Wiley and Hilton (2009, p.8) state that higher education’s only possible response is to increase connectedness, personalization, participation, and openness. “Of these four, a significant increase in openness is the most pressing priority for higher education because a culture of openness is a prerequisite to affordable, large-scale progress in the other three areas”.

In closing: Education in general, and higher education in particular, has throughout the ages served and shaped the dominant discourses of the day. The drive towards opening education and opening access to knowledge seems to be an inevitable and effective counter-narrative to the increasing corporatisation and privatisation of higher education.  Or did I miss something?

[Image retrieved from]


Barnett, R. (2000). University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity. Higher Education 40, 409-422.

Brindley, J.E. & Paul, R.H. (1996). Lessons from distance education for the university of the future. In R.Milles and A.Tait (Eds.), Supporting the learner in open and distance learning (pp.43-55). London, UK: Pitman Publishing.

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. (2009). Higher education to 2030. (Vol.2). Globalisation. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Retrieved from,3746,en_21571361_49995565_43908242_1_1_1_1,00.html.

Economist Intelligence Unit. (2008). The future of higher education: how technology will shape learning. Retrieved from

Giroux, H.A. (2003). Selling out higher education. Policy Futures in Education, 1(1), 179-199).

Kruss, G. (2004). Employment and employability: expectations of higher education responsiveness in South Africa. Journal of Education Policy, 19(6), 673-689.

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking teaching for the knowledge society. EDUCAUSE Review, 37(1), 16-25.

Masson, P., & Udas, K. (2009). An agile approach to managing open educational resources. On the Horizon, 17(3), 256-266.

Morey, A.I. (2004). Globalisation and the emergence of for-profit higher education. Higher Education, 48, 131-150.

Wiley, D., & Hilton, J. (2009). Openness, dynamic specialization, and the disaggregated future of higher education. International review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(5), 1-15.

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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6 Responses to Openness as counter-narrative (#OMDE)

  1. Pingback: Openness as counter-narrative (#OMDE) | Educational Technology in Higher Education |

  2. Pingback: On our future education system | Learner Weblog

  3. Doris Reeves-Lipscomb says:

    I agree with the premise of the article on openness being a counter narrative. You justify that well with your examples. The only part that I might see differently is the explanation of why there is a move to so many for-profit institutions so fast. You quoted:

    “The increase in for-profit higher education institutions can be attributed to, amongst others, the increasing globalisation of neoliberal market ideologies, pervasive technologies, the customisation of adult education in response to employer needs, the growing phenomenon of students as customers, increasing collaboration between major corporations and higher education institutions, and concerns that traditional higher education do not supply market-ready graduates (Morey, 2004).”

    These are all good reasons. However, the shift of students to customers is occurring in response to the financial wherewithal they now have in the form of government-backed student loans. At least in the US, the corporations recognized the billions of dollars pouring into the education marketplace and responded accordingly with the creation of for-profit educational choices and new arrangements with not-for-profit educational institutions. I believe the abundant financing in the form of student loans far outweighs the other reasons that Morey cites.

    Thank you for exploring these issues.

    Doris Reeves-Lipscomb

  4. Pingback: Openness as counter-narrative (#OMDE) | Theorie: Versuche, das U-topische zu schauen, das Unsichtbare :-) |

  5. Doris, thank you so much for engaging with my blog. You make a very interesting point regarding the privatisation of education in general, and higher education in particular. From my own context in South Africa, public higher education institutions still dominate but we see an increasing number of private higher education institutions, some with very clear links to industry.

    On the one hand industry and major corporations seems to be worried that higher education does not deliver the graduates they are looking for. Most corporations are looking for gradautes that hit the ground running. If I understand the emergence of private higher education correctly, then one of the reasons you and others mention is the need to ensure a “fit” between education and employability.

    My concern from a social-critical perspective is that higher education has a bigger mandate than just producing graduates that “fit” and that “hit the ground running”. See for example Barnett’s (2000) article on “University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity” (Higher Education 40, 409-422) and Rhoades, G., & Slaughter, S. (1997). Academic capitalism, managed professionals, and supplyisde higher education. Social Text, 51, 9-38).

    As I said at the start of the blog post, no education is neutral. We should therefore not make the assumption that education in private education institutions serve neoliberal market ideologies while education in public institutions does not serve a master. All education serves a purpose. I suspect what makes me uncomfortable in reflecting on the “serviing” notion is that one cannot serve two masters at the same time. I am intensely aware of the increasing inequalities and injustices in the world, and education does not seem to make a difference.

    So while we are aware that no education, whether private or public, is neutral; the deeper question I want to ask is: What type of education will serve social justice, and a move towards a more just, sustainable and compassionate society?

  6. Pingback: ALGARABÍAS — La educación abierta como metarrelato

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