Trevor A. Campbell, GUEST COLUMNIST
The American writer, David Reiff, recently remarked: "In times of uncertainty, people's first instinct often is to carry on as if nothing has changed." (Evangelists of Democracy, The National Interest, October 24, 2012). His observation aptly describes much of the discussion that is taking place in the Jamaican press regarding the challenges related to the financing of post-secondary education/training for the working class.
Based upon what most of the commentators have been writing about post-secondary education, it would appear that they are largely unaware of the ways in which the digital revolution is transforming all sectors of modern industry, including the education/training sector.
Those who may have some familiarity with what is unfolding are perhaps hoping that if they do not talk openly about the enormous challenges that the digital revolution presents, perhaps the island will be spared from its full impact. This would be equivalent to ignoring weather reports, from reliable sources, that a potentially ferocious storm or hurricane is gathering momentum as it heads towards the island.
Perhaps the two most discernible processes currently unfolding - within the context of the digital revolution - that are directly germane to the issue we are discussing, are:
1. The accelerating use of digitised robots to perform tasks previously done by a sizeable number of human beings. These tools represent the material crystallisation of the collective physical and intellectual labour of humankind. This is radically transforming the way commodities are produced and distributed. (For an illustration of this process, I recommend the video titled 'Are robots hurting job growth?' that was produced by CBS's '60 Minutes' and aired on January 13, 2013: http://www.businessinsider.com/burger-robot-could revolutionize-fast-food-industry-2012-
(2) Developing alongside the process of robotisation that is now occurring in factories, offices, hospitals, restaurants and on the battlefields, etc is the process of delivering education/training on an online platform that allows for fewer instructors, less brick and mortar, while reaching more students at a much lower cost.
The following five articles provide useful summaries of this trend, as well as a discussion of the far-reaching economic, social and political implications of this ongoing process.
'Can a new breed of online megacourses finally offer a college education to more people for less money? by Amanda Ripley, Time Magazine, October 18, 2012;
'How California's Online Education Pilot Will End College As We Know It' by Gregory Ferenstein, TechCrunch.Com January 15, 2013;
'Online Courses Put Pressure on Third-World Universities' by Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review on November 12, 2012;
'Davos Forum considers Learning's Next Wave' by Alison Smale, New York Times, January 27, 2013.
What is becoming clear to those of us with eyes to read and brains to think is this: The digital revolution is now completing the process of rendering obsolete the institutional structures (along with their physical and social infrastructure) that were designed and developed - since the 1950s - to train the working class for occupations which were central to capitalist production and capital accumulation.
These structures are now perceived, by globalised capital, to be too costly (both to the students and to the governments) and are, therefore, no longer appropriate for the present and future needs of globally integrated capitalism.
It has become an economic imperative - for capital as a whole - that the cost of preparing human labour power be radically reduced. Herein lies the economic significance of the online courses that are now being offered 'free of cost' by some of the world's leading schools to individuals, wherever they are located on the planet.
For the global accumulation process to continue - under the conditions of the scientific and technological revolution - an efficient and relatively low-cost method of training must be developed. This is the only way that globalised capital will have at its disposal a continuing replenishment of a sizeable surplus of skilled workers.
Training involves providing the labour force with the skills that are required to competently operate the specific tools. As we have been seeing, the unrelenting pace of technical innovation is constantly undermining the efforts of the workers to keep abreast of the new tools that are entering the workplace almost daily. The workers are becoming increasingly aware that these tools are not merely energy-saving, but also labour-replacing.
In light of these realities, how can the worker be expected to foot the bill for his/her training? This is why very low-cost worker training is so indispensable for the continued reproduction of the capitalist system at this historical conjuncture! Whatever tools or methods exist to make this possible will, therefore, be employed.
In a recent contribution to the discussion on government funding for tertiary/post-secondary education and training in Jamaica, University of the West Indies (UWI) Professor Hubert Devonish declares in his opening paragraph:
"In an international knowledge economy, where the highest-value commodity being traded is knowledge, universities are the equivalent of factories in the traditional industrial economy. The UWI, whatever the high-minded motives behind its establishment, is now a business."
"Decisions about funding the UWI should be based on its value as a contributor to the economy in the short and medium term." (Sunday Gleaner, 'UWI's no drag on local economy', January 27, 2013)
Based upon the arguments that Professor Devonish offers in the rest of his article, it is clear that he is somewhat confused about the nature of capitalist commodity production, and the demands that are being imposed upon all businesses in the present economic situation and amid the digital revolution.
Let's be clear: In order to remain competitive in the capitalist marketplace, a business has to continually develop methods of reducing the costs, as well as the time that is involved in the making of the commodities it intends to sell.
If UWI were a business (which it is not) - as opposed to a non-profit organisation (which it is) that is trying to operate in a more business-like (efficient) manner - UWI would have to be producing human labour-power (the commodity which the worker sells to the employer) in a very timely fashion, at a lower and lower cost, that embodies all the skills that are required to remain competitive in what is now becoming a globally integrated market for labour-power, made possible by the Internet.
In other words: the organisers of Jamaica-based tertiary institutions - whether it is in the area of science, research or equipping students with the necessary technical, analytical and social skills that are required of them to compete in the global economy - will have to keep in mind that their students are now in direct competition with students around the world, who now have access to free or very low-cost online courses, offered by the likes of Harvard, Stanford and Yale.
Professor Devonish's use of the fanciful term 'knowledge economy' (which might lead the reader to incorrectly assume that the use of technical and social knowledge acquired in the process of social production is something peculiar to our time), as opposed to the more scientific term, capitalist economy, only serves to further obscure the enormity of the challenge that is confronting all social classes.
Let me make it clear that what I have said here should not be interpreted as an unqualified or resounding endorsement of online education. I am proceeding from the premise that the world (including industry) is not organised on the basis of what I or anybody else thinks it should be, or should have been.
There is absolutely no substitute for studying the world (or industry) as it is, how it got to this point, and where it is heading. This is the only basis upon which we can design and execute realistic strategies to meet the challenges we face.
Trevor A. Campbell is a political economist, as well as strategic planner. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.