Globalising Flexible Work in Universities: Socio-Technical Dilemmas in Internationalizing Education

Michael Singh, Jinghe Han

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    We engage with and respond to the debate raised by this theme issue of the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning with a particular question in mind: namely, as universities are using new labor displacing technologies to export degrees to meet the international demand for higher education, how is this influencing ' negatively and positively ' the workers involved? Contemporary transitions in political and economic globalization are being used to press universities into becoming 'transnational businesses,' seemingly driven by a primary concern for marketing educational commodities. The neo-liberal politics driving these currents in universities are increasing the multiple online and offline networks. These local/ global meshworks engage the labors of a small but growing percentage of the world's population (Singh, 2002, pp. 217-230). Writing this paper at Jilin University in China, we find that many of our academic colleagues and students have limited access to a personal desktop computer, the Internet, and email. They must pay for timed access to their email accounts and for downloading attachments. They do not have access to high-speed data networks. A timer indicates how long it will take to open and send emails. Around us, construction workers are building massive facilities to house the burgeoning on-campus student population. Their offline education is being supplemented ' but not replaced by ever-advancing online technologies. Neo-liberal governments are ideologically committed to reducing investment in the tertiary education of a democratically inspired citizenry. This has stimulated people's desire to engage in learning and re-learning throughout their lives in their quest for socio-economic security. These state-sponsored changes lead Cummings, Phillips, Lowe, and Tilbrook (this issue) to cite the assertion by the Federal Minister for Education, Science, and Training that 'Australian universities [have]nowhere to hide from the winds of change.' Smith (this issue) suggests that funding-cuts by these governments have pressed universities to seek private sources of income. This explains the drive to recruit full-fee paying students from countries in the Majority World. Downsizing their labor force through technology replacement strategies is also part of these reforms. The rationing of education to inform and to give form to 'the public' has led to cost-cutting reductions in offline, class-based teaching/ learning. Universities are struggling with their economic and cultural sustainability, while at the same time they are trying to meet the demand for low-cost higher education by producing graduates for the world's multilingual knowledge economies. Updating higher education has been a significant topic of public policy debate for over two decades (Cummings, Phillips, Lowe, and Tilbrook, this issue). As public universities have come to be disparagingly characterized as costly, labor intensive and lacking in productivity gains, . . . commercial teaching machines, computers and instruction programmes are [being] introduced on a growing scale, effectively creating a situation in which [the state subsidises and] individuals pay industry for the means (terminals, teletext, receivers, access to memory storage and specific programmes) (Smart, 1992, p. 86). Key issues concern the millions in public taxpayer being used to fund the commercialization of the information technology industry. Such anxiety is compounded by the technological displacement of workers. In this paper, we foreground related dilemmas shaping the internationalization of education by teaching students at a distance.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1492-3831
    Number of pages2340
    JournalInternational Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2005


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