Knowledge Commodification in German Speaking Universities

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

19 Pages, Grade: 2



Introduction: The General Problem of Commodification of the University System

Theoretical Framework of Commodification

A little Introduction and Overview of the Situation on German Speaking Universities

Some Conclusions


Introduction: The General Problem of Commodification of the University System

“These days you can buy almost anything. Sperm and eggs are advertised on the

web. Speed dating services will provide you with several minutes-long dates in

one night for the right price. Human organs are being bought and sold around

the world. Universities are increasingly thinking of the education that they offer

as a ‘product’ and their students as ‘consumers.’ “

(T-H-R. 2003: 5).

In March 2015 held up the second conference of science 2. 0 with talks about the new possibilities for science by the usage of new technologies like MOOCs, the use of digital libraries, new online based research tools, evaluating systems etc. (Science 2.0). But the discussion about the transformation of labor in context of commodification by the development of new technologies and work strategies were marginal. “Commodification as the process of transforming things into objects for sale has become a totalizing cultural force” (T-H-R 2003: 5) and it is described as the “essence of our time”[1] (Ley & Harriss 2012). Under advanced capitalism[2], commodification expands into all corners of social and political life[3]. But not everything useful is a commodity. What makes anything a commodity is the possibility of trading it for profit?[4] They are not only means of production that are traded in this process, not only raw materials and machinery, but also labor or knowledge (Huws 2014). Over the time, everything that enters into capitalists costs of production, whether it is a material good or an activity, it will becomes commodified, while more and more things enter into the capitalist production. One major driver of these process is the will and the need to cut labor costs, but it can also have knock-on effects like the technology developed to cut labor costs in one field creates possibilities for creating new wants or needs in another. Theoretical is commodification understandable as an engine of economic technological and in the consequence as an instrument of social change[5] (ibid. 36). It is interlinked in complex ways with the need for expansion for other purposes – the finding of new markets, new sources of cheap labor and new sites of capital accumulation[6] (ibid. 36). The social consequences of this process are destabilizing and the commodification of the public sphere[7] thus involves a change from one set of norms and incentives to another. The notion of commodification of knowledge as having transformed the environment for knowledge institutions such as universities[8] and other higher education organizations. Commodification of knowledge may be understood to mean transforming knowledge into a commodity ready for use or consumption[9] (Weingart 2008; 2010; Heuer & Schulze 2012). Since the 1980s, most universities in the Western world have experienced substantial changes as a consequence of an ongoing process of commodification[10] (Lawrence & Sharma 2002: 661). Commodification affects a variety of aspects of higher education, such as research, teaching, administration, knowledge products such as text books, electronic journals, teaching and learning platforms such as WebCt, research analysis software packages such as SPSS or MAXQDA[11] all of which require an annual license fee to be paid by the user (Botshelo 2008: 2; Radder 2010: 1). “Reflecting this understanding, studies of academics have generally examined the changing institutional framework of their work, as well as its content, independently of the wider politico-economic conditions of its development.” (Wilmott 1995: 995) The following paper shall examine the processes of commodification in the German speaking academic context and illustrate the “state of the art” of research of the commodification of academic labor on several dimensions: (i) by university research institutions and (ii) by student organizations. It should illustrate, in reference to the theoretical framework by Ursula Huws, the institutional “discussion” of the academic commodification and should demonstrate that there is a lack of research about the commodification and a result of these lack is a missing discourse about these specific aspect of the economization of the university system in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The paper is structured in three parts; the first chapter will gives a theoretical introduction to the means of the commodification of intellectual activity and when we talking about economization and the resulting new interdependencies I will connect the Marxist based Framework by Huws with the Governance Concept of Michael Foucault. After these theoretical embedding it follows an empirical overview about the situation in the German speaking academic landscape. Then I like to give a reflection on the topic, sum up the research findings and like to raise some further questions.

Theoretical Framework of Commodification

Ursula Huws (2006) is describing in her article “Begging and Bragging”, the dual process of commodification which goes hand in hand with employment insecurity what means to be in a concurrence relation[12] with other researchers under a new structured labor logic (ibid.). She names the dynamic as a process of increasing intensification of work, a standardization of the work process (ibid.). These processes are parts of general developments of the labor market, like an increasing of labor flexibility and atypical employment relations in Germany and Austria (Verwiebe & Giesecke 2008; Ates & Brechelmacher 2012: 24; Teitzer 2014; Fritsch, Teitzer, Verwiebe 2014). The development in Austria and Germany of these “relative young” phenomenon of short-term contracts, project-based work, lengthening of working hours reached the working and employment structures of the university systems (Huws 2014). She argued that the creative class of the knowledge-based society[13] become marginalized and commodified under the neo-liberal structures of the academic labor market (ibid. 31f.). It is not less bureaucratization and less autonomy and she raised the question, how the researchers can possibly get started in a system to specify in advance what it is that the researcher will produce in standardized proposals, where the researcher or rather the applicant should describe the verifiable measures and the outcomes (ibid. 32). The standardization processes make it possible to use information and communication technologies more extensively (for example; introducing standard reporting procedures that make it possible to compare performance over time or between locations – by making it possible to pool knowledge in common databases or knowledge banks[14] (ibid.). In this process the use of new technologies encourages further standardization processes (“modularized”), which turn makes more intensive use of technology possible. This development has the result that the nature of the activities becomes more generally[15]. Each technological innovation simultaneously requires a new cohort of creative knowledge workers who, in the very process of developing new innovations, bring a routinization of the work of others. In this context is a new form of labor transformation by “Upskilling” and “Downskilling” and new forms of specialization accompany the development of increased generic activities (ibid. 37). Skill does not just have a double- edged character for labor, it has an equally ambiguous meaning for employers because, the standardization and the introduction of new management methods in university systems for instance, “contribute to some commonality of experience as many of these functions are themselves subjected to processes whereby the knowledge of the workers is expropriated and incorporated into computer programs or databases so that the task can be carried out by fewer or less-skilled workers.” (ibid. 38) An example for such a commodification could be that the (a) knowledge of university lecturers who are asked to convert their lectures into content for standardized e-learning courses[16] and (b) develop new technologies for such standardizations (see above; footnote 11). This transformation processes have consequences to the nature of these kind of knowledge work and the occupational identities[17] (ibid.). In the context of the new labor insecurities (see introduction) is the individualization of contracts leading a breakdown of collective structures and solidarities and at the same time an increasing demand for team organized working. The entitled standardization of processes produced a situation where each individual is now exposed to the highly contradictory requirement to simultaneously demonstrate both “sameness and difference” to collogues or “competitors”. This understanding of university collogues is the sum wherever human beings have to share scarce resources and the fellow ups are an increasing competition even in the universities, when they competed with other research institutions in a result of privatization processes (ibid.). From here we can try to link the most relevant points of commodification processes at universities with aspect of Michael Foucault’s Concept of Governmentality to underline the socializing aspects of neo-liberal structures in the mind, even of intellectuals and scientists and to understand the consequences of the internalization of these new structures. In 1978, in the context of university lectures, Foucault articulated and understood his observation of the indicate social changes as the crises of the governments. But his theoretical argument contents explicit the political programmatic of the Neoliberalism.[18] The question is about the rights, tasks and functions of the government (Lemke 2000; Gertenbach 2007; Cotoi 2011). Based on this theory, that argued, that the government influenced the people, with the technologies of their power (and not the power of their technologies) (Lemke 2000: 36). The government has a huge impact on the individuals in the way they should think. They developed, in connection with some functional loss of their duties by the transformation ruled by new neo-liberal structures and hegemonial powers, new techniques in the fields of insurances, public health and education, that the individuals fell self-responsible for their acting and social security (ibid. 38). If we relocate the human acting based on these instruments of governing, the people got dependent from this system and they internalized the structures as “normal” and life that neo-liberal life linked on power structures and new technologies (ibid.). In addition to the Marxist understanding of labor transformation and the wealth of labor we could argue, that the general influence of Neoliberalism has impacts on the work logic on knowledge worker and in consequence even on class structures. That is the result on the discussed problem of the missing solidarity between the employees, which is a result of the named increased rate of individual contracts, new evaluation processes for the self- and general improvement of efficiency (Simon 2008; Huws 2014).[19] But, especially for the case of the German speaking academic systems is to underline that the structures of concurrence thinking, or so called neo-liberal structures are inherent since more than a decade, but there is a controversial discussion about the totally hegemonic influence of market structures in the system of higher education (Lassnigg 2003).[20]

The working hypotheses are: (Hi) So much greater the process of economization of the university is, so much higher is the demand to commodify academic labor.

(Hii) The commodification of academic labor is independent of economization processes of the university and relates more to global developments, digitalization and the need to commodification.

Further, there are two contrasted research questions in addition, especially in context of observation of the developments of the system of higher education:

(I) Is the commodification of knowledge-based work a consequent development of work at itself?

(II) “What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.”

(Hannah Arendt 1998 [1958]: 5)

A little Introduction and Overview of the Situation on German Speaking Universities

In this chapter I will introduce several examples of commodification on German speaking universities and like to name some empirical studies and their results about the commodification of knowledge work. I also like to give an overview about the medial representation of one of the most relevant changes of academically work in the recent times next to the transformation of the organization, the MOOCs[21]. For the development we have to use the media representation of this phenomenon in reason of a lack of a concrete and recent sociological research in the German academic landscape.

The following chapter is subdivided in some sub-chapters: (1) Empirical cases about economization of German Universities (2) University research institutions (economization and increased external evaluation (3) The student representations in Austria and Switzerland (4) The representation of the Private Sector Cooperation (5) The discussion of MOOCs.

In general is it necessary to notice that the direct influence of the commodification processes on the university system is based on several university laws since[22] the Beginning of the 2000s[23] (APA 2002; Kreckel 2002, Dries 2014). The German sociologist Dries speaks from a new logic in German University System and named the WissZeitVG Wissenschafts-zeitvertragsgesetzt in 2007 as one root of the problem of the economization of the university system[24] (Dries 2014). In the German University discussion it is often the speech of “Business University”[25], like in the case of one of the most prestigious universities in Germany, the University of Heidelberg (Gräfin vom Hagen 2000) or “the most best use of our resources” (Lassnigg 2003: 13; Weingart 2008: 478; Weingart 2010). There is an orientation to the American Universities and in order to that there is these claim for a responsibility for the resources and a new need for justification in the act of make clear several aspects of researches like duration of studies, the costs for students, goals for the institutions and the lectures, evaluation (personal on demand and time) and the new forms of flexibility for the workforce (Gräfin vom Hagen 2000). In the context of the 600 anniversary of the University of Leipzig in 2009, there was a conference about economization of the university, the commodification of knowledge and the wealth of knowledge and academic education in times of digitalization and the internet (University of Leipzig 2009). The study of Heuer and Schulze (2012) presents the different effects of economization and the commodification of the labor of the scientists (ibid.). They studied two research departments, which are connected to several universities in the north of Germany and are part of the University of Oldenburg. They have interviewed a small number of employees to work out the effects of a financed by the private economy. The authors conclude that the produced knowledge is transformed into commodities and is not public anymore. Even the management and evaluation conditions changed for the department. When the produced knowledge is not accessible for other scientist, it is impossible to work on science, theories, methods or new technologies. In the end the scientists are in tension between academic knowledge production and the private market economy (ibid. 43). The consequences are a dependence of academic research and the industry (one form of commodification) or the “pure” academic research, which many research projects are indirect interlinked with the private economy, but the mode of providing the produced knowledge is different (ibid.). But at the most university researches it is nowadays normal to work with freelancers, with staff members with fixed-term contracts etc. (Ates 2012). A Euroac Study of Academic Professions in Europe concludes that there is a response to the social challenges even in the University system. For instance 2009, in Germany, about 68% of the so called “Mittelbau”[26] held fixed-term-contracts and just a minority worked in a non-atypical work relation[27] (ÖEWR 2013: 20). In the case of Austria there is a trend development of increasing project- and time-based contract relations in the universities (2005: 54.4%; 2011: 61.7%) (ÖEWR 2013: 7). There is also a gender gap between employees with long-term contracts in 2002 (male 65%; female 35%) (ibid. 8). The research conclusions from this study underlined the difference of work satisfaction in relation of new forms of top down managements and the “relative” new development in Austria has not that influence on the satisfaction of the academic work like in Great Britain[28] (see more details ÖERW 2013: 35ff.; comparison: Weigel 2012). Science Research Departments like the well-known Department (GFHF) at the MLU Halle, Germany is working on the consequences of new technologies on teaching and research. There is a call for papers for the next INCHER conference in Kassel, Germany in 2016, with the issue of changing working conditions of researchers (GfHf 2015). The student organizations in Austria (ÖEH) and Switzerland (VSS) also published with well-known scientists together about commodification of higher education. In the case of a well-recognized publication of the year 2005, they work with several theoretical approaches to illustrate the importance to notice the loss of meaning of education by a commodification of it. They work for instance with Gramsci, Polanyi and even Foucault to underline the Process of Gouvernementality to show how neo-liberal processes work into the system of education.[29] They show the consequences for the university research and even the process changes by new evaluation technologies like the CHE Ranking of the center for university development. The criteria for a good researcher are: the amount of third party funds he/she acquire; the number of publications, Patents etc. Everything become a measurable quantitate variable and is part of a standardized evaluation system, which is important for employ somebody, for the extension of contracts etc.[30] (ÖEH 2005: 33f.). The VSS published in 2012 a complex critical paper about the commodification of higher education on Swiss universities with the result, that it is not possible that students are just “consumer” of knowledge, they coproduce the knowledge together with the lecturers with their attendance, seminar paper and critical questions (VSS 2012). In this approach is a commodification of the researcher even in the time of digitalization possible but controversy. In the area of new “cooperation’s” on the market of software related industries are several examples of firms, which support the universities with innovative IT-solutions and consulting to maximize efficiency. One of three here named firms are the Qualisoft Group, founded in Vienna, 1999 (Qualisoft 2015). They promote themselves and their branch with strong economic arguments of a necessary interconnection of universities and the private market economy and the need that the students are be well prepared for the labor market. They offer teachings for lectures to increase teaching skills, contents and the competition ability. Some important “clients” are the TU Vienna, the University of Vienna, the Danube University of Krems and the University of Darmstadt. Another example is the German firm IMC, which produce and provide standardized E-Learning Tools and Publishing Solutions. They offer products for the realization of digital off-the-job-training strategies[31] (IMC 2015). The third example is the Swiss firm Diplomero AG. They provide Software educatory for online education and online courses with course fees. At the time of writing this paper they have around 80 teachers and there named goal is “a revolution of the education sector” (Diplomero AG 2015). But there are against the open-character of the MOOCs and demand that there are not for free, they should cost something, because knowledge should not be for free. These three examples shall show, that there is an interconnection between the universities and services from the private market economy. The reason for this relation is in all cases the need to increase the efficiency of the teaching, by educate the knowledge worker to improve themselves. There are also teachings of creating and administrating e-learning courses. The logic behind these courses is to have academic knowledge available at any time, to educate as much people as necessary and to have the academic knowledge ready to use for self-organized teaching, without the person who process the knowledge. The MOOCs are highly discussed in the moment (Science 2.0). In the case of Germany and Austria is the demand by students for courses bigger than the possibilities to provide these courses at the moment. There are some firms which provide MOOCs, like Coursera, edX, Udacity, iTunesU or imoox, which provide MOOCs for the University of Graz. In general is to summarize the formal structure of courses that the producer include youtube videos of lectures, multiple choice questionnaires for tests and exams and they work for instance with a software, which records the learning process, is calculating an algorithms than for the next teaching steps, Tutorials with mentors in online chats, Seminars and also “classical” lectures. [32] The Universities invest in such courses with the funding by externals like the private economy. An EFI- expert commission research (2015) demand, that the German Universities should use the odds of MOOCs more courageous. The scientist Lankau (2014) criticized the MOOCs and their dealing with education as a mass good. He cited the Bertelsmann foundation education board Dräger and his critique of the “old” German university system. He sees, in difference to Lankau, the opportunities of MOOCs. Lankau compare the change to standardized courses with a music playlist selection on iTunes. The actors select the courses and use them whenever and intensive they like it to do. But the courses have new juristic framework and deep consequences for the curricula of the universities (ibid.). He named the consequences by introducing MOOCs in the USA, like no new professorship, reduction of budgets for “linear” teaching. He also cited the US-economist Shoshana Zuboff (Harvard University). She articulated three laws: (1) What is possible to be standardized becomes standardized, (2) what can be transformed in digital information, will be transformed into digital information and (3) every technology for the possible use of observation and control, independently from the based meaning of usage, will be used for observation and control and related to higher education means that: Online based courses are teaching machines, for controlling and standardized control of “learning slaves” (ibid.). The Technical University of Lausanne EPFL, Switzerland invested for instance per year 500.000 CHF in 10 MOOCs (SDA 2013). In one hand it creates a public and is an advertisement for the university but on the other hand there is a mainstreaming of knowledge content. Universities lose their differential characteristic and there is a loss of wealth of education.


[1] “The reach of markets, and market-oriented thinking, into aspects of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms is one of the most significant developments of our time.” (Sandel, 2012: 7) The commodification imperative is understandable as a transformation of use values into exchange values and “[…] in the current neoliberal phase of the capitalist expansion is another form of use value has become a very attractive field for the development of new commodities.”(Huws 2014: 36)

[2] Classical sociological works about transformation processes are written by Karl Marx and later by Karl Polanyi (Hall & Stahl 2012: 184). A philosophical introduction to commodification gives Borgmann (2006).

[3] Huws described the commodification imperative as a “transformation of use values into exchange values” (ibid.). Especial the public sector, where a range of activities, including education, health and social care are currently being commodified. This process is associated with privatization (ibid).

[4] The Italian economist Piero Sraffa even defined capitalism as ”[…] the production of commodities by means of commodities.“ (Ley & Harriss 2012)

[5] It means the tendency to transform more activities into products or services (ibid.) and in case of science a fundamental change of the culture of research and the relation to provide knowledge (Weingart 2008: 483).

[6] This brings also enormous changes in the nature of work, „in how work is managed, and in the relationship between workers and the users of their services (increasingly likely to be referred to as ‘customers’). Using principles of ‘scientific management’ fundamentally unaltered since they were developed in the 19th century by the likes of Babbage and Taylor, work processes are analyzed and broken down into standardized units.” (ibid.)

[7] For the German Discourse about the commodification of the public sector are several multi-paradigmatic discussions (see Mühlenkamp 2003; Flecker et. Al. 2014).

[8] The university formed the organizational frame, where experts decide about research and teaching and the new goals are (in some cases) to generate and provide knowledge for profit, but the original meaning of a university is that the institution understand itself as a Non-profit-organization (in their aims, mode of production, structures etc.) (OEH 2005).

[9] In these market orientated logic are student’s consumer (Schwartzman 2012: 3).

[10] “This movement has included universities. In many countries, the state began reducing financial support for higher education, encouraged competition and demanded financial self-dependency. A new managerialism entered universities and ubiquitous management philosophies such as the total quality management (TQM) and the balanced scorecard (BSC) have been tested in some universities […].” (ibid)

[11] SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Sciences) and MAXQDA, a software for a qualitative data analysis are just two examples of a rich number of academic commodities. Other Examples are the statistic program STATA or the qualitative analysis tool Atlas.ti for narrative interviews. Other examples of online courses, MOOCS will be discussed in the empirical part of the paper.

[12] The Austrian sociologist Max Haller called it not a direct concurrence between persons, but rather an indirect concurrence fight (Haller 2014).

[13] She is quoting Richard Florida and several other scientists, who introduced terms for the new type of knowledge worker like „digital nomads“, „symbolic analysts“ or „portfolio men“ (Huws 2014: 31).

[14] This is possible through overcoming the limits of space and time in modern times through acceleration (increased through the development of the Internet (see David Harvey; Hartmut Rosa).

[15] „Intellectual labor is not only crucially important for the further development of commodification, it is also itself subject to commodification processes and hence to the discipline of the market. “ (ibid.)

[16] “The transformation of tacit knowledge into codified knowledge is a crucial part of this process.“ (ibid.)

[17] Knowledge worker does not expect to do the same things over and over again (ibid.).

[18] For a differential discussion of Foucaults understanding of Neoliberalism and the use and misuse of his theoretical understanding see Calin Cotoi (2011).

[19] Efficiency in the academic context is related to evaluating processes, where the wealth of research is measurable in an intrinsic understanding. The already discussed pressure to write research proposal and other new duties are reasons for the production of less meaningful science, especially in social and cultural sciences (Enders 2008; Simon 2008; Radder 2010; Huws 2014).

[20] A detailed Discussion about the development of economization of Universities see for Austria Lassnigg 2003, for Germany Weingart 2008.

[21] MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have been invented in the U. S. A. and where first used in a course by Sebastian Thrun, Professor for artificial intelligence (Stanford University) with more than 160.000 participants and the invention is understandable as a reaction on the high university fees. The phenomenon is very new phenomenon (see in detail Yuan & Powell 2012; Lehmann 2013; Wedekind 2013;

[22] The Austrian sociologist Max Preglau calls the university reform and the resulting laws are the “expulsion of the Humboldtian principles of a University” (Preglau 2002). The Viennese scientist economist and former chairman of the staff council Weigel describes the new situation in the universities with the allegory to a joint-stock company (AG). He argues that the management is external and the top down decisions are made by non-university members. The results are a marginalization of the university senate, increasing economization and in order to that an increasing competition between the actors at the university (Weigel 2012).

[23] Kreckel describes the innovations as a new public management and discusses the reasons for these new economic management minds. He argues that the needs for a renovation of the university system lays in the increasing number of students, the insufficient funding by the state and the internalization of the university system (ibid. 5).

[24] He named the problems of the law; if a academic lecturer is not becoming a professor after 12 years after becoming a Ph.D. he/she is out of the university system, pushed to private research centers or the free market. He argues that it is a systematical self-deconstruction of scientific excellence. He listed more standardized problems, like the limitation on Promotion Stipendiums on just 3 years, the need to teach courses or to publish, the attendance on conferences, colloquiums, lectures, organization of third-part-funding’s, the self-representation in the internet etc. In a polemic way he shows that the less who balanced themselves in the dynamics of the new science system have to handle the “Bureaucratic monster” of the Bas and Mas. His facet is that there is no time for a good and maybe extraordinary research. There are high claims to the published articles and thesis papers, but poor results in the researches. He called it as an effect of acceleration (comparison Rosa/Harvey) (Dries 2014).

[25] Under a Business is to understand: A planes organized economic unit where goods and services were produced and followed the principals of economical logics.

[26] Dependent scientific employees (OEWR 2013: 20).

[27] The EUROAC cross country study of Ates and Brechelmacher (2012) (INCHER Kassel) represents interview results of 480 scientists from several countries like Germany, Finland, Italy, Croatia and Great Britain. In the sum are 36% of all interviewees in part time work relations and 75% of the group of the 36-45year old academics are in fixed-term-work relations. In general are 40-50% of the academic incomes under the average incomes of persons with a professor title (ibid.).

[28] But it is necessary to underline the fact of an increased discontent attitude against the new external top-down management (ibid.).

[29] In this time; the sociology of economic and the sociology of education also published about education commodification (see Schimank & Volkmann 2008; Höhne 2014)

[30] The authors cited an article and name typical new terms for the describing of the new landscape by “academic casting”, “academic fight of concurrence” and underline the new public management in connection with new strategies to allocate more money with different economic strategies, even in the handling of the students (ibid.).

[31] They have a platform where they provide an access to academic courses for free. The target groups are students, manager and even interested people. They also publish a magazine “IM+io – Das Magazin für Innovationen, Organisation und Management” and they have and e-learning journal

[32] Discussion see Wedekind 2013.

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Knowledge Commodification in German Speaking Universities
University of Vienna  (Soziologie)
Class Relations in the Global Digital Economy
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Commodification, Ökonomisierung der Hochschule, Arbeitssoziologie, Digitale Ökonomie, MOOCs
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Andreas Schulz (Author), 2015, Knowledge Commodification in German Speaking Universities, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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