International higher education in the age of knowledge socialism

April 2020

As a neoliberal concept, the idea of the knowledge economy, first proposed in 1996 by the OECD, considers knowledge to be a commodity that should serve the economy. Indeed, the pursuit of efficiency and profit maximization in the name of the knowledge economy has boosted economic prosperity and social progress to a degree. But it does not allow for the ‘scale effect’ of knowledge (the fact that a larger knowledge workforce tends to produce more knowledge). And it does not account for the fact that, in order to maintain their international competitiveness, some countries or institutions have tried to monopolize knowledge under the pretext of protecting intellectual property rights, which is a form of information imperialism, or knowledge capitalism. But knowledge and education are both global public goods, and should be accessible to all. According to Michael Peters, this implies that we need knowledge socialism: ‘a new global collectivist society that is coming online based on communal aspects of digital culture including sharing, cooperation, collaboration, peer production and collective intelligence.’ Thus, knowledge socialism emphasizes knowledge democracy, that is, genuinely participative, interactive and collaborative forms of knowledge-making and -sharing.

In this context, the global higher education system, as the distribution centre of global knowledge, should adjust its mode of creation and diffusion of knowledge. Because knowledge production thrives on integration and the problems faced by human beings today are becoming more and more complex and ‘integrated,’ we need transdisciplinary thinking. Such thinking is fostered by open knowledge production or peer production. In fact, Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of the first modern research university in Berlin, knew this two centuries ago. He proposed that university students and teachers should see themselves as academic peers sharing the common task of making ‘science.’ But the current curriculum management and teaching arrangements in universities are inflexible, which limits the time and space for cooperation and communication among academic peers, and weakens academic freedom and hinders knowledge creation. Only if researchers form peer groups can they overcome this inflexibility and achieve their research potential.

Knowledge socialism recognizes that knowledge and its value are rooted in social relations. At the international level, it manifests as transnational cooperation and exchanges. It focuses not only on economic returns, but also on solving the broader social problems facing humanity. For this reason, it is resisted by those with vested interests in knowledge capitalism. As Michael Peters has argued, the big academic publishers, like SAGE, Springer, Elsevier and Wiley, have propped up a ‘hegemonic system of global journal knowledge.’ They have monetized access to research through their subscription-based publishing model based on individual intellectual property, which has allowed them to earn a great deal of money by exploiting researchers across the world and creating a knowledge monopoly. Their paywalls have become one of the biggest obstacles to the free exchange of knowledge. However, academics have begun to resist this business model, with some institutions – including Harvard University – taking action to bypass these publishers to open access to knowledge and thereby promote knowledge exchange and production. Although knowledge socialism is still in its infancy, the necessary social needs and technical affordances exist that it will gradually be accepted by more and more people.

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Full Citation Information:
Liu, H. (2020). International higher education in the age of knowledge socialism. PESA Agora.
Ideas are Open Access, freely available for readers to download and copy with proper attribution with a CC – BY – ND licence

Hao Liu

Hao Liu is a PhD student in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, where he is undertaking research on internationalisation of higher education.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash