‘Uberfied’ higher education threatens diversity, claims author

Spread of student ratings is part of trend that poses a threat to academic autonomy and diversity, says Coventry University academic 

October 25, 2016
Uber taxi
Source: iStock
Taxi drivers in Paris have staged protests over the rise of Uber

Academics will become blander, less diverse and less economically secure if the “uberfication” of higher education continues, according to a UK academic.

While many scholars might imagine that their working practices are not really that similar to those used by Uber, the global taxi app firm, Gary Hall, professor of media and performing arts at Coventry University, believes higher education has increasingly become subject to approaches used by the San Francisco-based technology giant.

Much like Uber customers, who are asked to rate the service provided by their taxi driver, today’s students are now obliged to score the performance of lecturers via internal and external surveys, observes Professor Hall in his new book, The Uberfication of the University, published by the University of Minnesota Press in September.

Like Uber drivers who score highly, academics who gain higher marks are more likely to be awarded repeat work, yet studies show that students and Uber users consistently rate staff lower if they come from different social backgrounds or ethnic groups from them, Professor Hall said.

“Uber drivers have to be chatty, upbeat and friendly if they want to secure good ratings, and it seems [that] lecturers must be the same,” Professor Hall told Times Higher Education.

“But not everyone can do this, so it will begin to affect who gets regular teaching,” he said, adding that “people tend to rate [lecturers] higher if they are like themselves”.

Those lecturers who are able to maintain “a positive, if largely bland, profile and reputation” that is unlikely to upset or challenge students will be those who prosper in the “uberised” world of higher education.

“You are going to see higher education professionals become much more like the students who use it,” he claimed – a trend that is likely to undermine efforts to make the academic workforce more ethnically and socially diverse, he added.

“Some will be allowed to operate in this sharing economy, and some will find it much more difficult,” he said.

With many more academics working on short-term, casualised contracts, they are increasingly becoming like the “freelance individual micro-entrepreneurs” used by Uber, Professor Hall also argued.

“Any freelance individual micro-entrepreneur who assumes an attitude of non-compliance, non-productivity…silence, refusal, time-wasting, or passive sabotage is unlikely to acquire the kind of rating and reputation score that is needed to retain a gig as an academic in a platform-capitalist higher-education market,” he said.

However, there may be some winners in an uberised world of higher education in which teaching is assigned primarily on feedback and ratings, Professor Hall said.

“There may be advantages for some people who do not have an impressive career history or years of experience as they will be judged on their metrics,” he said.

Another potential benefit of a fully-uberised higher education system manned by roaming “academic micro-entrepreneurs” might be lower costs for students, but it would come at a price, pointed out Professor Hall.

“It would be cheaper because students would not be paying for the costs of research or for academics to attend conferences, just teaching” he said. However, cost savings could be achieved only through a “parasitical” business model, in which many of the costs of training and developing staff were taken on by other parties, such as universities.

In short, the uberised model of higher education would lead to a workforce of “atomised, freelance micro-entrepreneurs in business for themselves [with] all the problems of deprofessionalisation, precarity and continuous performance monitoring”, Professor Hall said.


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Print headline: ‘Uberfication’ a threat to diversity and autonomy, warns professor

Reader's comments (1)

I disagree. As someone who attended University in New York City, websites such as ratemyprofessor.com were an invaluable resource to me. Ratings were not only obtained from quantitative analysis, but also the anecdotal experiences of students. This wasn't just about being likeable, or similar to the students, (although admittedly their was a hotness scale), this was about understanding the course, the lecturers style, expectations. If I knew I was going to struggle with a particular class, perhaps I would research in to which professors would be willing to provide the most support, offered more detailed explanations. Although the US educational system differs in many ways, one notable difference is the disparity from one class to the next. Two students may take Managerial Accounting, with two different professors and have two very different experiences. Each of them may have deemed the class appropriate for them, based on the research and recommendations they had obtained previously. Whether these resources are more broadly adopted across the UK or not, word of mouth recommendations will still occur. Students will still discuss who 'to and not to' take. This is about customising your learning experience to ensure you find professors that are best aligned with your learning style, more so than 'your personality'. It isn't a popularity contest, until you view it as one.

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