Pandemic Privatisation in Higher Education: Edtech & University Reform

published 15 February 2021 updated 20 June 2024
written by:

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a state of emergency engulfed higher education. The crisis of mass campus closures and a rapid ‘pivot’ to online learning became the context for attempts by private actors and commercial organisations to reconfigure the sector.

Besides the immediate and necessary short-term ‘relief’ provided by education and technology providers during campus closures, commercial organisations and private sector promoters sought to ‘reconstruct’ higher education for the long term.

Temporary emergency measures were treated as experimental opportunities to establish a new ‘digital normalcy’ in which private and commercial actors could play a substantially increased role in schools, colleges and universities worldwide, with wide-ranging implications for the experience of students and the working lives of staff.

The effects are likely to continue unfolding as institutions and national systems deal with the rolling disruptions of the pandemic, and the emergency ‘pivot online’ translates into long-lasting sectoral changes. Digital technologies and private sector participation can bring many benefits to higher education, but many of the transformational changes promoted during the pandemic also present serious challenges.

This report documents key ways commercialisation and privatisation of higher education have been - and continue to be - advanced through digital technologies in the context of COVID-19, identifying issues and implications for more detailed discussion and deliberation as higher education sets out on the long path to post-pandemic recovery.