Rebooting Robbins in The Second Machine Age

Review by Patrick Ainley

Eric Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee (2014) The Second Machine Age, Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. New York: Norton.

Liam Byrne (2014) Robbins Rebooted, How We Earn Our Way in the Second Machine Age. London: The Social Market Foundation.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee is one of those admirably readable US business books, academically well supported by a range of reference across the various disciplines that modern Business Studies brings together if not integrates, whether at MIT – where the authors work – or in the wider arena of global Business Study. It is predominantly upbeat and optimistic in the way those supportive of global business have to be but still draws attention to drawbacks that need to be overcome if – as the authors recognize – that business model is to survive.

Their prospectus therefore is a simple one we have heard before: The Second Machine Age follows the first industrial revolution, automating mental rather than manual labour. It is still in its early stages of bringing together and standardising various aspects of the new digitising technology in dynamic synergies. The book relates how fast this is occurring, particularly as sensors are attached to various machines causing a veritable Cambrian explosion of diverse developments. The authors are particularly taken with the Googlecar that carries them driverlessly through the traffic of a Californian freeway. This seems the paradigm case for them of an activity that can be digitally automated.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee are however hip to the potential downsides of such developments. They recognise the dangers of being ‘Alone Together’ in a mediated world that cuts humanity off from its real experiences but imply that these are no different in kind to the distancing of consciousness that comes with the use of tools and symbolic speech. Besides, they have a solution to bring together the routinized mental performances of machines with the human imagination machines lack. Predictably it is to be found in education.

Like nearly everyone – except perhaps the teacher unions, who seem to think a teacher in front of a class of 30 kids for five or six hours a day makes all right with the world – Brynjolfsson and McAfee acknowledge that we cannot continue with the mass schooling that was created as a consequence of the first machine age. So they dedicate schools to catching up with Singapore and South Korea in the PISA rankings of test performances that they take as indicative of scholastic success with ‘longer hours, additional school days and a no-excuses philosophy that tests students and, implicitly, their teachers’ (p.212).

This familiar prescription is to be achieved through a Goveist-Murdochite NewsCorp-Pearson diet of MOOCs and teaching machines, whilst not forgetting to boost ‘hard-to-measure skills [that ubiquitous word] like creativity [not a skill, by the way] and unstructured problem solving [that] are increasingly important as machines handle more routine work’ (213). This will produce the entrepreneurs of the future, assembling the latest applications of new technologies, shared freely across the world wide web in a blaze of Schumpeterian creative destruction. This is clearly what Naomi Klein calls ‘magical thinking’.

Is anything to be made of it in relation to higher education? Labour’s HE Shadow, Liam Byrne, clearly thinks so. Written in riposte to Robbins Revisited, David Willetts’ contribution to the fiftieth anniversary of the Robbins’ Report on higher education, Robbins Rebooted sees universities as ‘the power stations of the knowledge economy’ (p.9). ‘The knowledge economy’ replays ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’ that Harold Wilson promised in 1964 would ‘harness science to Socialism and Socialism to science’.

Education at all levels was crucial to this promise and Robbins’ endorsement of the expansion of higher education initiated a period of progressive reform as local education authorities were invited to junk 11+ IQ-testing and go comprehensive. This freed primary schools for child-centred education and prepared the way for expansion of F&HE, including the polytechnic experiment. As Byrne sees it ‘The result was the creation of millions of opportunities for a new middle class.’ (p.20)

This is topsy-turvy: it was the expansion of professional and technical employment sustained by a growing economy that allowed for the limited upward social mobility which ended in the 1970s. That ‘a grammar school education for all’, as Gove echoed Wilson, could restart this limited upward mobility in face of the general downward social mobility that has succeeded it, is more magical thinking. As if ‘skills’ (actually qualifications) can conjure up jobs!

The same goes for the ‘apprenticeships’ both Labour and Tories have lately promised to revive. Recreating a pale version of them will not transform the English into a German economy, no matter how lavishly they are advertised. But Byrne misidentifies a UK mittelstand of small- to medium-size interconnected companies waiting to be serviced with research by our ‘brilliant universities’ (p.11), while also offering ‘real choice’ to the bottom 50% of school leavers. But, unless related to economic reform to end austerity and the continued slide into low-wage, low-skill employment, this risks repeating the failures to rebuild a vocational route to replace the industrial apprenticeships lost in the 1970s but this time at a tertiary level of learning.

However, Shadow Education Minister, Tristram Hunt backs Byrne with plans for a Technical Baccalaureate for the half of 14+ school students who don’t do A-levels. Rebranding FE colleges as ‘Institutes of Technical Education’, they could go on to new part-time, two-year ‘Technical Degrees’, reinventing Foundation degrees to bring back secondary technical schools and polytechnics, while making everyone 18-21 either a student or apprentice – both paying fees!?!

Byrne at least offers HE a possibility of recovering itself in connection with FE by replacing market-driven expansion with regional partnerships to end the ‘ferocious competition’ (p.69) between universities, colleges and private providers. He connects this to the need for devolution of the centralised market state revealed to all Parties by the Scottish referendum. Apart from Scotland and Wales though, which are national regions, there are no natural regions in England like those in mainland Europe and they will not be constituted by Cameron rushing through ‘US-style directly-elected mayors with cabinets’ that are the optimal internal management arrangement for privatised local government services.

Instead, Byrne affirms that ‘an integrated system is possible’ (p.74) and gives examples based on the Universities of Herts, Staffs, Oxford Brookes and Birmingham City – all former-polytechnics with the exception of Sheffield’s arms-length Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. For other universities perhaps, he advocates ‘expanding post-graduate research and teaching… to ensure that post-graduate learning does not become the new barrier to access’ (p.82), while boosting MOOCs through the Open University’s Future Learn partnership.

The ‘unplanned explosion in provision at private colleges, including allegations of fraud’ (p.71) that resulted from Willetts’ ‘free-market experiment gone wild’ (p.46) is ‘indefensible’ but it is not clear what Byrne would do about it – or fees! If the Conservatives return to government and lift the current £9,000 cap on fees, Oxford, Cambridge and a handful of other English universities will seek to charge more, leaving less strong institutions in an impossible position and fragmenting what remains of a coherent system of F&HE provision.

Already, unlike the other 24 self-styled ‘Russell Group’ universities, Oxbridge restrict their entrants to heighten demand for their places. Meanwhile they maintain their staff’s research and scholarship to further enhance their quality, simultaneously investing in bursaries and other widening participation efforts to ‘skim the cream’ of state school applicants. Caroline Benn’s solution of turning them into research institutes alongside adult residential colleges looks tempting! Not that Byrne entertains anything like this or even mentions the private schools; any more than Hunt does, despite 23% of British school spending going to just 7% of pupils with their close Oxbridge links epitomised by Cameron and his pals.

The problem remains however that, while schools, colleges and universities claim to make their graduates ‘employable’, education cannot guarantee employment. So, the perception of ‘the problem’ needs to change: from being one where young people are seen as having to be prepared for ‘employability’ by earlier and earlier specialization for vocations that may not exist in The Second Machine Age. Instead, the starting point should be a common general but not academic schooling to 18 giving entitlement to progression for citizens ‘fit for a variety of labours’, as Marx says in Capital.

This implies confronting the possibilities of flexibility but avoiding the current situation in which there are more people in the workforce but many are paid little for unregulated employment. This would require an alternative economic framework but not necessarily ‘the right to work’ with which the orthodox left continues to operate in a post-war collectivised model of the labour market.  Instead, a general schools education to graduation linked to the assumption of citizenship at 18 means learning about work and not just learning to work. Paradoxically, for universities this means rediscovering the vocational nature of the higher education preserved by the most prestigious subjects at the most elite institutions, as in the ‘original vocations’ of law and medicine. Importantly, this includes an academic vocation dedicated to learning critically from the past with research and scholarship enabling change in the future. Undergraduates can contribute to that continuing cultural conversation, giving them a sense that many have lost of what higher education is supposed to be about.



Patrick Ainley is Professor of Training and Education at the University of Greenwich School of Education and Training.

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