Higher education institutions create and disseminate knowledge. Although the concept commodification of knowledge is ubiquitous in higher education discourse, there appears to be lack of knowledge among most academics and stakeholders what it actually entails.
Also, this is despite the fact that people talk of a global knowledge-based economy that depends on a highly educated and skilled workforce. People also talk of the fourth and fifth industrial revolutions that have digitalized the world and transformed many societies, especially in developed countries.
In all these transformations, higher education institutions and knowledge production continue to be the pillars of economic growth and the advancement of humankind. Some literature provides compelling evidence that commodification of knowledge in higher education institutions is vital in the knowledge-based economy. But what is a commodity? I find Marx’s (1906) definition appropriate here: “A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another.” Omaere, beer, furniture, cars, education, knowledge, engineering, computers, etc are examples of commodities. Consequently, I want to make it simple for everyone to understand what commodification of knowledge means. Commodification of knowledge implies the selling and buying of knowledge. Lubbers (2001) was quoted saying that commodification means “the phenomenon in which non-material activities are being traded for money.”
Knowledge is therefore treated like goods, which are commercialised in a market. Similarly, according to Roberts (1998), “Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is to exchange.” Both citations imply that knowledge is a commodity that is sold to those who want it. In other words, higher education institutions manufacture knowledge just like factories manufacture goods for the consumer market.
Some critics of commodification of knowledge have argued that the term is distasteful as it implies the marketization of knowledge at a commercial scale. They argue that this is disgusting because there are connotations of greed and cutthroat competition as in commerce and industry when knowledge is commodified. Equally, it has been observed that it paints a bad picture of higher education institutions when they are seen to be preoccupied with the commodification of knowledge at the expense of serving their clients professionally.
Those who are familiar with university education might want to ask why different universities charge different tuition fees for similar degree or diploma programmes. They might also want to ask whether the qualifications students get are really worth the credits they are allocated.
In other words, what does it mean to say, for instance, ‘in order to successfully complete this qualification, students must have a total of 500 credits?’ What actually determines the price of the commodity is a fundamental question some critics ask in the commodification of knowledge or higher education.
It is a reality that after paying huge fees for some qualifications or buying the commodity, knowledge, in this case, some students spend years without getting a job. Others fail to utilize the knowledge to start their own businesses to survive. This then taints the whole practice of commodification of knowledge. In this case, knowledge transaction has happened between the students and the university fails to pay dividends. Paradoxically, and as stated earlier, the commodification of knowledge is seen as the driver of productivity and technological advancement in the knowledge-based economy. A paradox usually has two sides, the dark side and the bright side.
The bright side of the commodification of knowledge hails the technological advancement of the knowledge society in which knowledge is treated as a unit of production. In this society, knowledge is a product or service that can be traded, and there is nothing wrong with higher education institutions selling knowledge at whatever price they consider necessary. Members of the public buy that knowledge if they can afford it, or leave it if they do not have the means, just as they would buy or not buy other goods in the market.
The availability of money is a determinant factor in the whole process of commodification of knowledge. This, according to Trow (1995), has led to the “existence of distinct forms of post-secondary education, of institutions and groups of institutions within a state or nation that have different and distinctive missions, educate and train for different lives and careers, have different styles of instructions, are organized and funded differently and operate under different laws and relationships to government.” In a modern, knowledge-based capitalist society, these diversities are necessary; they dictate and regulate the commodification of knowledge or higher education depending on who can afford what type of knowledge.
Trow’s explanations buttress the observation that there cannot be equality of access and quality of education in the commodification of knowledge in the knowledge-based economy. This is why today we have the whole gamut of higher education institutions selling their knowledge or education independently at different prices.
No wonder why there is competition in the higher education business or education in general. With all the different prices of knowledge, the common denominator is that we are living in a knowledge-based society and we need that knowledge to lead a decent life.
There is nothing wrong in the commercialisation of knowledge, what has been dubbed academic capitalism by some scholars. It is important for the public to note that the knowledge industry sells its products at different prices.
As higher education institutions engage in research, teaching and community service, all these are activities that produce knowledge to sold to consumers or customers at different prices.