October 2020


  1. Gaining knowledge is what makes a degree valuable, not graduate salaries or transferable skills
  2. The Hustle Economy
  3. Covid-19 and ethnicity: how the information gap exacerbates inequality
  4. Why South African opposition’s policy on racial inequality is out of sync with reality

Gaining knowledge is what makes a degree valuable, not graduate salaries or transferable skills


The unexpected social and economic challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic have given increased urgency to questions about the purposes of a university education and the kinds of graduates that society needs. Much of this debate has focused on the extent to which university degrees lead to graduate jobs and higher graduate salaries.

For example, in July, UK education secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced that financial support for universities affected by COVID-19 would be conditional on their scrapping courses that did not lead to skilled graduate jobs.

The implication of these announcements is that the central purpose of a university education is to produce employable, high-earning graduates.

My research examines what a university education is for, the principles that should inform its design, and how its quality can effectively be measured. Rather than the employment and salaries of graduates, the central educational purpose of a university education is to transform students through their engagement with knowledge.


Graduate premiums

When discussing the purpose of higher education, UK politicians often talk about the graduate premium. This is a measure of how much more university graduates earn than those who have not been to university. But there are a number of problems with understanding the quality of a degree in terms of graduate salaries.

Research has shown that employment outcomes are far more of a measure of graduates’ level of social privilege than the quality of their degree. A students’ disability, ethnicity, gender, geographical location and social class will have more bearing on their employment than the particular degree course they study.

Basing the worth of a degree on graduate premiums assumes that higher education is only worthwhile because the qualification it provides leads to higher earnings. This overlooks whether there is something intrinsically valuable about higher education itself. From this viewpoint, if graduates did not earn more than non-graduates then it would not be worth going to university, regardless of its educational merits.

In addition, by focusing on the differences between the earnings of graduates and non-graduates, graduate premiums are a measure of economic inequality. There is something deeply wrong and depressing about measuring the quality of a university degree in terms of how much it contributes to inequality in society.


Generic skills

Some might respond that it is not the difference between the salaries of graduates and non-graduates that is important, but the gaining of transferable skills that make graduates employable. These include problem solving and time management, as well as communication and analytical skills. Crucially, what graduates can do is described in generic rather than specific terms.

This way of thinking falls apart when we examine what it means in specific contexts. For example, if I am preparing a meal there are lots of different ways in which I can describe the skills involved – whether this is in terms of specific technical skills, such as using knives in particular ways, or more general descriptions of the processes involved in cooking particular kinds of dishes. But my ability to describe these skills is very different to my ability to actually produce an edible meal.

In a similar way, in higher education, we often mistake the ability to describe particular skills for the ability to demonstrate these skills in a range of contexts.

Problem solving is one transferable skill that is often seen as central to graduate employability. But if a student can solve a problem in chemistry, it does not mean that they can solve a sociological problem.

The idea of problem solving is empty unless we know the kind of problem being solved, by who and in what circumstances. This means that the successful performance of skills is dependent on students’ understanding of the knowledge they have gained at university.


Transformative experiences

We need to stop seeing the purposes of university education in terms of graduate premiums or generic skills. Instead, we need to focus on how higher education helps students to gain an understanding of knowledge that changes their sense of who they are and what they can do in the world.

While this does help students to become more employable, employability is not the main educational purpose of a university education. The danger is that we will lose a sense of the ways in which students’ engagement with academic knowledge is central to the way they are transformed by their university experiences. Without this transformation, higher education will not produce the kinds of graduates that ministers rightly insist that society needs.


By : Paul Ashwin (Professor of Higher Education, Lancaster University)

Date : October 7, 2020

Source : The Conversation 


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The Hustle Economy


Today, inequality—especially racial inequality—is not only produced through the job market but through people’s ability to hustle.

The futurism of technology discourse is ahistorical and ideological. Tech utopianism disembeds the future from the political economies that produce its social relations, and it obscures the machinations of racial capitalism. When I was recently asked to consider how digital technologies shape “economic opportunity” and the “future of work,” I started by examining what we mean by economic opportunity, and what counts as work.

In lay terms, economic opportunity in the future of work looks like hustling. Hustling traditionally refers to income-generating activities that occur in the informal economy. It has also become synonymous with a type of job-adjacent work that looks like it is embedded in the formal economy but is governed by different state protections, which makes the work risky and those doing it vulnerable.

“Platform entrepreneurs” who trade their labor using a digital platform (like TaskRabbit or Takl) that extracts a portion of that labor in exchange for facilitating payments and promotion between provider and customer are hustling. So are independent contractors who enter arrangements with companies (like Uber, Lyft, or Amazon with its delivery drivers) that provide access to proprietary scheduling-based work in exchange for workers who will accept the risk of not being an employee. Hustling also refers to influencers, who develop personal brands on social media platforms and exchange their share of market capture in the attention economy for discounted products, free goods, and direct-to-consumer sales. While all of these types of hustling can happen in conjunction with waged employment and other forms of entrepreneurship, they all show how the assumption of risk has shifted from states and employers to workers. Today, inequality—especially racial inequality—is not only produced through the job market but through people’s ability to hustle.

The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which introduced the term into public provisioning, was part of the massive investment in social welfare that happened in the middle of the twentieth century. The legislation, which included funding for a jobs program, adult education, and small business loans, was eventually replaced by the Community Services Block Grant in 1981. The trajectory from economic opportunity to block grants is an allegory for how the dominant economic logic in the United States shifted from an emphasis on civil rights to “investment.” By the 1980s, “economic opportunity” meant promoting entrepreneurship and securing formal credentials among poor people and minorities. By the 2000s, this approach was taken for granted.

Since March, tens of millions of people have filed for unemployment. Meanwhile many participants in the hustle economy have had to adapt quickly to the new context created by the coronavirus. The future is predicted to be less job-centric. It is predicted to be more competitive. It is predicted to shift more risk onto individuals and communities. Digital technologies—combined with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—are speeding these processes up and making them more efficient. To understand these changes, we need to look to the borders between the formal and informal economy where entrepreneurship sits.


Racial Capitalism and the Future of Work

The concept of racial capitalism posits that racialization is a primary project for all capitalist activities, from accumulation to extraction. This holds for the future of work as much as the past. Racial capitalism identifies the hustle not just as a response to inequalities in the formal economy but as a kind of racial theater. Black people—and Black women especially—are shut out of traditional employment, but our culture applauds the hustler who responds to exclusion by striking out on her own. As brands and digital platforms celebrate grit and urge us to “respect the hustle,” the realities of who succeeds and who stays struggling are lost.

Some argue that in contrast to the formal economy’s rush for accumulation, the informal economy is driven by the unmet needs of the exploited classes. Still, the informal economy, which serves as a pressure valve for the formal economy, has its own set of underlying social relations. The theater of the hustle obscures some of these relations and emphasizes others. Mostly, it distracts us from the diffuse nature of extraction today. Hustling encompasses legal, semi-legal, illegal, and small-scale enterprises, but it also includes precarious workers in professions that have shifted to the hustle economy even when their titles do not reflect it. This is a global and varied phenomenon. But the larger story is about the expansion of the informal economy by shifting the relations of production that underpin the formal economy.

Entrepreneurship is not often theorized as work. Even when a worker provides a service, the absence of a firm renders entrepreneurial activity as something other than a “job.” But, as Zulema Valdez points out in her study of Latinx entrepreneurs, ethnic and Black entrepreneurs in particular use ventures to augment bad jobs, substitute for job losses, or to otherwise mitigate exclusion from occupational pathways. Some of these entrepreneurs may work for themselves, but many are adding entrepreneurship as a type of second or third shift on top of a formal job arrangement. The administrative state does little to track or identify this sort of activity, in stark contrast to the vast apparatus that oversees public and private job sectors. Entrepreneurial firms that employ fewer than fifteen employees, for example, are exempt from reporting data to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Take the case of a job task platform like TaskRabbit. It promotes itself as a way for underemployed women to make extra income in their spare time. But women are less likely to have unallocated time than are men. They are also less likely to be compensated for work they provide in almost any economic arrangement, and when they are compensated, it is at rates lower than those for men. And a nonwhite, immigrant, working-class woman is more vulnerable to the message of economic inclusion than a white, upper-middle-class woman. Other platforms try to blur the distinction between workers and owners. What, for example, is an Uber driver? Is she an entrepreneur, a vendor, or an employee? The answer appears to be she is whatever the platform requires her to be to maximize profit at any given point in an exchange.

The word “entrepreneurial” has served as a shield against inquiry into the work arrangements that are organized beneath that banner, especially when aided and abetted by platforms and data black boxes. But the tools that leverage the idea of inclusion work differently for different people, limiting what opportunities are available and channeling people into specific forms of entrepreneurship. The future of work will make many more U.S. workers into entrepreneurs. But what type of entrepreneurs will they be? And what digital technologies will they use?


Hustling in the Shadows of Economic Opportunity

While the “digital economy” is often pictured as start-ups in the Silicon Valley tech industry, today all entrepreneurship is digital. From hair salons to small farms, resale clothing shops to house cleaners, the use of social media platforms is increasingly central to entrepreneurs’ livelihoods. Social media is not only a source of information and peer support, but also a place where business itself is conducted. It is important, therefore, to understand the role digital technologies play in perpetuating and upending inequalities in entrepreneurial access and success.

Entrepreneurs reach customers through social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook as well as business-specific platforms like Yelp and Thumbtack. They collect payments, manage financials, and even receive loans through fintech platforms like Square and Kabbage. And entrepreneurs in the digital economy often work out of physical spaces that operate like platforms, such as WeWork and Phenix Salon Suites. These platforms are designed to serve an economy where livelihoods are increasingly defined by a patchwork of entrepreneurial activities. Those whose professional life sits at the nexus of these digital tools are “platform entrepreneurs.”

The access these platforms provide is a kind of “predatory inclusion.” Personal finance is a good analog. When traditional banking services excluded large swaths of consumers, payday loans and prepaid cards emerged to fill the gap left behind. In the world of business-to-business products, a range of alternative business services serve the same function: lending packages, fintech products, business software, business credit schemes, and merchant services accounts. There is a whole array of “subprime” business services, which justify high relative costs by offering themselves to entrepreneurs shut out of traditional services. The platform economy is a stopgap to overcome exclusion, and a tool used to target people for predatory inclusion. Subprime entrepreneurs gain access to the platform economy and the social, political, and economic capital they need on uneven and often exploitative terms.

As educational institutions and policy makers continue to encourage entrepreneurship as a viable path to economic security for more workers left behind in the job-based economy, it is critical that we understand how different kinds of entrepreneurs experience that pathway. With that in mind, I am engaged in an ongoing research project, which aims to map the ecosystem of entrepreneurial activity and technologies used by platform entrepreneurs in gendered professional services. With my colleague Lana Schwartz at the University of Virginia, I am looking at how platform entrepreneurship is shaped differently by race, class, and gender in mid-sized cities with negligible high-status technology industries. We shift the lens of studies of entrepreneurship in the United States from Silicon Valley and Wall Street to the shadows of economic opportunity structures: the chain mall beauty salon sub-rental, the Instagram direct messages of beauty industry micro-celebrities, and the network of capital that targets entrepreneurs with severely constrained choices.

This research complements my “Hustle Better” project on how Black women entrepreneurs access micro-capital through fintech platforms that target subprime entrepreneurs. In collaboration with the Filene Research Institute, I am interviewing women who hustle in areas with rich histories of Black entrepreneurship and a sizable Black consumer class. Given conditions that would be considered favorable for ethnic entrepreneurship, this research explores how Black women make sense of the fintech platforms where they conduct some or all of their business activity. A host of feminist scholarship has demonstrated that economic relations are also emotional, affective experiences. Racial capitalism must feel good at least part of the time or it would be unsustainable, and predatory fintech platforms inculcate feelings of belonging, success, and mobility despite the material reality of their exploitative terms. More importantly, I am exploring the potential of cooperative and not-for-profit fintech to create non-predatory platforms for vulnerable entrepreneurs.

Around International Women’s Day, commemorated just one week after the close of Black History Month, I was inundated with memes congratulating me for being a woman. Brands and media issued lists and essays and social marketing to celebrate Black women. A story about Black women entrepreneurs got a lot of traction. It was pithy and had the scientific patina of a numerical data point. The story celebrated that “Black women are starting businesses at the fastest clip of any racial group.” The claim does not make much sense, since Black women aren’t a racial group but are a subset of a racial group. The report, produced by American Express, says that “The number of firms owned by African-American women has grown by 164% since 2007.” The story is popular because it celebrates Black uplift through economic opportunity. The reality is less rosy.

Black women platform entrepreneurs have more education than their white male and female counterparts. Despite having more formal education, they face more job insecurity than similarly educated peers. This insecurity is compounded if those Black women are also sexual minorities. These intersecting inequalities shape Black women’s exposure to entrepreneurship schemes that are marketed as low risk. For example, platforms like PayPal, Kabbage, and Square all offer business loans targeted at micro-businesses and platform entrepreneurs. Advertised as micro lines of credit for entrepreneurs with little collateral or business credit, it is easy to see the coercive appeal of these products for Black women who face systemic discrimination in credit markets. This can look like a form of economic inclusion. But on closer examination, these products are less like business loans and more like short-term cash advances, which are common in economically marginalized communities. They promise various efficiencies made possible by digital technologies. PayPal can garnish an entrepreneur’s income to repay the loan “simple and easy.” Kabbage uses an algorithm that makes it possible to “apply in minutes and qualify in no time.” The platforms accomplish this by exploiting the vast amounts of historical data available on potential borrowers.

The efficiencies of frictionless repayment and low opportunity costs to apply have very different value depending on the social location of the consumer. They also mask the predatory terms of inclusion. Interest rates from Kabbage can exceed 50 percent when the short term of repayment schedule is considered. Moreover, because these products are not typical loans, they do not report to credit bureaus or build business credit. PayPal, Kabbage, and Square differ from other kinds of business loans offered in this space, such as LendingClub and Amazon Lending, that have more favorable terms but are targeted to higher status, whiter, and wealthier entrepreneurs. The high price of inclusion in capital accumulation schemes like self-employment and entrepreneurship for Black women recommends racial capitalism as a robust analytical framework.

As the economy shifts to more and more non-job labor, digital technologies will continue to reshape work by finding new ways to facilitate efficient, racialized extraction. We will see more platforms that produce new types of occupational closure through the creation of micro-degrees and certificates, and more companies that rebrand economic insecurity as economic opportunity. The processes may look inclusive, but the terms will be predatory.


Tressie McMillan Cottom, an associate professor and senior research faculty at the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill, is the author of Thick: And Other Essays, a finalist for the National Book Award. She is a member of Dissent’s editorial board.


By : Tressie McMillan Cottom

Date : Fall 2020

Source : Dissent https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-hustle-economy

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Covid-19 and ethnicity: how the information gap exacerbates inequality


Trust must be rebuilt within BAME communities if information gaps are to be bridged, say Rooah Omer, Shruti Patel, and Danielle Solomon

The covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the health and social inequalities that have historically plagued black and minority ethnic (BAME) groups in the UK. The reasons for this are many, however there are numerous examples of ongoing patterns of miscommunication, misinformation, and disinformation that have created an information gap among these groups. This acts as a key factor in differential health seeking behaviour, experiences of healthcare, and ultimately health outcomes. These are all exacerbated by a historical context in which people from BAME groups have experienced greater levels of socioeconomic disadvantage, been ignored or abused by medical science, and received poorer quality of care from the healthcare system.

As we move on to the next phase of the pandemic, incorporating the lessons we have learnt so far will be essential in preventing and managing the effects of a second wave of covid-19 on BAME groups. Using a more localised approach to outbreak management, which works in partnership with local BAME networks, would allow us to deliver an effective, culturally competent campaign that bridges information gaps. The success of these approaches is entirely dependent on the trust of local populations—particularly when it comes to systems that rely on the individual to self-refer, such as the test and trace system. Disparities in information provision are complex, however, and it is vital to approach any solution with an understanding of the social, political, and structural drivers of this phenomenon.

UK policy makers have relied on behavioural science to determine communication strategies around the covid-19 response. However, behavioural science has tended to overlook the role of cultural differences in how people make decisions and navigate choice architecture. BAME groups are not a homogenous monolith, and if we want to continue to apply behavioural science to inform the covid-19 response, then we need to ensure that behavioural insights generated from within BAME communities are included.

While digital communications have helped efficiently disseminate health information and guidance during the pandemic, people from BAME groups are more likely to be digitally excluded. Reasons for this include financial barriers to WiFi, a lack of access to data or the devices needed to go online, and cultural and religious practices. Difficulties with literacy, language, or digital skills also act as barriers to navigating online information.

The community and voluntary sector have stepped in to produce translated audio, video, and printed materials and have supported people in applying guidance to their own contexts. It is essential that any future communication strategies aimed at BAME groups build on the knowledge of these grassroots organisations. This should include adopting more culturally specific, non-digital, and translated methods that reach people through their trusted channels.

Misinformation and conspiracy theories about covid-19 have been widespread, and disenfranchised communities are more susceptible to these. These false messages often feed into existing mistrust of authoritative bodies, which have been planted by lived experience of both overt and subtle racism.

Furthermore, we need to acknowledge the historic backdrop of medical experimentation on BAME groups, which provides fertile breeding ground for misinformation to spread within BAME communities. Unauthorised drug trials, surgery performed without consent, and other forms of medical abuse have taken place throughout Western history. It is easy to see how conspiracy theories are more likely to gain traction when viewed through the lens of history, such as a false video that went viral about the government “coming for” black participants in covid vaccine trials, which had already led to fatalities. This context, and people’s fears of being “singled out” for medical experiments, must be acknowledged and addressed when communicating why those at increased risk of mortality are being considered for priority access to novel covid-19 treatments.

Racism and discrimination against BAME groups in healthcare is not, however, confined to the annals of history. Higher maternal mortality rates, poorer experiences of cancer care, and barriers to accessing healthcare still persist in the modern day NHS. BAME communities are underrepresented in published literature, and have been insufficiently targeted in research prior to covid-19—an oversight that is likely to further exacerbate disparities in the pandemic response. The most recent wave of recruitment to the NHS covid-19 vaccine research registry has seen only 6% of participants belonging to BAME groups. If we can rebuild trust within BAME communities, it will lead to better outcomes in the uptake of testing, inclusion in medical research, and in the long run uptake of any covid-19 vaccine.

Racial health inequality has been a facet of healthcare throughout British history, and it is not surprising that the covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing disparities. Preventing further harm to people from BAME communities during this crisis will require a detailed understanding of the complex range of factors that contribute to poorer health outcomes. In tackling one of these factors—unequal access to health information—it is important that we acknowledge and understand the structural causes. The urgency of the situation also means that it is imperative we use the community links that already exist with many local organisations to ensure that interventions are both appropriate and effective.


Rooah Omer is a specialist registrar in public health medicine, currently working in health protection in London. Twitter: @rooah_omer

Shruti Patel is a specialist registrar in public health medicine, currently working in the Kent health protection team. She also works as a paediatric doctor. Twitter @shruti2711

Danielle Solomon is a specialist registrar in public health medicine and a Wellcome Trust clinical PhD fellow at the Institute for Global Health, University College London (UCL). @df_solomon


Date : October 8, 2020

Source : The BMJ Opinion


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Why South African opposition’s policy on racial inequality is out of sync with reality


Claiming, as South Africa’s official opposition the Democratic Alliance (DA) does, that policy must ignore race in South Africa, is like insisting that economic inequality should have been ignored in nineteenth century Europe.

The party resolved at a recent policy conference to oppose policy that uses race and gender as a criterion. This aims to set it apart from the governing African National Congress, which endorses affirmative action as a means of addressing the inequities created by centuries of minority white rule.

Although this decision must still be ratified by the federal congress, its highest decision-making body, it is sure to become DA policy. When it does, it will settle, for the moment, an internal argument between supporters of this view and those in the DA who want it to accept that race is a measure of disadvantage.

Those within the DA who reject racial redress are overwhelmingly white; those who support it are almost all black (although a black DA official has been the public face of the “colour blind” policy). The references to gender seem to be an afterthought since this was never a source of division within the DA.

As in other countries with a history of racial domination such as the United States, positions on whether race-based redress makes sense are a product not of academic analysis but where people are in society. Whites have been challenging race-based redress in the US for decades because it signifies that they continue to benefit unfairly at the expense of blacks. Black attitudes in the US to racial redress are a subject of debate.

In South Africa, most whites react in much the same way as American whites. Just about all politically active black people believe that prejudice continues to disadvantage them and that racial redress is essential.


Why race still matters

But the fact that many people believe something to be true does not mean it is.

The DA resolution says that

(each) individual is unique and not a racial or gender envoy… Individuals, when free to make their own decisions, will not be represented in any and every organisation, sector, company or level of management according to a predetermined proportion.

Translated, that means no-one should be given a post or an advantage because of their race. Isn’t that a reasonable position in a society which rejects race discrimination?

No, it isn’t. The claim that each individual is “unique and not a racial or gender envoy” bears no resemblance to the reality in which people live. Each black person and woman may be an individual but, because they are black and women, they face obstacles which whites and men don’t.

White people are not considered unqualified for tasks unless they prove themselves (and sometimes even then). Men are not constantly faulted for their emotions, accused of being aggressive when they stand up for themselves and submissive when they don’t. Nor are men subjected to violence simply because they are male. So, we are not “envoys” (whatever that means) for our race or gender, but our experiences are shaped by them.

We are all individuals in theory but, in practice, when one group has occupied all the top positions in business and the professions for more than a century, people assume that only that group has the abilities those positions need. And so “merit” becomes another word for belonging to the dominant group.

If race or gender are ignored, the people who decide who is appointed are likely to assume that only people like them have “merit”. And so, the individuals appointed to top positions will almost always be those who look like the person making the appointments. “Not seeing colour” would be to see only one colour, that of the group in charge.


Racism in sports

Those who hold this view often claim businesses will always appoint on “merit” because they need to hire the best person to make profits. But who decides who the best person is? People are not calculators and their understanding of who is good at a task is shaped by the biases mentioned here. That favourite South African pastime, sport, provides evidence.

Makhaya Ntini, who became one of South Africa’s most successful cricketers, would never have played for the country if one of the game’s administrators had not thought it politic to instruct the selectors to choose him.

Cricket is a useful indicator because personal averages are recorded measuring each player’s performance. In the early years of officially “non-racial” cricket, black players were often passed over for whites whose averages were lower. If selectors were not told to take colour into account, no black person may have played cricket for South Africa.

Opponents of race- or gender-based policies often like to claim that they divert attention from poverty and economic inequality: they may make the problem worse by giving opportunities to well-off people only. If help goes to people who live in poverty, whatever their race or gender, those who really need it will get it and the fat cats won’t be rewarded because they are black or female.

This view scrambles together two issues which are related but not the same: racial barriers and poverty. Racial barriers affect middle-class people. It is they who compete for university places, or professional and business jobs. And so, the poor do not benefit from them. But, unless you want to end all inequality (which few if any opponents of race- or gender-based policy do), they only benefit at the expense of people living in poverty if they receive benefits which would otherwise go to a poor person.


‘Colour blind’ myth

Those who know South African realities will find it weird to imagine “colour blind” policies opening up university places to people too poor to afford the better schools and business and professional opportunities to people who could not afford to go to university.

Of course, it could be argued that race- and gender-based policies disadvantage the poor because the best people will not be appointed to the posts in government, the professions and management on which they rely for service. But that is only true if the best people would be appointed if there no race and gender criteria, which, we have already shown, they would not.

In effect, this claim implies that appointing blacks and women lowers standards and so it becomes another way of saying that black people and women are not up to the job.

So, “colour blind” policies (and their gender equivalents) would not usher in non-racialism, which means that each human being is judged on their ability alone.

They would retard it by ensuring that those who dominated in the past will remain on top. The DA’s policy proposal is not blind to race. It is blind to racism.


By : Steven Friedman (Professor of Political Studies, University of Johannesburg)

Date : September 23, 2020

Source : The Conversation 


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