Want to Make Education Less Expensive? Support the Freedom of Knowledge

Published 4 November 2013 ~ http://trentarthur.ca/want-to-make-education-less-expensive-support-the-freedom-of-knowledge/

open access words

There are fundamental problems at the heart of academic knowledge production today, reinforcing the inequality of a world order that concentrates the predominance of power, wealth and influence in the hands of a minuscule few. When knowledge is held as a proprietary possession, it becomes a tool wielded by those who control it to maintain their own artificial dominance. Academic institutions have always been bastions of the lucky few, but the ascension of ‘knowledge economies’ makes the consequences of limiting access to knowledge more perilous for us all.

The cost of staying current with contemporary academic research has been increasing dramatically: between 1986 and 2004 the cost of journal subscriptions rose nearly four times faster than inflation. The amount of research being produced is increasing almost exponentially. Even the largest research libraries cannot afford to provide access to all the proprietary journals disseminating important research, while small universities and, even more so, scholars and institutions in the developing world must beg and plead for even inadequate access to the knowledge locked away in these walled-gardens.

Meanwhile, the cost of being a student is already an impediment to personal and human advancement; the cost of all those course texts is merely another added deterrent, adding insult to injury.

The principle of ‘open access’ aims to make knowledge freely and openly available to everyone. The concept is a recent development that would have been impossible prior to the advent of the Internet, yet it has the potential to entirely transform the nexus between power and knowledge and every individual’s personal relationship to knowledge and information. As the source of most of the world’s knowledge production, universities can push forward the liberation of knowledge by mandating that the fruits of research conducted under their employ be made freely accessible, as some of the world’s greatest universities – UC Berkeley, MIT, Columbia – are already beginning to do.

Open access journals and research databases are available in their entirety free, online and downloadable, with the costs of publication covered not by user fees but rather in most cases by either large endowed universities or by governmental research funding bodies. This has the potential to save smaller institutions like Trent millions of dollars while giving our students and researchers the same quality of access to knowledge as their peers at the largest universities benefit from.

Open access learning materials, meanwhile, reduce the cost of education per student by hundreds to thousands of dollars, an idea so obviously appealing that quality open courseware, particularly at introductory levels, is already available in many fields and is rapidly being developed wherever it doesn’t yet exist, often with direct funding from governments – in California, in France and innumerable other places – that have caught on to the fact that everyone wins – except the private publishing industry – when publicly employed teachers and researchers create free, Creative Commons-licensed learning material that can be customized to suit each class’ individual needs. The MIT-lead OpenCourseWare Consortium is only the largest and most publicized development in this movement liberating education from its proprietary shackles.

mit courseware

Neoliberal ‘free-market’ apologists will continue to claim, based on their inaccurate psychological model of humanity as myopically self-centred, that open access will never succeed because it eliminates the profit motive (or at least makes it more indirect); just as they claim that open source software will always be inferior in spite of the blatant fact that it runs the vast majority of the servers of which the Internet consists. So I will take this opportunity to briefly dispel this line of criticism.

If knowledge was free, would people stop producing it? No, people who care passionately about something will continue to disseminate their ideas. What you will get less of are derivative works produced more for monetary reasons than from a sense that the world really needs to hear what the writer has to say. Scholars publishing in academic journals and anthologies generally aren’t paid for their contributions, and even the most influential academics rarely make a considerable sum from the dissemination of their works. Knowledge-production would continue its accelerated expansion, and, given the pressure placed on scholars to ‘publish or perish’ in the (unsustainable) tenure treadmill, we would not likely see a decline in the proliferation of scholarly texts either.

Research is part of what is expected of academics, so it should be a component of what they are paid for, rather a gratis after-hours duty to be profited from by publishing houses. Editors and proof-readers employed by profit-oriented academic publishing houses may have to find work elsewhere, but that’s a small price to pay for the global liberation of knowledge. Most might well find new employment with university-affiliated publishing centres funded by public and/or private endowment.

There is a danger that a merely-partial adoption of open access principles could create a two-tiered hierarchy of knowledge, with some knowledge open to all while certain exclusive knowledge is accessible only to those who ‘own’ it or can afford to pay for access to it. But even this would be vastly preferable to the current status quo of extreme hierarchy, with near-total access for a few, partial access for many and little or no access for most. In any case, all that is needed to make sure this doesn’t happen is for governments and major research institutions to mandate that all research they fund be made accessible in the public domain – to ensure that the neoliberal dream of a world where all research is ‘owned’ by private corporations never happens.

Open access to knowledge will not by itself solve universities’ funding crises: Trent’s annual budget is greater than $100 million, with the library budget being only a very small fraction of that. Nonetheless, the open access revolution will be an essential aspect of any just and sustainable vision for learning and knowledge production in the twenty-first century.

Let us know in part, but let that part be ever greater.


This has been a polemic, albeit a well-argued one. In future issues, I will address some of the challenges and tribulations that the emerging open access model of knowledge dissemination faces – and there are many.

One more thing. Until all publicly-funded or -subsidized knowledge is made available to all the world’s learners, intellectual piracy may well be a defensible response to a system that would seek to horde the world’s knowledge behind lock and key. You may well find your next course text is available on The Pirate Bay or other clandestine sharing sites like avaxhome.ws. Unless, that is, your professor makes the smart and ethical decision and chooses to teach open access courseware.