Global Challenges
Issue no. 14 | November 2023
The Future of Universities
Global Challenges
Issue no. 14 | November 2023
The Future of Universities | Article 5

Data Assets and the Future Governance of Higher Education

Reading time: 6 min
In the summer of 2023, Zoom changed its terms of service to allow user data processing to train its artificial intelligence (AI) systems. It faced immediate backlash from users and went on to change its approach. However, CBS News reports that Zoom still plans to use “service generated data” for AI training without obtaining additional user consent, while “customer content” can still be used if the meeting organiser agreed to share data with Zoom. Although Zoom is far from an isolated example, it provides a good illustration of why everyone must now think about what happens to their digital data and why we all need to consider how digital data is governed – including in the higher education sector, where many university students and academics use Zoom for their studies and work.

Digital data increasingly underpins the global economy, representing a key asset for many businesses. Many business models are now defined by the collection and control of data assets, whether that’s in online advertising, AI systems or even car manufacturing. Collecting and controlling data assets enables businesses to capture economic rents from their digital infrastructure and platforms via software licence or digital content via intellectual property (IP) rights. User data is seen as particularly important and valuable in the digitalised economy. Those who control user data create value by profiling people, optimising systems, managing and controlling digital systems, modelling probabilities and making products (Sadowski 2020); they continue experimenting to find further ways to turn data into revenues. The belief in the value of data by policymakers, entrepreneurs and investors led Birch and colleagues to coin the concept of “data rentiership”, which refers to “the pursuit of innovation strategies designed to capture or extract value through ownership and control of data as an asset” (Birch, Chiappetta and Artyushina 2020, p. 3).

How data is governed matters because turning something into an asset reconfigures economic and social relations. Particularly pertinent is the question of control. An asset owner (e.g., DuoLingo as a company owning and operating a language learning app) is able to extend their control over data via follow-through rights that determine the rules of use and operation of their products and services. The relationship between an asset owner and a user is ongoing and is organised via terms of use, which have the legal status of a contract. This is different than when buying a normal product or service, after which a buyer and a seller are quits, with the buyer assuming control rights of the purchased item. With an asset, these control rights can define how a buyer uses an item, like an eBook, a car or software.

We now move to three instances to illuminate concerns that surface with the expanding digitalisation of the higher education sector, which is tending towards these assetised relations and the growth of economic rent-seeking. The first instance is the struggle over IP and licencing of content produced by academic staff employed at universities. With the rise of online courses in a partnership between universities and online programme management platform companies, many stakeholders remain puzzled over who is delivering them and how. In an example from a Guardian Australia investigation, students became concerned when they discovered that they were using content produced by academics no longer employed by the university offering the course. Universities have turned academic content into assets from which they can reap economic benefits over long periods. We might raise concerns about quality, relevance and ethics here. However, our point is to highlight that universities have turned academic content into assets from which they can reap economic benefits over long periods – regardless of whether the content producer is still employed. Academics do not decide what happens with the content they produce, nor do academics profit from the extra fees paid to access the content. Rather, it is the university that benefits. Admittedly, there are differences in who owns the rights to such content worldwide. Also, this is not to say that the issue of who owns educational content was never controversial before. But this novel context brings new challenges over scale, profits, ethics and quality of new digital assets.

The second instance is that of user data collected by educational technology platforms, and the questions of who controls it and who gets to benefit from it as an asset. A good example is Instructure, a company that operates one of the most known virtual learning environments in higher education, Canvas. If students and staff use Canvas for their studies and teaching via their university, that university coordinates its relationship with Instructure via a contract. Regarding personal data, the university would be the data controller, and the company would be the data processor, which means that it would be the university that decides how the collected user data of students and staff is used. However, as stated in their Product Privacy Notice, Instructure uses user data to “provide, analyse and improve” their products; as well as it “may create and use de-identified or aggregate information – information removed of specific identifiers so that it cannot singly identify you (i.e., non-personal information) – for any purpose”. So despite the university being the controller of personal data, Instructure assetises user data it extracts via its platform and is able to treat it as a valuable resource for current and future products.

Our final instance is edu-marketplaces, platforms connecting learners and instructors. One prominent example is Udemy, which allows anyone to create and deliver courses on the platform. Individual learners who sign up for a course pay a fee. Depending on how many learners sign up, instructors get paid either 37% or 97% of the course revenue (see the Instructure Revenue Share agreement). The content is the property of the instructors; however, the instructor must agree to the Terms of Use, which dictate licensing it to Udemy: “[B]y submitting or posting content on or through the platforms, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display, and distribute your content (including your name and image) in any and all media or distribution methods (existing now or later developed) … You represent and warrant that you have all the rights, power, and authority necessary to authorise us to use any content that you submit. You also agree to all such uses of your content with no compensation paid to you.” Instructor Terms further dictate that an instructor must grant Udemy various rights, including to “offer, market, and otherwise exploit your Submitted Content”. Consequently, the content is an essential asset for the company, even though it remains the property of the instructors. As the platform owner and a market intermediary, Udemy sets all conditions of operations, access, user rights and so on. Users (instructors and learners) must accept all terms if they want to use the platform.

These three instances are only a few examples of the changing relations between learners, teachers, universities and platform companies. As more of our activities in higher education are mediated via digital technology, we need to raise questions about what kind of digital artefacts are being created, what is their legal status, who has rights over them, who monitors their impact, and who can influence such impact in case of assets. As we argue in the case of higher education, and other scholars argue in other sectors of the digital economy (e.g. Pistor, Sadowski, Viljoen), we must urgently address how user data and other digital assets are governed. These are new questions and challenges for higher education stakeholders and are key for the sector’s future.

Janja Komljenovic
Senior Lecturer, Lancaster University, UK

Kean Birch
Professor, York University, Canada

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TABLE: Roles and Missions of the University

RegimeRole and missions
Medieval UniversityServing God and Church; Serving Science
Westphalian UniversityServing Science; Serving State and Nation
Postmodern UniversityServing Society and Humanity; Serving the Market

Source: Marie-Laure Salles-Djelic, “Scholars in the Audit Society: Understanding our Contemporary Iron Cage”, in Scholars in Action: Past – Present – Future, ed. Lars Engwall (Uppsala Universitet, 2012), p. 99.

DEFINITIONS: Selection of Terms Related to Higher Education


A university (from Latin universitas “a whole”) is an institution of higher (or tertiary) education and research which awards academic degrees in several academic disciplines. Universities typically offer both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. The word university is derived from the Latin phrase universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means “community of teachers and scholars”. (Wikipedia)

Higher education

Higher education, also called post-secondary education, third-level or tertiary education, is an optional final stage of formal learning that occurs after completion of secondary education. This consists of universities, colleges and polytechnics that offer formal degrees beyond high school or secondary school education. The right of access to higher education is mentioned in a number of international human rights instruments. The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 declares, in Article 13, that “higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”. (Wikipedia)


A college (Latin collegium) is an educational institution or a constituent part of one. In most of the world, a college may be a high school or secondary school, a college of further education, a training institution that awards trade qualifications, a higher-education provider that does not have university status (often without its own degree-awarding powers), or a constituent part of a university. The word is generally also used as a synonym for a university in the US. (Wikipedia)


Apprenticeship is a system for training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study (classroom work and reading). Apprenticeships can also enable practitioners to gain a license to practice in a regulated occupation. Most of their training is done while working for an employer who helps the apprentices learn their trade or profession, in exchange for their continued labor for an agreed period after they have achieved measurable competencies. (Wikipedia)

Information society

An information society is a society where the usage, creation, distribution, manipulation and integration of information is a significant activity. Its main drivers are information and communication technologies, which have resulted in rapid growth of a variety of forms of information. Proponents of this theory posit that these technologies are impacting most important forms of social organisation, including education, economy, health, government, warfare, and levels of democracy. (Wikipedia)

Knowledge society

A knowledge society generates, shares and makes available to all members of the society knowledge that may be used to improve the human condition. A knowledge society differs from an information society in that the former serves to transform information into resources that allow society to take effective action, while the latter only creates and disseminates the raw data. The capacity to gather and analyse information has existed throughout human history. However, the idea of the present-day knowledge society is based on the vast increase in data creation and information dissemination that results from the innovation of information technologies. (Wikipedia)


TABLE: The Top 12 Host Countries of International Students in 2022 (by number of students)


Source: Project Atlas.

GRAPH: The Twelve Countries with the Most Universities in 2023

Info Box

BOX: The Humboldtian Model of Higher Education

The Humboldtian model of higher education or Humboldt’s Ideal is a concept of academic education that emerged in the early 19th century and whose core idea is a holistic combination of research and studies. It integrates the arts and sciences with research to achieve both comprehensive general learning and cultural knowledge. Several elements of the Humboldtian model heavily influenced and subsequently became part of the concept of the research university. The Humboldtian model goes back to Wilhelm von Humboldt, a Prussian philosopher, government functionary and diplomat who, in the time of the Prussian reforms, relied on a growing, educated middle class to promote his claims about general education.

As a privy councillor in the Interior Ministry, he reformed the Prussian education system according to humanist principles. He founded the University of Berlin, appointing distinguished scholars to both teach and conduct research there. Several scholars have labeled him the most influential education official in German history. Humboldt sought to create an educational system based on unbiased knowledge and analysis, combining research and teaching while allowing students to choose their own course of study. The University of Berlin was later named the Humboldt University of Berlin, after him and his brother, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. His educational model went beyond vocational training in Germany.

In a letter to the Prussian king, he wrote: “There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens. If this basis is laid through schooling, vocational skills are easily acquired later on, and a person is always free to move from one occupation to another, as so often happens in life.”

The philosopher and former State Minister for Culture of the Federal Republic of Germany, Julian Nida-Rümelin, has criticised discrepancies between Humboldt’s ideals and the contemporary European education policy, which narrowly understands education as preparation for the labor market, arguing instead that one needs to decide between McKinsey’s and Humboldt’s ideals.



VIDEO: What Are Assets, and Why Do They Matter?

Additional information: https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/universities-and-unicorns/.
Source: Science Animated, https://sciani.com.


VIDEO: What Are the Key Tensions in Educational Technology?

Additional information: https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/universities-and-unicorns/.
Science Animated, https://sciani.com/.

VIDEO: The UNESCO Chair in Comparative Education Policy, with Chanwoong Baek

Research Office, Geneva Graduate Institute.

VIDEO: University in Question, with Marie-Laure Salles

Research Office, Geneva Graduate Institute

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