Beyond borders

Benjamin Hunter

The background to this symposium is the increasingly globalised and commercialised nature of provisioning in social sectors. Our team has been studying these processes in healthcare, through a project on the production and sale of services by healthcare organisations in the UK, and the targeting of those services to prospective buyers in China and India. We have been looking at the transnational commercial provisioning of advisory services, health worker education and training services, and healthcare labour. The research is showing how healthcare in these settings is being recast and reoriented to encourage transnational commercial activity.

Healthcare is far from alone in witnessing these kinds of processes. As employees of UK universities, we are acutely aware of the parallel, arguably more established, processes of global market-making taking place in higher education (see Komljenovic and Robertson); international student flows, branch campuses and distance learning courses to name but a few. Indeed, in our current study a senior official in the UK Department of Business and Trade remarked on how far ahead certain universities are compared to hospitals when it came to exporting services. Not that these sectors are entirely independent of one another – one of the key areas emerging in our recent work is the growth of global markets in health worker training and education (see contributions by Ramila Bisht and Sibille Merz).

The idea behind the symposium is to give us and others a chance to come together and discuss these kinds of developments across social sectors. Analytically, the symposium opens up the potential for comparative thinking between sectors. A good example of this kind of comparative approach is Jasmine Gideon and Elaine Unterhalter’s work on public-private partnerships. In the case of our symposium, we might consider to what extent we see similar (or different) actors, policies and practices involved across sectors, and what kinds of comparable issues arise. We have the opportunity for further theorisation by asking not just if these sectors are similar, and in what ways, but why they are similar. One line of inquiry here is the interrelation of sectors such as health and education, and how ideas and practices flow between sectors. Another points us towards common structural factors that shape policy and practice in these sectors, such as interwoven social processes and emerging state-forms.

The questions we included in the call for participants aim to encourage this kind of comparative thinking, and are worth revisiting here to help inform thinking as the symposium progresses:

  • Which actors, policies and practices are involved in opening domestic social sectors to international activities and in trading in services across borders?
  • Why and how are public and private institutions engaging in international commercial activities in social sectors, and what are the tensions and implications for people who work in or use services?
  • What political and ideological conflicts do states experience as they seek to promote international commercialisation in the social sectors?
  • How has the landscape for this been changed by social disruption and upheaval, for example due to conflict, political instability or the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What are the links with other social processes such as financialisation, digitalisation and new forms of capitalisation, e.g. rentierism? And how is scale strategised to advance market making?
  • How does it interact with social trends and inequalities such as around class, gender and/or race?
  • What regulatory challenges and responses are emerging?
  • What are the opportunities for cross-border solidarities, activism and lesson-sharing?
  • What are the conceptual and methodological approaches and challenges to studying transnational processes in social sectors?

At the very least the symposium is a chance to hear interesting, empirically informed research conducted in relation to another sector – something not always easy when sectoral boundaries are so deeply engrained within our institutions!