22 SES 06 B, Policy, Management and Governance in Higher Education
This study aims to explore the ways in which assessment is experienced and understood by academics and students in a neoliberal higher education (HE) context. The study aims to bring in the voice of teaching staff, students and policies from two European universities: the University of Glasgow and Tallinn University. The research will address the questions: What are the dominant rationalities of student assessment in HE? How do power relationships relate to dominant rationalities? How are assessment practices constructed at universities? How do lecturers and students experience assessment practices and themselves as assessors or assessed?
The theoretical framework for this research is guided by Michel Foucault’s concepts of neoliberalism, governmentality, discipline and techniques of the self. Foucault (1980) argues that all practices exist within ’certain regimes of rationalities’. Every society has its dominant ’regime of truth’: those discourses it accepts and makes function as true (Foucault, 1976). Furthermore, he sees all human relationships as being underpinned by relationships of power (Foucault, 1983), where the self is influenced by what he calls techniques of domination and techniques of the self (Foucault, 1997). Discipline is a specific technique of power that ’makes’ people by approaching them both as objects and instruments of its exercise (Foucault, 1975). In addition, Foucault (1982, p. 225) sees techniques of the self as being important in making it possible for individuals to “influence a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, immortality”. This study follows these aspects of Foucault’s key arguments and considers disciplinary and emancipatory techniques as being present in neoliberal higher education contexts.
Higher education institutions exist in a context where accountability and market-driven demands are fundamental organising principles of institutions (Jankowski & Provezis, 2012). This context can be described as resting on performance-orientation, standards and auditing (Davies & Bansel, 2010). These aspects function ‘as a kind of panoptical tower’, making people ‘watchdogs’ of their own actions (Engebretsen et al, 2013). Furthermore, neoliberal governmentality has a tendency to make people feel that they are free and autonomous (Olssen, 2005) while, in actuality, attempting to govern their actions. Student assessment within this HE context exist in what Kvale (2007) argues to be a field of contradictions, surrounded by various and competing meanings, subjects and functions. In the context of neoliberal globalised higher education contexts, assessment needs to support learning while also certifying outcomes, providing data for quality assurance purposes (Yorke, 2008), guiding developments in teaching and curricula (Suskie, 2009), and – if taking a Foucauldian perspective – acting potentially to ‘discipline’ students (Harman & McDowell, 2011).
Assessment thus involves a clear element of power (Barnett, 2007). Foucault (1975, p. 182) sees examinations as „a normalising gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish“; examinations make individuals visible and help to differentiate between them and to judge them. As a result, an examination transforms students’ subjectivity: it renders the student as „a describable, analysable object“ (Foucault, 1975, p. 190). Teachers themselves are also subject to power and those who seek to confront the dominant perspectives of assessment may experience resistance and obstruction (Tan, 2004). As assessment as a ‘power of measurement’ is embedded into our educational systems (Crossouard, 2010), it also raises a discussion about student assessment as a disciplinary and governmental technique in neoliberal universities.
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