ERG SES H 10, Discourses in Education
Deem (2001) identified five concepts which have arguably contributed to what Gillies (2008) described as the ascendency of neoliberal ideology in the governance of education in Western countries. Furthermore, Boden and Nedeva (2010) highlighted the influence of such forces on the move towards the massification of Higher Education (HE), reinforcing a highly marketised system in which institutions increasingly pursue an international reputation for excellence (Robinson and Hilli, 2016). This has had ramifications for perceptions of the functions of HE and the form that teaching and learning might take.
This study considered discourses of ‘teaching excellence’ in Higher Education (HE) in the context of the introduction of a framework for measuring the quality of teaching in the United Kingdom (UK). Against this national backdrop, policymakers and Universities across the European Higher Education Area, arguably driven by the Bologna Process and the future priorities identified by Education Ministers (European Commission, 2017a), seek to implement effective strategies for enhancing the quality and relevance of learning and teaching by fostering employability, ensuring inclusivity, and implementing sustainable frameworks.
In a climate of increasing ‘technologisation of discourse’ (Fairclough, 1996), education policies can be understood as discursive strategies whereby policymaking involves conscious efforts to shape language in order to meet political objectives. The importance of language is apparent in notions of a ‘knowledge economy’, underpinned by the perceived function of universities as sites of knowledge creation (Boden and Nedeva, 2010), which “increase skills, support innovation and attract investment” (Universities UK, 2015: 4). It is argued that the discursive reframing of employability in such a context has paved the way for government intervention in the graduate labour market, justified by the suggestion that universities are not producing graduates with the skills that employers demand (DBIS, 2016a; European Commission, 2017b). This has resulted in the transition of authority over what constitutes employability away from universities to the government which, in practice, has resulted in policymakers “defining the content of employability, developing the employability agenda, identifying employability skills and attempting to measure university performance by measuring employability” (Boden and Nedeva, 2010: 44). Indeed, Ingleby (2015) noted how good teaching was often acknowledged within the broader political, economic, cultural or philosophical agenda.
In the UK, Government objectives concerning employability were evident in the White Paper ‘Success as a knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’ (DBIS, 2016a) which, Frankham (2016) argued, tied employability to the need for universities to develop the quality of teaching. The White Paper signalled the introduction of a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF) which would enable comparable judgements across universities regarding teaching and the student experience, with a particular emphasis on how universities promote social mobility and graduate employability. The introduction of the TEF has delivered a renewed focus on the purpose of HE and the meaning of ‘teaching excellence’. Indeed, critics have revealed a lack of academic voice in education policymaking, arguing that the metrics have little relevance to pedagogic practice and, that the ways in which universities can support and acknowledge excellence in teaching is unclear (Robinson and Hilli, 2016). This raises questions regarding the interplay between policy production and interpretation, with ramifications for practice.
This examination of how discourses foregrounded by various political and social actors might constrain, shape or reify different forms of pedagogic practice had three objectives:
- To analyse the discourses and ideologies underpinning the prescription and perception of the TEF
- To evaluate the rhetorical strategies used in the production of policy to foreground discourses and ideologies
- To evaluate the extent to which discourses and ideologies have been adopted or resisted in the interpretation of policy
A hybrid approach to discourse analysis, based on a Foucauldian theorisation combined with a predominantly Faircloughian methodology, was adopted. Fairclough’s (1993) three-dimensional framework for Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) highlighted three facets to each discursive event; the text, discourse practice and social practice. Analysing the discourse of policy texts can highlight which political objectives are being emphasised, but it does not reveal anything about the implementation of policy (Saarinen, 2008). Given that the study was concerned with the interplay of discourses underpinning the values of ‘teaching excellence’ in the context of the production and interpretation of policy; activities which Saarinen (2008) identified as being closely aligned to Fairclough’s notion of discursive practice, analysis focused primarily on the dimension of discourse practice. Textual data was selected from a discursive event where policy makers and universities would engage within the policy discourse. In terms of policy production, the textual data set comprised the DBIS (2016a) White Paper in which arrangements for the TEF were set out, and two policy announcements which accompanied its introduction (DBIS and Johnson, 2015; DBIS, 2016b). Meanwhile, data relating to interpretation of policy were gathered from twenty-two submissions to the ‘Assessing Quality in Higher Education Inquiry’ commissioned by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee. These data were considered appropriate for revealing the ways in which the policy text is interpreted and translated into institutional practice. The first stage of analysis focused on developing a discursive profile for each data set to illuminate key ideological structures. Discursive profiles were established to catalogue the usage and prevalence of key vocabulary and then identify the emerging discourses. Drawing on an approach adopted by Mautner (2005), the emerging discourses were then illuminated in the form of ‘motifs’, or analytical categories which captured similar content. The presence, absence or prominence of particular motifs supported an evaluation of how emerging discourses were shaped ideologically through social, cultural and political practices and power relations in the second phase of analysis. Recognising discourse as a central concept in policy production, reification and implementation, evaluation of results gleaned from discourses in policy production incorporated Fairclough’s (2003) ‘Modes of Legitimation’. This frame was used to examine the strategies (‘authorisation’, ‘rationalisation’, ‘moral evaluation’ and ‘mythopoesis’) used to legitimise the policy to its audience, before attention turned to interpretation of policy through a thematic discussion of the influence of rhetorical strategies on the discourses emerging across written submissions.
Findings highlighted three discursive bundles, revealing considerations of firstly what the focus of ‘teaching excellence’ should be, secondly who the key political and social actors are, and thirdly why a focus on ‘teaching excellence’ in the context of a Teaching Excellence Framework is necessary. The third discursive bundle revealed four competing discourses underpinning the purpose of a framework for measuring ‘teaching excellence’; quality enhancement, quality assurance, widening participation and graduate employability. The use of a phrase such as ‘teaching excellence’ creates a competitive system that leads to an increase in quality, but measurement can conflict and result in the neglect of other pedagogical priorities (Stevenson, Burke and Whelan, 2014). It is evident that the performative culture generated by the TEF, and similar education initiatives based on neoliberalist ideologies, inadvertently encourages institutions to attend to the immediate standards, accountability and reputational concerns, rather than the addressing the ongoing processes of teaching and learning which may reflect the broader purposes and values of establishing ‘teaching excellence’ in HE. Corroborating Frankham’s (2016) observations, findings revealed that despite government imperatives, discursive silences regarding access, participation and employability remain in practice. The disjuncture may suggest that despite policy claims, HE may not effectively prepare students for life and work. Evidently, different conceptualisations regarding the value of ‘teaching excellence’ emerge when understood from policy, professional or institutional perspectives. It is therefore recommended that institutions develop a deeper understanding of pedagogic practice in relation to ‘teaching excellence’ by engaging with the perspectives of academic staff. Meanwhile, policymakers should open a dialogue with a range of stakeholders in order to establish the perceived value and purpose of ‘excellent teaching’ in HE.
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