ERG SES G 14, Research in Higher Education
In this paper, we present the findings of a Universitas 21 (U21) Graduate Research Project collaboration between Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, the University of Nottingham, England, and Lund University, Sweden. This project brought together six doctoral candidates at various stages in their postgraduate careers. The students had conducted qualitative and quantitative inquiry into diverse educational topics but all within contexts of public policies of privatisation. In Chile, England and Sweden these changes have been experienced at a pace and scale quite unprecedented elsewhere. Each doctoral research project was individual in terms of its original research design: aims and purpose, methodology, methods and analytical approach. However, an important commonality across all the studies was the adoption of a critical theoretical framework in which an examination of the marginality of public participants’ voices was central to the research findings. Acknowledging that the ‘public’ is ‘a problematic subject… It is shape shifting, unstable and unpredictable. It embodies conflicting or ambivalent desires and doubts’ (Clarke and Newman, 2009, p.43), this concept required further interrogation. This paper is therefore a meta-analysis of our critical comparative work and explores the following question: how are the voices of different ‘publics’ marginalised in diverse privatised educational contexts?
Principally, educational privatisation is understood to be a global phenomenon. Although culturally, politically and historically distinct nation states, policy ideas which propose private solutions to public education problems have been particularly evident in political debates in England, Chile and Sweden. However, despite an apparent ideological consensus at policy level, privatisation programmes are noticeably contingent upon cultural, political and economic context (Verger, Fontdevila and Zancajo, 2016). Our research supports therefore a comparative approach which extends policy analysis beyond national boundaries (Ball, 2012). Taking Code’s (2014) feminist concept of ‘located knowing’, we claim that social researchers can better understand their own methods and conceptualisation through interactions with ‘diversely positioned’ social actors in other locations. Equally, such inter-cultural communications limit positivistic criticisms of ethnocentrism whereby ‘investigators view foreign societies through a selective and distorting screen interposed by their cultural experience’ (Noah and Eckstein, 1998, p.20). However, we are aware that endogenous forms of privatisation, implemented to make public institutions behave more ‘business-like’, have encouraged a performative culture of comparison and competition within and between higher education institutions (Ball and Youdell, 2008), which has transformed the nature of inter-university student relations (Brown, Lauder, Ashton, Yingje and Vincent-Lancrin, 2007). Consequently, to counter the private in the public, and both de-institutionalise and de-territorialise our diverse knowledges, we sought an alternative mode of collaboration through the development of an online discussion forum. This has taken the form of a collaborative blog with research podcasts.
Overall, this study took a policy sociology approach through which the doctoral researchers aimed to connect educational privatisation reforms with the realities of those who experience them in their specific social context (Ball, 1997; Ball, 2006). Additionally, with a critical focus, we drew on Code’s (2014) feminist epistemology which asserts that marginality – the silencing, ignoring or discrediting of voices – occurs when only certain types of knowledge are perceived as credible within a hegemonic order. Thus, we sought to ascertain the extent to which the public educational knowers in our research perceived themselves to be excluded, diminished, discredited or damaged within an epistemic process or practice.
This critical research was an attempt to move away from the ‘new paradigm’ (Auld and Morris, 2014) of comparative educational research, characterised by large-scale quantitative surveys and largely concerned with ‘measuring the other’ (Nóvoa and Tariv-mashal, 2003). The qualitative case study emphasises the researcher’s emic perspective (Fairbrother, 2007). However, as individual researchers within our primary research context and comparative researchers beyond, we were positioned dually as both insiders and outsiders. Within the individual doctoral research projects, qualitative interviews were conducted with a variety of actors appropriate to the needs of their own research questions. The participants included: school leaders and mothers of pre-school children in Chile, teachers in municipal schools in Sweden and independent schools in England, teacher union representatives in England and Sweden, academics in England and Sweden, and subject association representatives in Sweden. The comparative research was grounded in a phenomenological approach (Husserl, 1965) to understand the similarities and differences of perspectives and experiences between participants across the three geographical contexts. For this phase, we focused on a thematic analysis which explored the following three key processes of marginality: silencing, ignoring and discrediting. Finally, as a feminist critical theoretical study, we sought to investigate who might benefit and who might lose as a result of the marginality of these voices (Marshall, 1997). Using a digital platform, we communicated our distinctive methodologies to a range of academic and non-academic audiences. For those research participants (teachers, principals, parents, students, academics, policy makers) who had been marginalised or silenced in educational policy and practice, researcher podcast interviews provided a forum on which their voices could be heard. This form of digital advocacy opened up an alternative space in which public actors were able to challenge openly the deficit view of public education and top-down policy processes of educational privatization (Hardy, 2014). In a complex assemblage of the public and private (Landri, 2017), this work offers a critical educational space for transnational knowledge production and research participant emancipation.
Through our comparative analysis, we noted that our research participants experienced different levels of democratic engagement within the education system, and this was not entirely related to membership of a certain social group. In Sweden, a range of academic voices contributed to the construction of policy documents, yet were frequently compromised by the political hegemony. By contrast, in England, a minority of academic voices were consulted; ‘evidence’ tended to be decontextualised from the original utterance, rather than be vocalised within any distinctive policy process. In another example, teachers in independent schools, run by for-profit education management corporations, had inconsistent opportunities for voice. Whilst some were unionised but did not feel their individual or collective voice was heard through their apparent union ‘membership’, others thought their views were well-heard only when transmitted through the hierarchy to upper management. Ultimately, voice was dependent on various structural (organizational, institutional and/or political) constraints and these differ according to cultural context, regardless of the extent and range of privatisation influences. Beyond the unique methodological approach to collaborative research which integrated the social with the technological, we claim that our work between contexts allowed us to act as translators of knowledge for the public and each other. This crossing of cultural, epistemological and ontological boundaries positioned us as insiders and outsiders, enabling us to create a third perspective of interpretation (McNess, Arthur and Crossley, 2015). Further, in the negotiation of ‘a space between’ where transnational knowledge was produced (Seddon, 2014), we were able to develop our critical sociological imagination as emerging scholars. In this regard, comparison became a point of collaboration not competition, and was transformatory for all involved in the research process. Ultimately, our research offers an innovative approach to cross-cultural knowledge production which could be developed across a diverse range of scholarly contexts.
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