22 SES 02 B, Students' Perspectives and Support
There are various media and policy claims made that undergraduate students worldwide have become disconnected from conventional forms of politics such as student unionism, elections and participation in political parties. Recent research argues that students’ unions, which used to be the hubs of political activism have turned into advisors and service providers within a system where universities need to increase institutional efficiency and competitiveness (Brooks et al. 2015; Klemenčič 2014; Raaper 2018). They are increasingly seen to represent student as consumer interest (Klemenčič 2014), e.g. unions’ representatives are invited to sit in various institutional committees and take part in multiple national HE policy consultations. This paper centres on the role of students’ unions in the consultation processes leading to the recent Higher Education Research Act 2017 in England (HERA 2017). The reform introduced the controversial Teaching Excellence Framework that differentiates English universities according to their teaching quality as Gold, Silver and Bronze (DfBIS 2016). It also encourages alternative higher education providers to enter the sector in order to diversify educational provision (Gourlay and Stevenson 2017).
The paper starts by discussing HE policymaking as an increasingly complex network of relations within which student groups have become important actors (Ball 2010, 2013). As part of the HERA 2017 consultation, student representatives in the form of students’ unions along with other interest groups such as universities, think-tanks and research councils were asked to provide feedback on the proposed reform. The same invitation was sent to private enterprises such as Rolls Royce, MoneySavingExpert.com and IBM UK Ltd (DfBIS 2016), making the importance of the private sector in higher education policy networks visible. The paper will then move on to discuss Foucault’s (1982) theorisation of subject to address the main research question: How did sabbatical officers interviewed - full-time student officers elected to students’ unions by their members - construct and enact their political subjectivity during the network-like policy consultation process leading to the HERA 2017?
It is expected that the neoliberal changes in higher education policymaking influence what it means to become and act as a sabbatical officer in contemporary universities. From a Foucauldian perspective, there are no ‘universal necessities in human nature’, only various technologies through which the subject is created or creates him/herself (Besley and Peters 2007, 6). Foucault (1984) suggests that the subject is not a substance but a form that differs in various situations depending on countless interactions with the social context. The sabbatical officers’ political subjectivity - the ways in which they understand, engage and negotiate HE policy in this study - is therefore context dependent and in a constant process of being produced (Butler 1997). They need to navigate a complex and changing field of student politics that is increasingly shaped by neoliberal policies and consumerist positioning of students. By drawing on a Foucauldian theorisation, this article does not approach sabbatical officers as utterly passive or a homogenous group of actors but like ‘late-Foucault’ (see, e.g. Foucault 1982), it recognises that sabbatical officers’ experiences of policies and politics might differ and be enacted in various ways.
The paper will conclude by considering implications to wider student movement. While the findings are solely drawn from an English context, they are likely to indicate similar challenges in student movement across the neoliberalised countries.
This project included interviews with sabbatical officers from five students’ unions from the Russell Group universities in England. These unions submitted their official and publicly available responses to the Green Paper consultation in January 2016. By contacting students’ unions’ presidents and education officers, it allowed them to suggest the most appropriate participants for the interviews. The only requirement was that the participants needed to have been involved in producing the union’s response to the Green Paper. The title ‘sabbatical officer’ refers to a broad category of presidential and education officer positions. Data collection took place from December 2016 to March 2017 when the reform was debated in Parliament. The questions addressed the sabbatical officers’ understanding of and engagement with the reform. The data was analysed using Fairclough’s (1992, 2001) approach to critical discourse analysis (CDA). The CDA is a dialectical method, making it possible to explore the relations between discourse and social processes (Fairclough 2001). This was particularly relevant for understanding such complex processes as political subjectivity. It is through language that the ‘fuzzy divides’ (Ball 2010, 155), interactions and diverse expectations become visible. In other words, by conducting a Faircloughian discourse analysis, it was possible not only to unpack the actions that the sabbatical officers undertook to engage with the reform, but the ways in which the interaction took place and how different views co-existed within the student movement. Each interview transcript was analysed as a text (structure, vocabulary and grammar), a discursive practice (situational context of text production and interdiscursivity), and a social practice (social determinants and key statements) (Fairclough’s 1992). The project was approved by the School of Education Ethics Committee at XXX University. In order to respect impartiality, XXX Students’ Union was not taking part in the project.
The sabbatical officers interviewed positioned themselves as having ‘political leadership’ (Union 2, O) and giving ‘a political steer’ (Union 4, O2) to the consultation. However, this leading role was constructed in relation to other influential actors such as the unions’ professional staff (e.g. policy advisers), indicating an increasing influence of non-elected professionals over the unions’ strategic work (Brooks et. al 2015). This is particularly the case where there is a lack of wider student involvement: ‘I personally struggled to stir students around the TEF, such an unsexy topic’ (Union 4, O1). Foucault (1982) would argue that these sabbatical officers were governed by professional discourses in their unions, which in turn shaped their possible field of action. Their political subjectivity was situated within the domain of professionals rather than students. This experience, however, received different responses. Some were wanting to ‘destroy’ (Union 2, O) the reform and engage with wider student demonstrations, while others were happy with lobbying politicians and ‘delaying’ (Union 1, P) the aspects of the proposal. It appeared that the sabbatical officers who longed for demonstrations resisted the political subjectivity they were enforced to enact. The findings suggest that it is not only difficult to mobilise students for collective action against marketisation of universities (Klemenčič 2015), but difficulties emerge at the level of unions who hold different views on professional approaches to student politics. I will therefore question the extent to which the students have become important stakeholders within the HE governance and argue that students’ unions have turned into a complex policy network with increasingly different actors and approaches to policy. This has fragmented the power of students and shifted it to professional staff. It also makes it questionable whose political agency sabbatical officers exercise in such processes as HE consultation: that of students or professional staff?
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