22 SES 02 B, Students' Perspectives and Support
Across the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand a consensus has emerged that views contemporary higher education as becoming increasingly dominated by notions of accountability through measurement (Jankowski and Provezis, 2014; Lorenz, 2012; Dowling, 2008; Heath and Burdon, 2013 Shore, 2010). It appears that universities are becoming increasingly tied into a constructed rationality where the market determines what is valued (Jankowski and Provezis, 2014; Raaper and Olssen, 2015). There is now a growing corpus of literature charting the discourse that constructs higher education as a commodity within a larger market. In the UK, there is increased political interest in holding universities directly to account for quality in teaching and learning. This has given rise to the ‘student satisfaction agenda’ that has recently come under intense scrutiny (see, for example, Skea, 2017). Under the political rationality of the market, higher education is required to provide transparent ‘customer’ information to potential ‘buyers’ that is comparable across institutions. This narrative is supported by the importance accorded to measure of student satisfaction, for example, National Students Survey (NSS) which acts as a proxy indicator of quality in teaching and learning within a competitive market environment. The importance placed on such surveys is a key marker of the entrenchment of market principles within higher education and the dominance of an audit culture. Many universities use their relative league table positions, produced as a consequence of such surveys, as a marketing tool to attract students to their undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. This places the onus on the academic to account for any perceived dip in student satisfaction, and to account for this to senior management. This is the broad context within which this research is situated. Our aim is to attend to the wider implications of the predominant discourse of student satisfaction.
We intend to trouble the notion of student satisfaction as a mode of governing higher education practices by analysing this discourse through the optic of three inter-related Foucauldian concepts - governmentality, subjectification and technologies of the self. Governmentality is a useful conceptual tool for studying processes of governing by focusing critically on power dynamics and micro-practices. This entails identifying the “mentality” or rationality underpinning the reasoning that is integral to, and makes possible, different modes of governing. Related to this is the concept of subjectification or self-formation and how individuals work on themselves – the type of ‘action on the self’ that is required for an individual to operate within a particular discourse. This concept affords the opportunity to probe how individuals (subjects) position themselves in relation to the dominant disciplinary discourse in terms of what is expected of them, and how they shape and understand themselves within this discourse. In this regard, technologies of the self are the practices that individuals undertake in order to shape themselves in relation to the dominant discourse. For example, these practices may manifest as acts of compliance or resistance as may be required of the self in order to be included within the discourse (Gillies, 2013). This paper explores how the prevailing neoliberal narrative positions the student as consumer within the student satisfaction agenda and how this positioning potentially impacts upon the constructions of professional identity in the context of a practice-based field, in this case initial teacher education. It is important to acknowledge that in the latter case there already are contested notions of professional identity.
The method of analysis adopted within this research followed a two phase approach. The first phase used a directed content analysis (DCA) of key documentary artefacts relating to the assessment of student satisfaction within the UK. The purpose of a directed content analysis is to describe the characteristics of the content of documents by examining who says what, to whom, and with what effect (Bloor & Wood, 2006). Directed content analysis uses a descriptive approach in both coding of the data and its interpretation and involves an inductive/deductive approach to the analysis. This methodology was applied in several stages. The first stage the DCA was to characterise the matrix, on a literal as opposed to a metaphorical level. We achieved this by first identifying the main matrices used by external actors (government agencies, the media, and third sector organisations) to assess student satisfaction within the UK; and then accessing documentary artefacts (explanatory notes, opinions pieces and research articles) relating to each element in the matrix. The second stage was to upload and read the documents using NVIVO 12. The third stage of analysis was the development of a range of codes, in the form of “nodes” to be used to mark relevant concepts (governmentality, subjectification and technologies of the self) and topics within documents. The fourth stage was to make memos to record observations about emerging themes or issues that drew our attention, raised queries, or drew our attention to aspects that required to be followed up. The fifth stage involved drawing together the nodes and memos to synthesise a critical perspective on the object of analysis i.e. student satisfaction. The second phase of analysis, drawing on the first, was a critical reflection upon the extent to which these ‘market forces’ act upon universities, how they position higher education academics (focusing specifically on those working in initial teacher education within their own institution). We explored the manner in which these market forces subtly and coercively subject them and alter their practices towards improving student satisfaction.
Our DCA characterise the matrix as containing five matrices - the Complete University Guide; The Guardian University Rankings; the Times/Sunday Times League Tables; Times Higher Education: World University Rankings and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Each of these have measures of student satisfaction at their core, with the Guardian University Rankings and TEF relying more heavily on student satisfaction measure than the others. Interestingly, the Complete University Guide, the Times/Sunday Times League Tables and Times Higher Education World University Rankings draw on data from the Research Excellence Framework, in addition to other measures of research quality. Unfortunately, there is emerging evidence that universities are using dubious claims within their marketing materials regarding their rankings within different matrices (McKean, 2018), to the extent that the Advertising Standards Authority has warned universities about this practice and gives them advice on what is acceptable (ASA 2017). The policy narrative surrounding TEF supports the entrenchment of marketization within higher education, particularly within the English context where this discourse has been problematized and challenged. However, the degree of political pressure brought to bear on universities to justify charging high tuition fees has resulted in the re-entrenchment of the student satisfaction agenda. Within the Scottish context, where tuition is ‘free’, the narrative is skewed towards universities being accountable for providing ‘value for public money’ while increasing income through research and knowledge exchange activities. This refraction in focus, like that seen in England, has led to a form of governmentality that increasingly positions the student as customer/consumer. The net result of this is that education is seen in transactional rather than an interactional terms and academics are subjected to increased pressure to keep students satisfied. In turn, academics feel pressurised to alter their teaching and assessment practices to accommodate rather than challenge this dominant agenda.
ASA (2017) Universities: Comparative claims. Available online https://www.asa.org.uk/advice-online/universities-comparative-claims.html [Last accessed 27th Jan 2019]. Bloor, M. and Wood, F. (2006). Keywords in Qualitative Methods: A Vocabulary of Research Concepts (1st Ed). London: SAGE Publications. Dowling, R. (2008). Geographies of identity: labouring in the ‘neoliberal' university. Progress in Human Geography, 32(6), 812-820. Gillies, D. (2013). Educational Leadership and Michel Foucault. Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge. Heath, M., & Burdon, P. D. (2013). Academic resistance to the neoliberal university. Legal Educ. Rev., 23, 379. Jankowski, N., & Provezis, S. (2014). Neoliberal ideologies, governmentality and the academy: An examination of accountability through assessment and transparency. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 46 (5), 475-487. Lorenz, C. (2012). If you're so smart, why are you under surveillance? Universities, neoliberalism, and new public management. Critical Inquiry, 38 (3), 599-629. McKean, O. (2018) Universities caught making dubious and potentially misleading claims. Available online https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/09/universities-caught-making-dubious-and-potentially-misleading-claims/ [Last accessed 27th Jan 2019] Shore, C. (2010). Beyond the multiversity: Neoliberalism and the rise of the schizophrenic university. Social Anthropology, 18 (1), 15-29. Skea, C. (2017) Student satisfaction in higher education: settling up and settling down, Ethics and Education, https://doi.org/10.1080/17449642.2017.1343560 Raaper, R and Olssen, M (2015) Mark Olssen on neoliberalisation of higher education and academic lives. Policy Futures in Education, 14 (2): 147-163
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