On the Poverty of Student Choice

By Jamie Woodcock and Alberto Toscano

After the previous White Paper, ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, which accompanied an increase of tuition fees to £9,000 a year, higher education is now faced with a new White Paper, whose title has a strangely 1990s ring to it: ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy’. When the changes were first proposed last year, Jo Johnson, the government minister for universities and science, declared that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) would include ‘outcome-focused’ metrics and include ‘incentives’ for teaching improvement. It was linked to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), with Johnson continuing to state that ‘while we have a set of measures to reward high quality research, backed by substantial funding (the research excellence framework), there is nothing equivalent to drive up standards in teaching’.

The details of what the changes will now entail are becoming clearer. As with the Green paper before it, lecturers are conspicuously absent from the White Paper, which ratchets up the mendacious mantra of ‘student choice’, already a centrepiece of the Browne review commissioned by the last (New) Labour government. It is easy to glean the imaginary driving this impeccably neoliberal document: consumer mechanisms further embedded within the system and projected upwards as a disciplinary tool, potentially serving as quantitative and qualitative license for university closure. The first chapter, ‘Competition’, argues for the establishment of the Office for Students (OfS), alongside a stripping back of regulation in the sector. The most ominous part – and one that should be met by particular scrutiny across the sector – is the section titled: ‘Market Exit’ (see also). The White Paper admonishes that ‘we need to confront the possibility of some institutions choosing (or needing) to exit the market. This is a crucial part of a healthy, competitive and well-functioning market.’ Every institution will need ‘a student protection plan in place’ to prepare for the event of closure. A key role is envisaged here for the OfS, to ‘work together with any providers who are closing provision, to ensure the exit is orderly and students are supported appropriately.’ Not only will universities (sorry, ‘providers’) need to adapt to a ‘market’ concocted by the state to engineer the survival of the fittest, they will be obliged to write their own termination into their institutional structures.

Those who believe that stability and durability are positive features of such institutions will have to think again, as the government works to impose what it proudly calls a ‘history-blind’ system (an adjective that surely could be applied to other policy areas too). The discredited neoliberal utopia of creative destruction through competition (anti-social Darwinism) lives to fight yet another day, as ‘challenger institutions’ are invited into this new regulatory landscape. Given the implied aim – to nudge the exit of the underperforming – we should probably rename these ‘predator institutions’, and take a hint from the explicit mention of Pearson in the White Paper as to the kind of arrangements the government is keen to promote.

The proposed TEF will ask students and lecturers to collaborate – in an atomised and alienated capacity – in this process of further transforming higher education. This is an attempt to force lecturers and students themselves to socialise the cost of the government’s punitive and short-sighted changes to the funding architecture of the sector. Not least of these is the fiscal black hole created by a system of state-backed loans that will see 70% of students never fully pay off what they owe, burdening them with a lifetime of debt while putting untold pressure on state finances (and increasing the likelihood of a full marketization of the debt). This is indeed a ‘subprime undergraduate sector’, with analogous class and racial effects as the ones we are familiar with from the US housing market.

Although the TEF may share two letters with the REF it is important to recognise it goes far beyond a REF for teaching. The assessment and deregulation relies on ‘Student Choice’, but it is by no means an unencumbered choice of what kinds of education students might desire. We are told that by ‘introducing more competition and informed choice into higher education, we will deliver better outcomes and value for students, employers and taxpayers who underwrite the system’. To the extent that the figure of the student in the White Paper is shadowed by the taxpayer, employers and the state, as the other ‘stakeholders’ in this emergent mechanism, much of the not-so-hidden aim of the TEF is to drive students away from the kind of courses that will most likely have them join the ranks of the defaulters who won’t durably cross the income threshold for repayment (say philosophy courses in ex-polytechnics, where they still exist). The White Paper testifies to the arduous and seemingly interminable regulatory task to generate the kind of student who could serve as a vehicle for disciplining the sector, shaping and framing the university as a neoliberal sorting mechanism.

It is worth pausing here on one of the most remarkable features of the White Paper: the combination of the ubiquity of the fungible figure of the ‘student’ (190 instances, as noun or adjective) with the nigh-on extinction of those supposed to provide that magical substance known as ‘teaching excellence’ (a combined total of four instances of lecturer or teacher, all qualified by ‘training’). The teaching body has been disappeared, liquified in a forest of metrics. ‘Competition’ makes 47 appearances, critical thinking one (as a ‘soft skill’ attractive to employers), the arts, social sciences and humanities are missing in action. While the hostility of government towards teachers is not recent, the apotheosis of the student qua consumer is of recent minting. As Collini has aptly observed:

‘It is the application of this [neoliberal market] model to universities that produces the curious spectacle of a right-wing government championing students. Traditionally, of course, students have been understood by such governments, at least from the 1960s onwards, as part of the problem. They “sponged off” society when they weren’t “disrupting” it. But now, students have come to be regarded as a disruptive force in a different sense, the shock-troops of market forces, storming those bastions of pre-commercial values, the universities. If students will set aside vague, old-fashioned notions of getting an education, and focus instead on finding the least expensive course that will get them the highest-paying job, then the government wants them to know that it will go to bat for them.

It is a horrible irony that the very students who in 2010 broke open the doors of the Treasury in some of the liveliest protesting London has seen should now be refunctioned into the molecular regulators of the university sector. Everyday life in lectures and seminar testifies to how much allergy there still is among the student body to being regimented into the role of client-consumers pressuring their ‘providers’ for more ‘value-for-money’. And yet, we are also increasingly aware of the psychic inroads made by this toxic conception of the student-teacher nexus: the university turned into a stage in which the dissatisfied student and the resentful lecturer meet on a backdrop of (respectively) rising debt and stagnant wages. The White Paper’s image of the student thus embodies to a T the grim diagnosis in Mustapha Khayati’s notorious situationist pamphlet ‘On the Poverty of Student Life’: ‘Modern capitalism and its spectacle allot everyone a specific role in a general passivity. The student is no exception to the rule. He has a provisional part to play, a rehearsal for his final role as an element in market society as conservative as the rest. Being a student is a form of initiation’.

The TEF relies on the collection of data from students to judge and discipline universities and their staff. This will come primarily from the NSS (National Student Survey), statistics for non-continuation rates, and graduate employment rates gathered from the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey. The NSS itself has already been the subject of widespread criticism. Lee Harvey – the former director of research and evaluation of the HEA – argued that when the NSS was being considered, it was judged that ‘the proposed national satisfaction poll would be a costly and pointless exercise . . . an unacceptable intrusion into university life that will damage existing improvement processes based on internal explorations of student satisfaction.’ After the NSS had become a dominant indicator in the sector, Harvey again responded that the NSS was ‘rapidly descending into a farce.’ London Metropolitan University and Kingston University became embroiled in scandals of institutional manipulation and it is more than likely that many more have attempted subtler ways to influence their students.

This is not an argument against giving students a voice in their education, on the contrary: what demands interrogation and opposition is the corrosive idea that the relationship between student and lecturer is a consumer-provider nexus mediated by ‘feedback’, which is then turned into a disciplinary device against individual staff and universities as a whole. Frank Furedi and Rebecca Attwood note that the NSS ‘possesses a corrosive immediacy that encourages the subordination of education and scholarship to the arbitrary imperative of student satisfaction.’ And, as Collini suggests, the notion of ‘student satisfaction’ is in itself highly problematic, explaining that he ‘would hope that the students I teach come away with certain kinds of dissatisfaction (including with themselves: a “satisfied” student is nigh-on ineducable)’. It is useful to contrast in this respect the collective efforts by students to bring their substantive criticisms of the form and content of their courses – for instance, through efforts to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ – with the profoundly depolicitising and individualising way in which the government purports to put ‘the student’ (but certainly not actually-existing students) at the ‘centre’. Though somewhat quiet of late, the disruptive student is still ‘part of the problem’, to the extent that she refuses to fit the mold of the student-consumer.

Perhaps the most galling instance in the charade of student empowerment advanced by the White Paper and the TEF is the government’s suggestion that a primary aim of this process will be to offset racial and class inequality (or rather, the euphemisms they put in its place). In the tone of technocratic and philanthropic concern that pervades these pages, they write that: ‘while some progress has been made on fair access, we have much further to go: only 3% of disadvantaged 18 year olds enter highly selective institutions compared to 21% from the most advantaged backgrounds. … We need to take a whole lifecycle approach to all of these challenges, looking across access, retention, attainment and progression from HE’. While no one would query the urgent need ‘to address disparities in outcomes (retention, degree attainment and progression to employment/further study) for students from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and access for young White males from lower socio-economic groups’, the White Paper’s suggestion that this can be done solely or even primarily through the de- and hyper-regulation of universities, and that the TEF can serve a beneficent role in this respect, is wholly untenable. A government that has implemented a project of austerity with a particularly punitive effect on BME Britons – while imposing immigration policies that have successively made it more difficult for foreign students, especially from Asia and Africa, to remain and work in the UK after graduating – is hardly well placed to advance an agenda for educational equality.

We cannot but marvel at the spontaneous sociology, so to speak, underlying these claims. We have long been familiar with the manner in which educational institutions reproduce hierarchy and privilege across axes of race, class and gender (if we haven’t, a glance at the government’s front benches might suffice) but what are we to make of the White Paper’s suggestion, to wit that it is teaching quality that produces inequality? This exorbitant claim – designed among other things to dress up the principal aim, which is financial disciplining, deregulation and stratification of the sector – is accompanied, as already noted, by the complete absence of the carriers of said quality, namely lecturers. So the very people whose work has been consistently devalued by the powers that be, whose wages have been stagnating for over a decade, are de facto identified as the cause and solution of class, racial and gender inequality. If the consequences weren’t so dire, one might be tempted to laugh.

The White Paper does not discuss how to deal with resistance from universities, nor does it even foresee the possibility of non-compliance. The TEF’s introduction will require the collaboration of students and staff to provide data of various types, first and foremost from the NSS. However, at this year’s conference the NUS (National Union of Students) voted to either sabotage or boycott the NSS in response to the White Paper. The motion explained that the action was intended to ‘render the TEF unworkable, and seriously disrupt the government’s higher education reforms as a whole’. It is this kind of action, combined with genuinely collaboration between students and lecturers, which has the potential to defeat the White Paper. For too long the leadership of the NUS – like the bureaucracies of other UK trade unions – has failed to plan serious organised resistance to education ‘reforms’ whose principal product has been indebtedness, insecurity and a thorough devaluation of education as an intrinsic public good. At times, it has even been complicit in the government’s agenda. With the election of a new NUS president on an anti-austerity and social justice platform and policy to oppose the White paper this is set to change, but the efficacy of such a turn is predicated on reinventing the student-lecturer nexus against and beyond the consumer trap laid by successive efforts to marketise universities.

It is possible at this stage to envisage how a joint campaign against the White Paper could develop. With the NUS beginning to plan for a sabotage or boycott of the NSS next academic year, lecturers across the country need to begin reaching out to students on their campuses. Unsurprisingly, given its reluctance to put any organisational muscle behind resistance to the transformation of universities, the UCU has not announced plans for a campaign to challenge the TEF. For members (and non-members) across the country, a failure to mount opposition would be disastrous – its effects far more destructive than pay stagnation, both at the level of our ability to exercise our pedagogic craft with a minimum of control and in terms of the looming threat of ‘market exit’ (i.e. unemployment).

Unlike the previous White Paper, ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy’ needs students and staff to take part in the process, rather than locking us out of the decision marking. We are enjoined to measure ourselves for their cuts, to participate in the shaping of an extremely unequal and unstable educational ‘landscape’ (to use a favourite metaphor of the White Paper) by relentless measurement and monitoring, all of it bearing no relationship whatsoever (except a purely destructive one) to the form or content of relationships of teaching and learning. Disrupting this process will undermine the ability to rank universities based on teaching, preventing the anxious intensification of competition and the promotion of ‘Exit Strategies’. Pushback against this brave, new but depressingly familiar world will require more than fatalistic complaint or idealistic but ineffective campaigning.

We need to foster a collective imagination and articulation of those very things which the White Paper presents as its socially progressive elements, namely ‘empowering student choice and improving the quality and value of learning’ in such a way as to offset entrenched disparities and disadvantages. The regulatory congeries of the TEF, combining deeply flawed feedback mechanisms (the NSS) with an invidious and hypocritical use of employment statistics, has no chance whatsoever of either giving students any real power (which can only be collective, not individual), nor to reverse the government’s own responsibility for worsening the social conditions of BME and working class students. Resisting the White Paper and the social and educational imaginary it stands for will also require the creation of spaces in which students, lecturers and other university staff can shape a different idea of what the university is for – with no illusions about a homogeneity of interests (universities are and will remain instruments of hierarchical social reproduction) but with confidence in our collective capacity to create relations less alienated, instrumental and individualised than the ones offered by the White Paper. This is a risky process, which requires recognising how invested we have all become in practice in the very neoliberalism we so often condemn in theory. A thoroughgoing practical criticisms of the role of our institutions in reproducing class, racial and gender hierarchies and discriminations (among students and staff) will also be required to provide an alternative to the false recognition of inequality and the vapid gestures towards social justice that pervade the White Paper.

There is time to prepare before next academic year and start the term with joint student-staff meetings on campuses across the country supported by the NUS. This needs to be linked to into local campaigns (of which there are many emerging at the moment), building into the national demonstration planned for early November. This provides a multitude of opportunities to prepare and mobilise for a successful sabotage or boycott of the NSS. The whole process needs to begin with a refusal: we must collectively refuse to take part in the rating process that will further the destruction of higher education. Anyone who actually cares about education as a public good will need to stop being a ‘good citizen’, to refuse the passive refrain ‘we know it’s bad but what can we do, we can’t damage the institution’. A landscape of metricised competition, with its bloated managerial bureaucracy and its fantasies of pure instrumentalism, will only serve to reshape universities into spaces of permanent dissatisfaction, on all sides. Breaking the consumer frame dominating the relationship between students and lecturers is a first, crucial step in beginning to work towards a different idea but also a different practice of the university. A creative campaign has the potential to not only defeat the White Paper, but also show what a real ‘Success’ looks like in ‘a Knowledge Economy.’

Jamie Woodcock is Research Fellow at the Cass Business School, working with the Digital Creativity Hub. He tweets at @jamie_woodcock.

Alberto Toscano is Reader in Critical Theory and co-director of the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of Cartographies of the Absolute (2015, with Jeff Kinkle).

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