Category Archives: Neoliberal university

My tribute to Professor Eric Pawson

From the UC Chronicle 44(12) 2009

Last Friday I went back to my old department, the Department of Geography at the University of Canterbury, to attend the retirement party of Professor Eric Pawson, my former PhD supervisor, colleague and head of department. I wasn’t asked to speak at the event, which is fine because lots of other people did, but I would like to acknowledge publicly how fortunate I was to have worked with Eric for almost 15 years from the late 90s until my departure from Canterbury at the end of 2012. I also want to do so because of a sense that Eric’s style of leadership is something that is sadly in increasingly short supply in the neoliberal university and it is worth reflecting on why it is that is so and how things might be different.

As a PhD supervisor, Eric was wonderful. Although we were both cultural geographers, our research interests were quite different. But he took my feminist thesis on single motherhood in post-revolutionary Nicaragua in his stride and managed to give me lots of academic freedom – something I feel I might not have had to the same extent if I’d stayed in the UK to do my PhD – while also providing significant intellectual input. I didn’t appreciate until later how such a balance is really difficult to achieve. His supervision always felt constructive and Eric never allowed me to doubt my work or myself, although would quite sternly draw attention to my weaknesses, such as whenever I was taking my feminist hyper-reflexivity too far.

As a member of the academic staff after my PhD, Eric was fundamental in helping my career to develop. He is the best head of department I have ever had by far. Given the way that things are changing in higher education, it is likely too that he will be the best I will ever have. Unlike many heads in contemporary institutions across the UK and New Zealand, Eric did not buy into the culture of audit and surveillance that pervades our institutions. He never internalized the “line manager” subject position; he was always a colleague, mentor and advisor rather than someone engaged in “performance management”. He never believed that academics need to be constantly surveilled and always made to feel a bit anxious, because otherwise we will get up to no good. As head, Eric was a senior scholar that cared about people and geography, and about both teaching and research. And his efforts went into maximizing us as researchers and teachers, giving us both autonomy and unconditional support, which was the most effective way to achieve what might now be referred to as “excellence” or “impact”. Of the many complimentary things said about Eric on Friday, one was that he was “on everybody’s side”. That is a form of leadership that I think is increasingly endangered.

Eric was the anti-neoliberal embodiment of the managerial approach. He always maintained a healthy ironic stance towards the neoliberal university and as head he sought bottom-up practical solutions to the challenges that faced us as academics or as a department. Decisions were taken collectively and democratically rather than being imposed in a top-down way. Even when you disagreed with the way forward, you could live it with what was decided because you’d been included in the deliberations. He trusted us completely as colleagues and professionals – any modes of surveillance came from elsewhere (TEC, College, PBRF) but never from Eric. We published a paper together on the PBRF (the New Zealand equivalent of the REF) based on our experiences. Despite the different ways in which we were located in this process, we both saw it as something unfortunate to be negotiated, subverted and turned to our advantage. As Liz Morrish and others have noted writing on UK universities, in many institutions the REF has become a toxic instrument of discipline used to impose unattainable and stress-inducing targets, the casualties of which are staff wellbeing at work, collegiality and learning conditions for our students. Leadership for Eric was however about reflecting with us on the intellectually impoverishing dynamics of instruments such as PBRF and striving to keep their negative impacts to a minimum, while working to help us achieve the highest possible scores we could. To the best of his ability, Eric always tried to remove the obstacles – financial, practical, and intellectual – that stood in the way of my achieving my potential. He helped me to get promoted and was my strongest advocate during those processes. He told me frequently that I was trying to do too much and should cut down. He made sure that I got the funding I needed, especially for fieldwork in Nicaragua, and that I got to do the teaching and research I cared about. He was enthusiastic about my successes, indeed about everyone’s successes, while never engaging in acts of self-promotion himself. I’m especially grateful for the good work we did together – including the special issue of the New Zealand Geographer in 2009 (see image), the 2010 New Zealand Geographical Society conference in Christchurch, the PBRF article, the successful prevention of a forced merger with the Department of Geology – and for his support in helping me to get the Marsden grant on media convergence (that in the end I had to do away from Canterbury) and for letting me reschedule classes right in the middle of the teaching semester so I could go to the UK when my sister had an accident. I realize that Eric’s leadership provides me with resources for thinking about how we can do the kinds of things that Liz Morrish is talking about, how we can make things more sane for ourselves, our colleagues and our students, while still doing excellent research and teaching.

So I am grateful to have had Eric as a colleague and mentor for so long and for the self-affirming and positive environment in which I got to work for a number of years thanks to him. I am also grateful for the good advice on so many matters, and the ongoing support that he has given to both me and Kevin since our departure from UC.

Have a happy retirement, Eric, you really deserve it.

 

Tenure loss will hit NZ

Last week I published an opinion piece in the Otago Daily Times about the dangers posed by the loss of tenure at New Zealand universities. It has received more than 800 social media shares in less than a week. I am sharing it here today as many students and faculty gather at NZ universities to hold #lovehumanities events and on the 6th anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake which arguably both accelerated and facilitated job losses and departures at the University of Canterbury. screenshot-2017-02-22-11-48-40

The rest of the article can be found at https://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/tenure-loss-will-hit-nz

Review of The Radicalization of Pedagogy

screenshot-2017-01-02-14-50-46At the end of November at the University of Manchester, we launched our book series Transforming Capitalism published by Rowman and Littlefield International and celebrated the publication of the first three books in the series, a trilogy focused on the intersections between anarchism and geography. The three books are The Radicalization of Pedagogy, Theories of Resistance and The Practice of Freedom, edited by Simon Springer, Marcelo Lopes de Souza and Richard J. White. Below is my review of the first book in the series, The Radicalization of Pedagogy, that I presented at the event in Manchester.

The Radicalization of Pedagogy seeks to strengthen the linkages between pedagogy and anarchist geographies, based on the premise that pedagogy is a primary site for resistance within anarchist practices. I have to admit that I came to this book with very limited engagement but some sympathy with anarchist theory and anarchist geographies. The book describes anarchist thought as one of the four foundations of what we might call radical geography, the other three being feminism, Marxism and poststructuralism. Of these four foundations, anarchism is the one that according to the editors deserves a much fuller consideration in geography. But I did come to this book with a very strong interest in radical pedagogies and in particular in the contemporary university as a neoliberal and colonial institution. I’m interested in seeking ways to undermine the rampant neoliberalization and corporatization of the contemporary university and also to find ways to decolonize its faculty, curricula, governance practices and modes of operation. Like many of my friends and colleagues, I’ve personally experienced the destructive dimensions of the neoliberal university, and am alarmed by the collective harm current arrangements inflict on scholarship, learning, and the wellbeing of both students and faculty. As a geographer, I’m also very interested in what is happening to our discipline in the context of these processes and pressures. My geography unit at the University of Edinburgh is part of a very large School of Geosciences, where neoliberalization and geoscientization mutually constitute one another in often quite problematic ways. But I’ve also been inspired by decolonial interventions into the academy that I’ve been exposed to as a result of three main experiences. The first is the scholarly contributions made by Māori intellectuals and activists in Aotearoa New Zealand. I worked at the University of Canterbury there for many years, and witnessed the incompatibility of neoliberalization and the incorporation of Māori worldviews into the westernized university. The second is the work I do in Central America on indigenous rights, where I have a long-established research collaboration with an intercultural grassroots university, URACCAN, on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua that is attempting to organize higher education quite differently. The third is my interaction with a growing body of literature referred to as the Modernity/Coloniality/ Decoloniality paradigm that I’m trying to incorporate into my teaching as well as my research. In addition, I’m also an avid indeed compulsive reader of scholarly, journalistic and activist work that critiques the neoliberalization of the university and am keen to participate in discussions on how we might do things better. This book makes a very important contribution to those discussions and debates. But it has a much broader remit than that, because it deals with many different kinds of pedagogies – the university is amply present but it also engages with the idea of schools, promoting the idea of unschooling or the destruction of the school, as well as providing detailed accounts of activist pedagogies that exist outside of institutions such as in gangs or on cycling tours. Some of these activist pedagogies provide extremely useful material that could be harnessed within the university, in particular in modes of learning such as fieldtrips that take us outside of the classroom. Ronald Horvarth’s discussion of teaching radical pedagogy in communities in East Detroit in the 1960s and 70s, where the students didn’t need to be taught about racism, because they lived it, but instead developed skills in activist mapmaking as a kind of liberation pedagogy and anti-racist praxis, is particularly interesting. At Edinburgh, we’ve just started running an undergraduate field trip to Cape Town and have been trying to develop the course around working directly with activists in Cape Town, Freirean pedagogies and notions of unlearning privilege, so there’s a lot of material here that’s encouraged me to reflect on field teaching in sites of racialized oppression.

While I enjoyed all of the chapters in the book, there are three that I found particularly inspiring. So I will say a few words about them and then I’ll end with a few words of critique.

Chapter three by Levi Gahman explores how the Zapatistas are implementing autonomous forms of education in the face of harmful neoliberalism and shows how the Zapatista pedagogic model can be useful as our institutions of higher education are transformed into what he refers to “sites of hetero-masculinist oppression, neurotic separation, hierarchical posturing and silent paranoia”. Zapatistas schools teach mutual aid and critical thought, rather than individualism or competition and learning is organized in a non-hierarchical and horizontal way. I have long admired the Zapatistas. I was in Chiapas in 1993 just after the Zapatista guerrilla training camps had been discovered in the Lacandón jungle and just a few months before their mediated rebellion was unleashed and I’ve followed and taught on their struggle ever since. Indeed, I keep their ten principles of good government on my office door as a model of how the university indeed could and should be run. As Gahman notes, if we were to implement Zapatista pedagogies in our universities we would have to eliminate “administrators and all vertically professionalized designations”.

Chapter 5 by Kye Askins and Kelvin Mason’s on public, participatory and activist geographies that they term “fuller geographies” is also very thought provoking and seeks to take us beyond simply defending the public university from the neoliberal onslaught. Their experiences with academic seminar blockades at the Faslane nuclear weapons base on the Clyde near Glasgow dramatized in a theatrical script – the chapter is written in the form of a play – shows how public spaces can be transgressed and transformed by acting in them, but then how these performances can be used as resources for reflection by others to learn about how oppressions can be resisted but also how they tend to reassert themselves. The third chapter that I especially enjoyed was the chapter by Richard McHugh on education in gangs, on what he calls informal informal pedagogy, where he provides a counter-response to the common critique made of Paolo Freire which is that his liberation pedagogy was constrained by its social embeddedness in Christian values. McHugh shows how these constraints don’t really matter as Freire functions as a catalyst for reflection, and engagement with Freire can bring about what he calls an “emancipatory action” and lead to the refusal of the default position that is on offer. He also has a great analysis of the TV drama Homeland that disrupts the dominant ideas of radicalization that are in place in the post-9/11 world US and UK.

I’ll end with a few words of critique. I think the intersections between indigenous and anarchist pedagogies that are highlighted in the book are fascinating but are largely underdeveloped. Many of the indigenous movements I’ve studied, taught on or worked with – Tūhoe in New Zealand, the indigenous inhabitants of El Alto in Bolivia that Raúl Zibechi has written about, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca in Mexico all see both the state and capital as violent and destructive forces of domination and are finding or maintaining ways to govern themselves. As far as I know, they never refer to their movements as anarchist, but this book has revealed the parallels, points of connection and potentials for solidarity that exist between anarchist movements and decolonial and indigenous social movements. In particular, the refusal to distinguish between ends and means, as well as the concepts of horizontality, reciprocity and mutual aid are all themes that appear quite strongly in this book as they do in much decolonial thought. Therefore it’s a pity that only one chapter in this book dealt with this issue in depth.

For me there’s one other gap in this book. Despite the fact that anarchist praxis should articulate well with feminist praxis, as it does for example in the Zapatista caracoles, and indeed a couple of the chapters refer to the intersections with a feminist ethics of care, reading the book made me feel that anarchism was and is a terribly male endeavour. Indeed, only two of the 15 contributors to this book are female and virtually all of the anarchist geographers and activists on which the book draws its inspiration are male. There’s a chapter by Federico Feretti on the contributions made by early anarchist geographers and educators to libertarian pedagogy and secular public education – it’s a fascinating history that geographers should be exposed to, yet all of the names he mentions – Piotr Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, Philippe Pelletier, Léon Metchnikoff, Charles Perron, Francisco Ferrer, James Guillaume, Ferninand Buisson, Paul Robin – are male. It wasn’t until the final chapter when Simon Springer briefly refers to the work of Emma Goldman that the contribution of an anarchist feminist gets mentioned. In this chapter, Springer lays out a compelling philosophy on unschooling and refers to himself as an unschooling parent. I agree with him that school is often a site of immense suffering and harmful forms of discipline, although I do think that school is also a site of friendship and fun where we learn not only to be compliant but also to subvert authority. I was a single parent and viewed school in part as childcare, and so I couldn’t help thinking about the gendered dynamics of unschooling and I wondered who cares for his unschooled kids while he’s working as a university professor.

But this book is hugely useful to all of us who are attempting to negotiate the intellectually impoverishing and anxiety inducing dynamics of the contemporary university, the misplaced and misguided focus on “student satisfaction”, “feedback”, “innovation” and “distance learning”, the conversion of students into highly indebted consumers, and the end of consensus decision making. Eric Taje’s chapter discusses school as a statist-capitalist strategy to produce obedient workers and docile citizens and he notes that it failed initially as the first generation of wage labourers were impossible to discipline. It makes me concerned that as those of us with memories of a different kind of university become smaller in number and are replaced by faculty whose entire education was neoliberalized, we’ll have less and less capacity to resist. According to Taje, for many dominated and objectified people, the only way out of oppression is for them to become oppressors themselves, which might explain widespread faculty co-optation and the all too frequent inhabitation of the tyrannical line manager subject position. Furthermore, many of the ideas here would be hugely difficult to implement. We might be co-learners in the classroom, but at the end of the day, I’m tasked with awarding my now anonymized students individual grades so a new kind of instrumental relationship focused on grade maximization and ranking rather than conscientization comes to dominate. The hierarchy “between those who know and those who don’t” that doesn’t exist in Zapatista schools (Gahman 2016: 88) is reasserted. But there are things we can do and this book emphasizes that. A small group of us, inspired in part by the slow scholarship movement, are trying to enact more collaborative, less competitive ways of being together in the academy and in this respect this book contains ideas that can support us in that endeavor. The idea, expressed by Joe Curnow and others, that the processes we use to achieve our goals should embody those ultimate goals are particularly useful. If we want a less destructive, less competitive academy, we start by relating to one another differently and in the words of Gahman (2016: 82) “taking care of each other in oppressive circumstances”.

If you are interested in submitting a book proposal to the Transforming Capitalism series, please contact one of the editors, Ian Bruff, Julie Cupples, Gemma Edwards, Laura Horn, Simon Springer or Jacqui True.

 

 

The Stern REF review: What will happen to the feminist geographers?

The REF is a flawed problematic technology that emerges in the context of the neoliberalization of higher education and is widely criticized by academics across blogs and journal pages. In my experience, most research and teaching active academics tolerate the REF, but not many of us embrace it. It detracts from our teaching and scholarship, it encourages disciplinary forms of performance management, it discourages long-term and ambitious monograph projects, and makes it difficult to embody alternative (non-REFable) academic subjectivities. As a result of the high social and financial cost of the REF, the government commissioned an independent review carried out by Nicholas Stern that has now been published. I was surprised to read in the review that “many respondents to our consultation stated that research and the HE sector would be poorer without it and that largely the benefits far outweigh the costs”. The review does not say who the respondents to the consultation were nor how extensive it was. So the review starts with an assumption that REF is mostly good and is here to stay but that it needs a little improvement here and there. The review identifies some of the  flaws with the system and poses some recommendations in order to mitigate these. Since the review was published last week, a number of scholars have produced a range of critiques and endorsements that I have read with interest (see for example Campaign for the Public University 2016; Morrish 2016; Bhandar 2016; Wilsdon 2016). While a minority welcome the recommendations, the majority are more critical and have emphasized how the recommendations will be harmful to early career and BAME scholars. I think they are also potentially harmful to women and to scholars whose work is seen as marginal within their school or college.

The review identifies some of the well-known problems with the REF and there are three on which I wish to comment: the question of portability; the question of equality and diversity; and the question of interdisciplinarity. The recommendations seek to prevent the so-called “gaming” of the system, in particular where institutions hire high performing scholars just before the census date in order to enhance their REF return, by putting an end to the portability of outputs. They also seek to enhance equality and diversity at tertiary institutions. The review notes with concern how white men get submitted at a much higher rate than both women and people of colour. Finally, the review also wants to make it easier for interdisciplinary research to get included.

Portability

The section on portability is so flawed, it beggars belief. A number of commentaries have flagged its problem for early career scholars on short term contracts, pointing out how the university that has failed to give them a permanent contract should not be able to benefit from their publications and undermine their future career prospects. But the lack of portability is not just a problem for ECRs but for anyone. Indeed, it appears to be based on an assumption that good scholars only move jobs because they have been poached for REF purposes. They do not. They move to be closer to a partner (the nature of the academic job market and the absence of formal spousal hire policies means that lots of academic couples are living apart and commuting and seek as soon as they can to change that state of affairs) or elderly parent, to be able to see more of their adult kids or babysit their grandkids, because they want a job in a more affordable city where they can buy a house, because their head of school or dean is making their life a misery, and because they want to be closer to a fieldsite, co-author or collaborator. People who need or want to move should not be deprived of their intellectual property. The idea of date of acceptance is of course also profoundly arbitrary. Books can take many years to write and journal articles can be based on many years of fieldwork. Publications get started in one institution and finished in another. Heavy teaching and administrative workloads means that publications also get written in the evenings, at weekends and during annual leave. Imagine being told that the articles you wrote in your own time no longer belonged to you. Stern’s recommendations might terminate one kind of gaming but will lead to another. As a journal editor in the US, Neil Smith (2010) recalled receiving a phone call from a British scholar that urged rapid acceptance of a submitted paper “because our RAE submissions are due in two weeks” (RAE was the precursor to REF). In the future, scholars will be asking editors and publishers to post-date letters of acceptance so they can take forthcoming publications with them to a new position. And if you wrote the article in your own time, because 35 hours a week is simply not enough time to write and do other work, can an institution tell you that you can’t take it with you?

Equality, diversity and interdisciplinarity

The review seeks to enhance equality and diversity by insisting that all academics are returned. It also seeks to secure improved recognition for interdisciplinary research. But it instantly undermines these aims in two ways. First, it allows for a differential number of submissions per academic to be submitted. While an average of two per academic is the aim, some people could submit fewer (even potentially none which I am sure is no different than not being included) and some more, up to a maximum of six. Second, it calls for some measure of metrics to be added to the (secret[i]) peer review. I can see instantly how both of these measures could be highly negative, as a result of both gender and institutional location. I am a human geographer in a School of Geosciences, a school that must accommodate humanities scholars and geophysicists, critical social scientists and positivist ones. We have a College of Humanities and Social Sciences but we are not in it as the School of Geosciences is located in the College of Science and Engineering. The enormous differences in our epistemological and methodological approaches, not to mention in modes of writing, publishing, supervising, securing funding and co-authoring make REF particularly challenging. In the last REF, in order to maximize the financial return, the School submitted all academics to ‘Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences’ (Unit of Assessment B7) rather than to ‘Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology’ (Unit of assessment C17). Outputs authored by geographers were cross-referred to C17, but essentially we made a single submission to B7. But we all submitted four outputs so it was equalizing in that respect, even if as geographers we would have preferred to only have submitted to C17. If in the next REF, the School decides to submit once again to B7 and a differential number of outputs are allowed, we might find it is not only women and people of colour who are de-selected but scholars whose work is least like “earth systems”. It would certainly make the construction of a coherent narrative more straightforward if the work conducted by feminist scholars or queer theorists did not have to be included in the narrative. In other words, the serious risk exists that human geographers will be submitted at a lower rate than earth scientists or geoscientists. These inequalities as well as those of gender are likely to be exacerbated by the proposed addition of metrics to the existing system of peer review. A recent study (Writing for Research 2014) has shown that the citation rate in the natural sciences is six times greater than in the humanities. Other studies have revealed that men get cited far more than women. This is because men tend to cite mostly men, and women tend to cite both men and women (see Ahmed 2013; Ingraham 2016). Even in human geography, men get cited at five times the rate of women (of the 100 most cited human geographers on Google Scholar, only 21 are female). So if you were trying to maximize REF returns in B7, in a system where metrics matter, the article by a female humanities scholar with ten citations is going to look far less appealing that the article by a male geoscientist with 100 citations. The Stern review sheds no light on how these inequalities might be avoided. Maybe the new focus on interdisciplinarity will help scholars like me but I have no idea what Stern means by interdisciplinarity as no definition is provided. Is interdisciplinary work when a physical geographer works with a geologist (drawing on principles in geomorphology) or when a human geographer works with an anthropologist (drawing on feminist poststructuralist theory) or is interdisciplinary work when a positivist geophysicist works with a decolonial queer theorist? The first two examples are straightforward and commonplace theoretically and epistemologically, the final one is hard to imagine. Equality and diversity could be enhanced and the problem of interdisciplinarity minimized by allowing researchers to submit to the panel of their choice, as occurs in the New Zealand PBRF[ii], and then scores are aggregated at school or departmental level.

So Lord Stern, I feel totally underwhelmed by your intervention.

References

Ahmed S (2013) Making feminist points. feministkilljoys [blog] 11 September https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/09/11/making-feminist-points/

Bhandar B (2016) The Stern Review. London Review of Books 2 August http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/08/02/brenna-bhandar/the-stern-review/

Campaign for the Public University (2016) Let a hundred flowers fade … The Stern Review [blog] 29 July http://publicuniversity.org.uk/2016/07/29/let-a-hundred-flowers-fade-the-stern-review/

Cupples J and Pawson E (2012) Giving an account of oneself: The PBRF and the neoliberal university. New Zealand Geographer 68(1): 14-23

Ingraham C (2016) New study finds that men are often their own favorite experts on any given subject. The Washington Post 1 August https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/08/01/new-study-finds-that-men-are-often-their-own-favorite-experts-on-any-given-subject/?hpid=hp_hp-more-top-stories_wb-experts-1020am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory

Writing for Research (2014) Poor citation practices are a form of academic self-harm in the humanities and social sciences. Medium 27 October https://medium.com/advice-and-help-in-authoring-a-phd-or-non-fiction/poor-citation-practices-are-a-form-of-academic-self-harm-in-the-humanities-and-social-sciences-2cddf250b3c2#.zgh1cha9t

Morrish L (2016) A Stern talking to? Academic irregularities [blog], 28 July https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/a-stern-talking-to/

Smith N (2010) Academic free fall. Social Text 21 August http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/academic_free_fall/

Wilsdon J (2016) The road to REF 2021: why I welcome Lord Stern’s blueprint for research assessment. The Guardian 29 July https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2016/jul/29/why-i-welcome-lord-sterns-blueprint-for-research-assessment-ref-2021-stern-review

Notes

[i] I say secret because you don’t get to find out how your outputs were graded and what score you were awarded. Academics who tried to get their own scores through FOI requests were told to go away.

[ii] Before returning to the UK in 2013, I experienced three rounds of research audit in New Zealand under the PBRF (Performance Based Research Fund). The PBRF in many ways is an abhorrent, governmentalizing technology that like the REF subjects academics to disciplinary performance management regimes and heavy handed surveillance. It is however also a technology within which, as Eric Pawson and I argued, one can carve out subversive spaces of self-esteem and affirmation (Cupples and Pawson 2012). Since being exposed to the REF, I have to say I miss the PRBF (I can’t believe I am saying this), which is a fairer, more inclusive and more transparent system that overcomes some of the problems I have identified above and addresses many more. If we are to have research audit (and I wish we didn’t), it is a pity that Stern did not explore alternative audit systems elsewhere in the world. The PBRF is a better system than the REF for at least three reasons. First, rather than a system in which a unit of assessment/school narrative is authored in secret by a small group of academics, in New Zealand individual academics get to craft their own portfolios and write their own narratives. This means you can submit to the panel that most suits your work and don’t end up in a situation where human geographers are submitted to earth sciences panels as part of a school submission. You can be as interdisciplinary as you like and say so and cross refer yourself to a second panel. Second, you get to find out your own individual score. I know this is problematic in some ways, but in the REF you are asked to produce world class research without knowing whether your research in the last round was already world class. It is much more transparent than REF. Third, everyone is submitted, nobody is excluded on the basis of citation rates, gender or for any other reason, and you submit everything you published but nominate four outputs as being especially significant. It is OK not to have four if you are an early career scholar.

 

 

I am not here to satisfy you: the NSS and our institutional knickers

The neoliberal endeavour to convert university students into consumers is underpinned by a survey culture that is constantly attempting to measure a thing called ‘student satisfaction’. It’s part of the way universities compete with one another and manufacture what is termed the ‘student experience’. In the neoliberal academy, students, faculty and staff are constantly surveyed, a phenomenon that a New Zealand academic has recently described as a tyranny that may “degrade student achievement” and “harm staff” (Heinemann 2015). If you borrow an interloan, ask IT to fix a software issue on your computer, or order sandwiches for a meeting from the preferred corporate supplier, you’re then likely to be sent a survey to assess the level of customer satisfaction with the service. It’s tedious but fortunately most of them can be quickly ignored and deleted. But the survey that seems to produce a bizarre level of managerial emphasis and concern that is quite hard to ignore is the National Student Survey (NSS). In my view, NSS obsession is producing quite pernicious and pedogogically impoverishing outcomes. For those outside the UK, the NSS began in 2005. It is commissioned by HEFCE and carried out by Ipsos Mori. Students are asked 23 questions which relate to student satisfaction and the learning experience (see thestudentsurvey.com for more detail). It then produces scores and rankings to add to the dozens of other league tables in which contemporary universities jostle for position and which get deployed in a highly selective manner in university spin.

The biggest problem with the idea of student satisfaction is that our principal aim as educators should not be to satisfy students. My teaching philosophy is composed in part of the following ideas:

I am not here to satisfy you. I am here to encourage you to interrogate your existing knowledges and possibly your own privilege. This is likely to be a deeply unsettling and uncomfortable process, especially if your class, race or gender location has never required you to interrogate your worldview and how it harms and excludes. I will however do my best to inspire you and encourage you to think.

In fact, our aim should be to unsettle our students, especially the most privileged ones, not to satisfy them. It can often be satisfying to have your pre-existing values and worldviews endorsed (which is why people with right-wing views tend to watch Fox News for example rather than MSNBC or Democracy Now). While it might be energizing to have them challenged, and sometimes clearly is, for some students it can be deeply and profoundly dissatisfying. Some students react negatively when they are exposed to explicitly feminist perspectives or are forced to confront how they continue to benefit from the legacies of colonialism or white privilege. Engagement with these issues starts at university but is probably not resolved if ever until much later in a student’s life. By the time I graduated after four years of study, I had begun to rethink my worldviews. It wasn’t until much later than I gained a much deeper insight into my own politics and cultural assumptions and began to reformulate them. So if students are dissatisfied, it could be because we are doing our jobs properly, not because we are failing.

My view is that we can’t decolonize or democratize the university, while we are so excessively focused on measuring student satisfaction through governmentalizing bureaucratic mechanisms such as the NSS. I make this point because I have become aware of how the institutional NSS obsession distorts what we do, including our relationships with our students and our course content. For students, it intensifies the idea that getting timely feedback is more important than getting your head around a set of complex ideas. It tends to produce a grievance culture, at times even a misplaced sense of entitlement. It encourages some students to complain about things they might never have complained about without it. It might even undermine learning if students feel justified in complaining about feedback rather than in working a little harder. It often means academics have to work excessively long hours to get grades in quickly based solely on the idea that if we don’t our scores in the NSS might fall.

The NSS doesn’t encourage students to complain about the things they really should be complaining about – racism and rape culture on campus, the failure to include black and indigenous intellectuals on reading lists, the extreme levels of indebtedness that the coalition government has forced them to endure, the exorbitant profits that private landlords are making from renting properties to students or that they are being taught sometimes by staff on zero hours contracts.

I don’t want to come across as all nostalgic about the days before the neoliberalization of higher education. Universities were by and large sexist, elitist and colonial institutions and a lot had to change. They are probably a little less sexist, elitist and colonial now than they were when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s. But when I was an undergraduate, when I had no idea what my fees cost because my education was publicly funded, I was never asked to fill out a survey, not one. There were no end of semester surveys or course surveys, and certainly no survey that attempted to compare my university nationally with other British universities by measuring ‘student satisfaction’. I was doing the course I wanted to do, the one I had chosen, and wasn’t interested in whether my university ranked higher or lower than any other. In the 1980s, nobody ever talked about the ‘student experience’ as something that needs to be or even could be created in a top-down way. But I did have a good student experience. Some of my lecturers and classes were inspirational, some were dull and dry, they all had different strengths and weaknesses, but I strongly felt my learning experience was rooted in the reading and writing I did and the conversations I had with students and lecturers inside and outside of class. I felt fortunate to be in a space where I could do this. I believed that the more I read, the more I practised writing, the more I engaged in intellectual debate, the better experience I would have. Good friendships, cosy pubs and fun parties enhanced these intellectual experiences. I never ever considered whether the ‘feedback’ I got was detailed or timely enough. I got on with other things and I got my essay grade and comments when I did. I knew it was up to me to put as much into both my study (and my partying) as I could. The NSS turns that idea on its head, and suggests that if students are not happy, lecturers and departments can be blamed. I can put together an excellent reading list, try to impart in class how theorist X or Y changed my thinking, competently outline a key debate, but if the student doesn’t do much or any of the reading, or starts working on the essay too late so there isn’t enough time to enhance its theoretical sophistication, there is little else I can do. I am not selling you a handbag or a car or a chocolate bar, but instead we are engaged in a collaborative learning experience that depends as much on you as on me. If the student fails to understand something, gain theoretical insight or feel inspired, it is only partly my fault. Sure, we can improve our course design and delivery, but suggestions for those kinds of improvements should come directly from students to us. A faceless national survey is not the place to communicate such ideas.

Most of today’s students, despite working towards the collective national good by getting an education from which everyone benefits, are getting horribly indebted. Many of them are struggling to juggle full time study with part time jobs. They know that many graduates are working for the minimum wage in non-graduate jobs. Many are understandably anxious about what they are going to do when they graduate. I’m sure there is a close relationship between indebtedness and job precarity and the serious mental health crisis that is now a central component of the contemporary university.   Having been encouraged to think of themselves as consumers, students are understandably worried whether they will ever earn enough to pay back their debts and actually participate as consumers beyond their studies. For some, anxiety escalates and makes it hard to study effectively.

Satisfaction surveys work for real consumer experiences, not for student ones. The NSS is a bit like a restaurant asking you to fill out a survey for a meal that you had to go into the kitchen and cook for yourself. The expert and highly renowned chefs provided you with high quality ingredients and gave you detailed tips on how to make a gourmet dinner, but you had to prepare and eat it yourself. In this case, can you really blame the chefs if you over-cooked or over-salted your food and didn’t feel very satisfied after eating? Dissatisfied students might be ones who are unsettled by the destabilization of their worldviews, or ones who are not really working hard enough. Not working hard enough can result not just from laziness and lack of ability, but much more likely because of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, racism, unemployed or underpaid parents, and the need to do too many hours of paid work to pay for education. How can a national survey which attempts to aggregate so many different people’s experiences, when class, gender, race and sexual orientation position them and us in the academy in so many different ways, have any meaning when potential sources of dissatisfaction are so multifaceted, when some are positive and necessary and others are negative and potentially intensified by economic or cultural disadvantage? We should consider the damage the NSS might be doing to institutional cultures and how it might be sabotaging the very thing it purports to enhance. Abolishing it would be good. At the very least, can we please stop getting our institutional knickers in a twist about it?

Heinemann J (2015) Time to confront the tyranny of surveys. http://teu.ac.nz/2014/12/confront-tyranny-surveys/ (Accessed 12 May 2015)