Higher education and the spectacle of excellence: An early career researcher perspective

City Campus, University of Wales, Newport

When I interviewed for a PhD bursary, as a 23-year-old, the interviewers asked me why I wanted to spend the next three years of my life researching and developing intellectually. My response, as a critical sociologist motivated by social justice, I rather naively thought, would have been one they’d heard before: I told them that upon successful completion of a PhD I believed I would be better placed to elicit positive social change. My perception of the academy then, as an outsider looking in, was one of an institution, rather than an industry, that produced new knowledge, challenged convention, a safe haven for those people who hankered for a better, fairer world. Oh how very naïve I was.

Now, I can say honestly that there are a plethora of wonderful people who I’ve encountered working in Higher Education (HE), who indeed challenge convention and who, through their work, strive to realise a better world. And I still contend that occupying a position in HE is indeed a very real privilege. However, having worked in the industry for a good while now, as a qualitative research assistant and as a lecturer and senior lecturer at two different institutions, I’ve come to realise that HE is a very different world to the one I had imagined.

At this point it’s important for me to assert that I’m not pointing fingers at any one institution. Rather this piece is an account of my experience of the sector as a whole, as a discourse and as a technology of control.

I was fortunate enough to be offered a PhD bursary, subsequent to the interview I mentioned earlier, and I completed the course successfully, circa 3 years after I started. During those three years, I was guided most expertly by my two supervisors, who, to this day, are academics, professionals and people who I admire. Even now, I still feel I owe them a great deal. But once I emerged from underneath their stewardship, and began to interview for full-time positions as a lecturer, I realised just what a wonderful job they had done, not just in nurturing my intellect but, in shielding me from the politics and operational misnomers, endemic across the sector. While existing, unknowingly, beneath a protective umbrella for the duration of my bursary – one which allowed me to focus on my scholarly endeavours – I realised quickly, in order to become “employable”, I had to develop a completely new ‘skill-set’ and lexicon.

My first few interviews were extremely eye-opening. While I did not expect to be sitting through another viva-type exercise, wherein my intellectual abilities were tested to their limits, I did expect some discussion around my philosophical approach to my scholarly work, my academic integrity and/ or an appraisal of the quality of my scholarly work. I was disturbed when no such enquires or questions were forthcoming. Instead, I became aware that what potential employers were most interested in was my use and knowledge of the language of neoliberalism: “student-centeredness”, “employability”, “enterprise”, “managing expectations”, “industry-facing curriculum development” and “key-person-dependencies” were all terms I had to master quickly if I was to be offered a job. As a critical sociologist, such language was difficult to grasp; in part because these ideas emanate from a cultural and economic paradigm I am not absolutely comfortable with and in part because, simply, these terms feel so empty. Both politically and ideologically.

Nonetheless, I did eventually achieve a full-time post. From then on I was further immersed in the politics and day-to-day operations, and pressures, associated with a HE institution.  Being at the mercy of student evaluations and National Student Survey (NSS) scores, for instance, was no longer a concern of more senior colleagues; they were pressures I was living with myself.

Here you might expect me to launch into some self-indulgent, defensive rant about poor student feedback results. I’m not. In fact, I’m usually very encouraged by the feedback I get from students and I’m often praised for being “entertaining” and “engaging” as well as “informative”. Indeed, one of the adages by which I live my life asserts that style (or spectacle and performance) is as important as (spiritual and/ or intellectual) substance. My point is this: those same feedback forms rarely delight, in quite the same sycophantic way, in my fostering of a culture which encourages deep-learning or intellectual and personal growth. Absolutely, it might be that this is an area of my teaching praxis that I need to improve on. Equally it might also reveal something less benign.  That is, the ’empowerment’ of students through such mechanisms as the NSS, in my view, inadvertently encourages a cult of personality, founded on aesthetic value, performance and spectacle. In simple terms, while being “entertaining” might produce excellent NSS results, and/ or further “enhance the student experience”, it says nothing of the my – or any other lecturer’s – ability to speak meaningfully, intellectually or informatively.

Understanding this also enabled me to understand why millions of pounds were being invested across the sector in new, shiny buildings. What is being delivered in lecture theatres across the country, as far as I can see, is becoming evermore subservient to how and where lectures are delivered. What is important to “the market” it seems, is spectacle. More precisely, a spectacle of excellence. The perception of substance, not substance itself. This thesis I contend can be rolled out across HE: from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to the UK Professional Standards Framework, what is important, is not necessarily the quality of scholarly publications and/ or the development of free-thinking, critical graduates but, the number of “research outputs” and the assurance lecturers are operating within national frameworks, supposedly designed to ensure teaching/ research excellence. In this sense, the myriad new buildings cropping up on university campuses across the UK, the perpetual development of evermore novel seeming digital technologies, such as virtual learning environments and 24-hour library services, are perfect metaphors for the sector’s longing for spectacle.

I do not wish to paint a picture of perpetual doom or to undermine the vast majority of academics who continue to devote their energies to cultures and learning environments rich with, what I have called, substance.  Moreover, I concede also that this piece will teach many well-established academics nothing new. Some may even support this move toward a neoliberal model.  Nonetheless, I do hope that this narrative offers something useful to current PhD students and/ or others aspiring to work in HE. Again, I cannot say strongly enough how extremely privileged I feel to do what I do. It is precisely because I care, therefore, I wish to place my thoughts and feeling on record so as to warn against moving wholesale toward a system that promotes style and spectacle, at the expense of substance.

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