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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Paul Temple


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The coronavirus isn’t a neoliberal

by Paul Temple

In a blog post last December, I attempted to chart the broad changes in UK public-sector planning and management over the decades since 1945. I suggested that while central planning methods based on the idea of “predict and provide” applied across nationalised utilities, transport, health, local government services including schools, universities, and more, for the first few post-war decades, this was gradually supplanted from the 1980s onwards by market-based methods, generally described as neoliberal. My conclusion in relation to higher education was: “Central planning has gone, but its replacement depends on central funding and central intervention. I don’t think that we’ve seen the last of formal central planning in our sector.”

Obviously, I’d like to claim that I foresaw that the catastrophe of the Covid-19 pandemic would sweep away ideas of supposedly finely-balanced markets in fields such as health and education. What in fact I was thinking was that quasi-markets and the rest of the new managerial apparatus would eventually be seen to have fallen short on the neoliberal promise of efficiency without political interference, and the search would then be on for an alternative model. What goes around, comes around.

It’s too early to see exactly what the post-Covid higher education landscape will look like, but I think we can assume that government policy – in this new age of the expert – will ensure the survival of strong research universities, in the “golden triangle” and beyond; and it is equally hard to believe that universities such as Bolton and Sunderland, recently reported to be in financial difficulties, will be allowed to fail by a government politically committed to helping “left behind” regions. Whatever is presently being said by ministers about “no bailouts for universities”, politics is going to trump economics. In the context of the worst economic depression since the 1930s, the 1830s, the 1430s – you choose – this all points to a strong national planning function, involving control of student numbers (as we already know), research planning, and capital planning. The OfS, and even HEFCE, mantras of simply being there to keep the student marketplace looking neat and tidy, and not being concerned with institutional planning or even survival, now seem positively quaint.

Helpfully, we don’t need a crystal ball to foresee the future for higher education planning and funding, because the health sector has provided us with a worked example. On 2 April, the Department of Health and Social Care announced that £13.4 billion of hospital trust debt would be written off – just like that, as Tommy Cooper would have said. This is equivalent to about a third of total annual higher education spending. In less dramatic circumstances, this would have been a major event, but with so much else going on, it seems to have been filed by the media under “boring bureaucratic stuff”. The reason given for the write-off, according to the press notice, was to help hospitals “in maintaining vital services”; as Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State, put it, “nobody in our health service should be distracted by their hospital’s past finances”.

The present NHS structure of semi-autonomous hospital trusts with their own budgets dates from 1990. What was presented then as an essential method of improving NHS efficiency now turns out to have been a “distraction”, getting in the way of providing “vital services”. Who knew? All those person-centuries of work by hospital managers and highly-paid consultants in devising budgets, cutting costs, and then cutting them again to stay within an arbitrary budget, were essentially pointless. Careers were built, and wrecked, on managing a “distraction”. Hospitals, it seems, should simply have been given the money they needed to do the job required of them, as in olden times. The neoliberal model, as applied to UK health care, ended up (at best) delivering nothing.

As I noted in the book that I edited with Ron Barnett and Peter Scott in honour of Gareth Williams’ contributions to higher education studies, Valuing Higher Education (2017), the higher education landscape contains, on the one hand, institutions that require incomes; and on the other hand, students who wish to benefit from this institutional provision. (The universities/students, hospitals/patients, parallel is obvious.) Accordingly, the financing of UK higher education traditionally considered the needs of both institutions and individual students. But in recent years, policy in England has swung in a way that might fairly be described as revolutionary: it has moved, so far as teaching costs are concerned, from considering the needs of institutions to an almost exclusive focus on the needs of students. From a neoliberal perspective, putting the interests of the student-consumer above maintaining a planned pattern of institutional provision was self-evidently correct: this was the basis of David Willetts’ 2011 White Paper, with its unsubstantiated claims about the benefits that would arise from largely unconstrained student choice, the removal of most restrictions on the use of the university title, the entry of more “alternative providers”, and the rest. Will any of this agenda outlive the coronavirus? To preserve some semblance of a working higher education system into next year, I suspect that a lot of the Willetts 2011 policies will be found to be “distractions”, just like their NHS equivalents.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546


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Practising a Pragmatic Critical Pedagogy in Higher Education

by Mona Sakr

Reflections on a workshop hosted by the SRHE Academic Practice Network

At a workshop on 8 May 2019 in the SRHE offices Jennifer Bain and Juliet Sprake (Goldsmiths University) shared their emerging conceptualisations of a ‘pragmatic critical pedagogy’. Their ground-breaking approach comes about as a way to grapple positively with the tensions and affective dissonance that critical pedagogues encounter in the contemporary HE landscape, characterised as it is by neoliberal definitions of learning as consumption and the relentless emphasis on ‘student satisfaction’. What do we do with the uneasiness we feel? How do we move from our experiences of discomfort? Bain and Sprake shared in this workshop the spaces that they have created as a response to these questions, and, in particular, innovations emerging through a research and teaching project that they have conducted with partners in the Philippines.

The approach presented in the workshop hinges on the infusion of critical pedagogies with principles and processes that are essential to design education. Bain and Sprake argue that working with design mindsets and methods can enable us to find and make the micro-adjustments to practice that allow critical pedagogies to flourish in a potentially stifling wider climate. Through design, we can grapple with the contradictions and complexities we encounter as researchers and teachers without falling into a pit of despair. Through the design process, we identify responsive actions to the disjunctions and the dissonance. As we move against and around dominant neoliberal discourses of ‘learning as consumption’, the design process can inspire us to move on to the ‘what next’.

As participants in the workshop, we had the opportunity to try out for ourselves the design infused critical pedagogy that Bain and Sprake advocate. What Bain and Sprake call ‘pragmatic critical pedagogy’ was put to work in small groups where we decided on a particular problem statement relating to the research-practice culture of universities; statements such as ‘collaboration is time-consuming’ or ‘teaching-led research is undervalued’. We were then prompted through a series of design-focused questions to see the opportunities for design at work in the statement. We applied particular design mindsets (such as ‘optimism’ or ‘empathy’) to find new ways of seeing the problem. The point was not to ‘unsee’ the contradictions, tensions and frictions, but rather to see them from a different perspective, inviting new avenues for action.

Reactions to the task were enthusiastic. Discussion after the activity suggested that participants appreciated how the design nature of the task invited participants to launch into genuine and open dialogues with each other. At the same time, as you would expect, new points of tension emerged. What does the design process do to the affective dimensions of  critical pedagogy? Do design mindsets (such as ‘optimism’) override affective dimensions that might be a vital part of critical pedagogy? What happens to the anger, what Freire calls the ‘just ire’ (Freire, 2004), that comes with disjunction and dissonance? What happens when we push beyond despair to occupy an artificially induced space of optimism? How much of the design approach privileges working within the constraints and conditions of our situation (designing for an audience and to a brief), and therefore enables micro-adjustments that align with, rather than challenge, the status quo?

It is exciting to see that Bain and Sprake are currently extending their research, with support from the British Council, to look at how pragmatic critical pedagogies might play out on digital platforms. As they observed in the workshop, digital learning tends to be designed around behaviourist principles of learning, rather than tuning into the foundations of critical pedagogy. It will be fascinating to see how their explorations as part of the project ‘A Sustainable Framework for Design Thinking in Education’ might begin to unsettle the dominant models of digital learning and help to move the sector forward. 

SRHE member Mona Sakr is Senior Lecturer in Education and Early Childhood at Middlesex University. Her latest book is Creativity and Making in Early Childhood: Challenging Practitioner Perspectives.

Reference

Freire, P. (2004). Pedagogy of indignation. Boulder, CO: Paradigm. 

Paul Temple


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Be careful what you wish for

By Paul Temple

At an SRHE conference session not long ago, I remarked on the hostility shown at any mention of neoliberalism. As I recall, the neoliberal charge-sheet included the commodification of higher education, cuts in funding, the proletarianisation of academic staff, an obsession with metrics and targets replacing a culture of standards and quality … the list went on. My response was that while these were all no doubt bad things, neoliberalism was merely a bystander at the crime scene, not the perpetrator. Politicians and their agencies, wishing to exert ever-tighter control over higher education through half-baked ideas about markets and business methods, were the ones wielding the blunt instruments. A proper neoliberal would no more have a view on the size, shape and methods of higher education than they would want to determine the types and quantities of cars produced by the motor industry.

Neoliberals would instead want to reduce government controls on universities (or car makers) to allow them to meet the needs of students (or car buyers) in the ways they judged best. They would want governments to concentrate on Continue reading