Do universities care too much about students?

I presented earlier today at the London Festival of Education. I blogged what I intended to say here. What I wish I had said is given below.

FIRST. On care: one might define care as a positive perception of assistance that enables the person who is cared about to cope with emotional issues and to perform mental or cognitive activities. It is deliberately situated inside a psycho-social framework of cognitive and emotional elements. The work of Donald Winnicott is important in this space, in defining a good enough environment, and a good enough set of social relationships that enable individuals to become agents in their own world to the best of their ability. Association with others is critical.

SECOND. In the face of the politics of austerity we are confused about the very idea of the University, including its purpose, form and relationships between staff and students. Is it public? Is it private? Is it to be marketised? Is it for the knowledge economy or the knowledge society? Is it for profit over people?  An interrelated confusion is about the idea of the student. Is s/he a consumer? Is s/he a producer of her lived educational experience? In the face of such socio-cultural uncertainty we might ask, is it possible to judge whether universities care too much about students?

THIRD. We are witnessing a recalibration and enclosure of the idea of the student, not as a co-operative, associational subject, but as a neoliberal agent, whose future has become indentured. This subject is individuated, enclosed and disciplined through her debts and is enmeshed inside a pedagogy of debt, in order that s/he becomes entrepreneurial in her endeavours and outlook. The idea of education, framed by Willetts, Cable and Gove, is of indentured study, where the risk of failure is not borne socially, but is transferred to the individual. Thus, the Coalition seeks to extend New Labour’s choice agenda, driven by metrics, data and money, as the university is restructured as a new public service. In this way the student-as-entrepreneur, and data/analytics about satisfaction, retention, progression etc. are used as mechanisms to discipline academic labour. The relationships between academic and student are recalibrated in the face of the rule of money and the cybernetic techniques that underpin it.

FOURTH. Data, learning analytics, key information sets and so on were highlighted by Gove, a man who once declared that anyone put off going to University by fear of debt shouldn’t be there anyway. He stated in the morning Q&A that “judgements [about students and their performance] require care”, and that those judging students should “rely on data rather than conjecture.” This type of problem-based thinking ignores politics and ideology, and is based around the kind of risk-management and algorithm-based high frequency trading that underpins entrepreneurial activity in the financial markets. It is almost wholly divorced from the realities of the humane relationships that academics seek to develop with their students. The corporatisation of data, underscored by profit, negates our humanity.

FIFTH. There are then, as series of tensions inside the University. The University is a confused space that is being restructured around money, profit, performance management, customer relationship management and so on. It is from inside this new public service that Gove declared that he wished students to benefit from “the incredible number of opportunities offered by twenty-first century capitalism.” This is in spite of: the reality of global protests against the enforced implementation of austerity; the reality of enforced controls on capital and migration; the reality of a collapse in real wages since the 1970s, and the huge disparity between the wealth owned by capital and labour across the global North; the reality of catastrophic climate change, peak oil and access to abundant energy. This is the fantasy of the entrepreneurial student inside the treadmill logic of business-as-usual.

SIXTH. One might develop the point that as the corporate university tries to develop the characteristics of the entrepreneur in its students, it cares to discipline its labour-force through performance management and the rate of profit. However, inside and against this fragmented space, groups of academics and students are attempting to move beyond the pedagogy of debt, to define something more care-full, where the staff/student relationship can become the beating heart of an alternative vision for higher education as higher learning beyond the University and inside the fabric of society. This is the true psycho-social scope of care in these educational relationships.

SEVENTH. Thus we need to move beyond the list of private and marketised providers selling and re-selling services into collectivised educational spaces (witness the adverts and brochures inside the Festival goody-bag). We need to move beyond Gove’s statement that educated people are “authors of their own life story”, in order to see that the University is a vehicle for the reproduction of capitalist social relationships and value-forms. In moving against and beyond this moment, we might consider care in an associational form, either inside the curriculum as the beating heart of the university or in the raft of alternative, radical educational projects outside formal higher education. We might then consider Marx’s point that “only in association with others has each individual the means of cultivating his talents in all directions. Only in a community therefore is personal freedom possible… In a genuine community individuals gain their freedom in and through their association.”

A fuller presentation about some of these issues is here.


4 Responses to Do universities care too much about students?

  1. What a thought provoking and honest piece of writing. You speak so well of the pitfalls and the solutions in the new era that ‘educational spaces’ has found itself in. Never before has society had the opportunity to freely associate with each other. Social power has arrived! There is the need for lots of research as we are working directly with human lives.

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