learning gain and kettling academic labour

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths

Banquo, Act 1, Scene III, Macbeth.

“Kettling is a police tactic to control crowds where officers surround a group of people on all sides. In some instances, police direct protesters toward a predetermined location. As the crowd grows, the police presence tightens around them. Police control access to the location and decide how to allow people to leave, perhaps through a predetermined spot.”

CBC News. 2012. Crowd control: What is kettling?

Academic kettling is a management/policy tactic to control academics and students where management surround a group of people on all sides. In some instances, protesters are directed toward a predetermined location. As the crowd grows, performance management tightens around them. Management control access to the location and decide how to allow people to leave, perhaps through a predetermined spot.


And so it goes.

We witness a barrage of new public management techniques for internalising control and producing value. A bureaucracy for impact, learning gain, teaching excellence. Strategies for internationalisation, enterprise, employability, community, quality assurance.

We are told that everything pivots around the student experience, to the extent that we forget ourselves. And we begin to internalise value-added.

We are led towards learning gain, and fail to notice the noose of financialisation that is being prepared. That our hopes for student outcomes form their means of hedging against future performance.

We let ourselves believe that student outcomes will be too messy to translate into measures of teaching quality, against the lessons of history and the messages of their corporate reports.

We forget the lessons of league tables and performance management in secondary education, and the relentless testing that eviscerates self-actualisation beyond the market.

We forget that their learning gain can never be defined by us, and that we will be co-opted by them in our attempts to use it for good. We refuse to believe that we might refuse.

We refuse to believe that learning gain and teaching excellence are two sides of the same process of hyper-financialising education.

We forget that this is about labour rights. The labour rights of students as well as staff. We risk losing ourselves.

And so it goes.


what defines learning gain? variable human capital and the rule of money

p. xi “such measures can be seen as important to the debates about the quality and impact of higher education, how we evidence the value of investment in it, and how we evidence students’ skills acquisition for employers.”

p. xi “the concept of ‘learning gain’ is defined as the ‘distance travelled’, or the difference between the skills, competencies, content knowledge and personal development demonstrated by students at two points in time. This allows for a comparison of academic abilities and how participation in higher education has contributed to such intellectual development.”

This allows for a comparison of academic abilities and how participation in higher education has contributed to such intellectual development. A comparison between individuals, courses, institutions on a national and global scale. Your pedagogy as their financialised data. The market will decide, once the market has the data. And who will facilitate that process?

p. x “the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), working in partnership with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), commissioned RAND Europe.

p. xii-xiii “Learning gain measures… can also be used to support accountability, promote transparency and enable comparability of the outcomes of higher education”

beyond learning and the student experience

p. 2 “The learning gain in England project is influenced by two principal drivers, as detailed below.

1.1.1. Higher education financing mechanisms: “The change in funding arrangements and diversification of provision has contributed to greater pressure to justify to students, employers and governments increased investment in higher education.”

1.1.2. Quality and accountability in English higher education: “Changes in financing of higher education have also served both to underline the importance of quality in higher education, and position student choice as a key concern for the sector. Students’ expectations in terms of their course and experience are increasingly becoming a concern of universities and policy makers, and institutions have sought to provide more information to prospective students on the value of degrees…”

learning gain as a disciplinary tool, rooted in performance management and accountability

p. 12 “Indicators and measures of learning gain could also be used to help increase accountability in higher education (as they have in secondary education, for example) and could help governments justify value for money of investments in higher education to both students and other stakeholders.”

p. 14 “Comparison between student performance, disciplines, institutions and countries are all potentially valid uses of a measure of learning gain.”

McGrath, C..H., Guerin, B., Harte, E., Frearson, M. and Manville, C. 2015. Learning Gain in Higher Education. Cambridge: Rand Corporation.


learner excellence and labour rights

Phil Race: A5 #lthechat Learning gain is perhaps more about learner excellence than teaching excellence. Much learning happens without teaching anyway

Simon Lancaster: the more one understand’s about the practicalities the less likely to think it suitable for building league tables #LTHEchat


because those with power think it’s about human capital which is in itself de-humanising

p. 16 “higher education represents a critical factor in innovation and human capital development and plays a central role in the success and sustainability of the knowledge economy”

and this has to play out internationally and competitively because of rising costs, the rising organic composition of capital, and a globally falling rate of profit.

p. 26 “The first phenomenon of rising costs is a direct consequence of the expansion of higher education systems and wider participation, which have increased the financial burden of higher education as most countries have tried to expand their systems while limiting the adverse impact on unit costs and expenditure to maintain quality. Indeed higher education provision offers limited scope for economies of scale”

p. 26 “a second phenomenon of fiscal pressure to curb costs has arisen in many countries. Indeed, economic growth over the past two decades has been insufficient to sustain the rising costs of higher education resulting from massification in most countries across the globe”

p. 26 “the allocation of public funding for tertiary education is increasingly characterised by greater targeting of resources, performance-based funding, and competitive procedures.”

p. 28 “Competition has also been advocated as a tool to improve teaching quality, as well as institutions’ responsiveness to the needs of society, the labour market and students”

it’s producing and circulating data to signal social mobility and the autonomy of the market.

p. 28 “Signalling is an integral aspect of these increasingly competitive markets. Indeed, higher education has many features of an experience good, i.e. a service whose characteristics such as quality are difficult to observe prior to consumption. With such information asymmetry, consumers struggle with their consumption choices and reward reputation in the absence of more transparent measures of quality. Accordingly, HEIs as well as systems use a range of signals and marketing tools to showcase their worth and build their reputation… The emergence of global rankings and their growing importance is illustrative of this compelling search for signals and recognition”

and so we are told that we need learning gain and teaching excellence, as productivity tools

p. 30 “Performance indicators and external quality evaluations are an integral aspect of the new model of distant steering”

p. 31 “drop-out and underachievement incur economic costs as a result of lower returns to non-degree higher education compared to full degrees, while costs per student are the same in both cases… This raises questions about the scope for improving the “productivity” of higher education through targeted policies to enhance the quality of service provision, and as a consequence, students’ retention and success.”

p. 33 “most notably for the learning outcomes of higher education, while it would appear to be among the most important pieces of information on higher education, available data remains scarce in many systems”

p. 34 “a growing need has emerged to develop direct measures of learning outcomes to overcome the limitations of current proxies for the quality of teaching and learning”

p. 36 in the Bucharest Communiqué of Bologna Ministers in 2012: “To consolidate the European Higher Education Area, meaningful implementation of learning outcomes is needed. The development, understanding and practical use of learning outcomes is crucial to the success of ECTS, the Diploma Supplement, recognition, qualifications frameworks and quality assurance – all of which are interdependent”

p. 41 “Students’ learning outcomes are a key factor of institutional performance, and hence of aggregate system performance. While some indirect evidence can be gained from graduate destination surveys and student engagement surveys, to date, there are no instruments for international measurement.”

Tremblay, K., Lalancette, D., and Roseveare, D. 2015. Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes Feasibility Study Report Volume 1 – Design and Implementation. OECD.


and this will ensure a new hyper-financialised architecture for higher education or higher learning or higher pedagogy

“So the reforms we will set out in the green paper will improve teaching quality, empower students, open up the higher education market and drive value for money. To deliver our ambitions, we also plan to reform the higher education and research system architecture.

“We are a deregulatory government, and much of the higher education system is ripe for simplification… Our regulatory regime is still based upon a system where government directly funds institutions rather than reflecting the fact that students are the purchasers, and needful of all the protections that consumers of complex high value products receive in other regulated markets… Students are the primary source of income for undergraduate study, but their interests are insufficiently represented in our structures and systems.”

Johnson, J. 2015. Higher education: fulfilling our potential. BIS.


and this hyper-financialised architecture, rooted in reductionist approaches to outcomes and value-added and learning gain and efficacy, is being lobbied for and evidenced

p. 2 “It is increasingly possible to determine what works and what doesn’t in education, just as in healthcare. The elements of learning can be mapped out, the variables isolated and a measurable impact on learning predicted and delivered. This can be done at every level – a single lesson, a single individual, a classroom, an institution or a whole system. It can also be done for a product or service that’s designed to help people learn. As a result, there has been progress and there is now a real sense that we are on the brink of a revolution.”

because learning is about value and consumers, rather than humane values

p. 3 “things which are important, and which command a high level of investment, should be approached in a systematic, evidence-based fashion”

p. 4 “The expansion of education models that deliver measurably better outcomes, combined with the growing transparency of results, is leading to increased consumer expectations and demand for quality, as well as access.”

Fallon, J. 2013. Preface to Barber, M. and Rizvi, S (2013) Asking More: The Path to Efficacy. Pearson.

p. 42 “we intend to embed efficacy into the heart of our organisation. The key is to consider how to ensure that every major decision delivers both financial and learner outcomes”

Barber, M. and Rizvi, S., 2013. The Incomplete Guide to Delivering Learning Outcomes. Pearson.


and this is an anti-vision of higher education

p. 2 “The focus of policy has been the transformation of higher education into the private good of training and the positional good of opportunity, where the returns on both are higher earnings. Initiation into the production and dissemination of public knowledge? It does not appear to be a concern of current policy. Such an anti-vision of higher education – let the market determine what should be offered – unfortunately meshes with a stratified higher education sector which mirrors an increasingly unequal society.”

an anti-vision rooted in a disciplinary architecture of data and performance management

pp. 2-3 “Potential applicants to colleges and universities will in future benefit from information on the ‘employability and earnings’ of each institution’s alumni and alumnae. I quote:

[The measures] will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students.”

because the rule of money will dominate your pedagogy

p. 3 “If different degrees from different institutions result in very different levels of earnings for students with similar pre-university qualifications and from similar socio-economic backgrounds, then this might affect both student choice and policies designed to increase participation and improve social mobility.

That paragraph captures the two angles to this debate: it is not just applicants who want to know what their monetary return on further study might be. Moving beyond consumer choice, the government as lender is becoming increasingly concerned by the size of the subsidy built-in to the student loan scheme as the latter is buffeted by recession, low bank base rates, a troubling graduate labour market and earlier mistakes in the modelling of future repayments.”

your pedagogy reduced to human capital investment

p. 4 “The 2011 Higher Education White Paper presented undergraduate degrees as a human capital investment that benefits the private individual insofar as it enables that individual to boost future earnings. Universities and colleges are then to be judged on how well they provide training that does indeed boost earnings profiles. Such ‘value add’ would displace current statistical concoctions based on prior attainment and final degree classification. The key device is loans: they go out into the world and the manner in which they are repaid generates information. Graduates then become the bearers of the units of account by which HE performance is set into a system of accountability: ‘What level of repayments is this graduate of this course likely to produce over the next 35 years?’”

p. 5 “And here is the rub. The growing and unexpectedly large subsidy built into the current iteration of fee-loan regime points to that same problem: the government is not getting the maximum from borrowers or from universities”

p. 7 “the coming wave of ‘education evaluation’, threatens to supplant traditional understandings of universities as communities advancing public knowledge. Current regulations governing the awarding of degrees aver that standards are maintained and safeguarded only by the critical activity of the academic community within an institution. It will be harder and harder to recall that fact”

McGettigan, A. 2015. The Treasury View of HE: variable human capital investment. Goldsmiths: PERC.


and they need the data, so, you know, test everything

“The generic, non-subject-specific exams will be trialled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to evaluate whether they could be used to measure undergraduates’ “learning gain” – the improvement in skills and competencies made by students during their time at university.

“The results of any nationwide standardised test could also be used to compare institutional performance, and may form a key metric in the planned teaching excellence framework.”

Havergal, C. 2015. HEFCE to pilot standardised student tests. Times Higher Education.

This research shows there is a wide range of approaches to measuring learning among students in higher education. Understanding the methods and the results from these pilots will help assess teaching quality and excellence and ultimately provide better value for all students.

Johnson, J. 2015. In HEFCE, £4 million awarded to 12 projects to pilot measures of learning gain.


Learning gain, value for money, teaching excellence and quality assurance, as a regime of control. And architectures of control. Kettling academic labour.

p. 15 “A significant number of responses to the discussion document identified a need to undertake a major shift in quality assessment and assurance activity to focus more on student outcomes than institutional processes. The proposals in this consultation take such a shift in focus as essential if a quality assessment system is to be accountable to students and other stakeholders in the areas that matter to them.”

“this collection of student outcomes data will be important in two key areas:

  • its use within an individual provider at the heart of their mechanisms to drive continuous improvement in learning and teaching and in the student academic experience
  • its use by the relevant funding body to undertake routine monitoring of institutional performance as a way to identify signs of concern about that student academic experience.”

HEFCE. 2015. Quality Assurance Review.


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