[This is a blog post based on a forthcoming presentation at the British Education Research Association Conference, taking place in Leeds in September 2016]

There is an increasing scholarly concern around the idea of students becoming consumers of higher education. For example, Patsarika (2014, 527) argues that ‘the portrait’ of students has been ‘coloured’ by neoliberal developments such as marketisation and internationalisation. Similarly, Hay and Kapitzke (2009) explain that there is a widespread concern about students becoming highly competitive, reward-oriented and perhaps dishonest. These are only few examples from recent scholarly research. As regards more practical examples, we could look into the National Student Survey (NSS) in the UK that evaluates the experiences of final-year undergraduate students and makes the evaluations publicly available with an aim to inform the (consumer) choices of potential applicants. It is therefore unsurprising that students are increasingly discussed – both in policies and research – as consumers and private investors who aim to increase their employability and career choices through higher education. This paper like many others in the field is highly critical of neoliberalisation of university education. However, it also attempts to question the ways in which neoliberal understanding of students as consumers could alter academic domination and disciplinary power in such processes as student assessment. This is particularly the case as student assessment is said to be an arena in education where disciplinary power – particularly in a relationship between the assessor and assessed – is most evident. Foucault (1975, 304) writes about the assessors as the ‘judges of normality’, and argues that they are present everywhere: the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the social-worker-judge. The power between the assessor – the judge of the normality – and the assessed becomes highly evident if the assessor abuses power associated with assessment by penalising students, whom they dislike, setting difficult or even too easy examinations (Bandaranayake 2011). While trying to put the two aspects together – increasing consumerism and relatively traditional operation of student assessment – one might assume that if students act as consumers of higher education, they could alter power relations and become more demanding in assessment situations. By presenting the findings from a small part of my recent doctoral research project (2012-2015), this paper will trace the student experiences of power in assessment as well as their subjectivity as assessed in two very different universities. One is a highly prestigious Russell Group university in the UK and the other one is much smaller and newer university from Estonia, a post-soviet country.

Like many others who explore neoliberalism at the micro level, I have found Foucault’s work on subjectification highly helpful. The student as a subject from a Foucauldian perspective is in a constant process of being produced. Just as Besley and Peters (2007, 6) argue, there are no ‘universal necessities in human nature’, only various technologies through which the individual is created or creates him/herself. This also means that students are ‘the products’ of their time and neoliberal reforms have a fundamental role in shaping the student subjectivity in contemporary universities. Foucault’s work on the subject is grounded in his theorisation of power and discourse. Power for Foucault not only presses on the individual from the outside (e.g. through marketisation or assessment), but it forms the subject by providing the necessary conditions: power is what subjects depend on for their existence. Foucault’s concept of power is therefore productive even if sometimes risky or dangerous (Foucault 1983). Prior to 1978 and Foucault’s work on governmentality, Foucault tended to approach all power relations as being underpinned by either coercion or the ideas of normalisation. This is also what his theorisation of assessment relies on. However, in his later work, Foucault investigated the ways human beings evolve as subjects (Foucault 1982), and how individuals can resist domination and develop what he called the practices of the self in order to achieve new kinds of existence (Allan 2013). Foucault’s later work approaches the concept of the subject as having two meanings: ‘subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge’ (Foucault 1982, 331). By drawing on a Foucauldian understanding of the subject, this paper does not approach students as completely passive individuals but like ‘late-Foucault’ it recognises that students must have some opportunities to negotiate disciplinary power. This is particularly the case in neoliberal times, where students are encouraged to act as economically self-interested subjects.

This conference paper will introduce and explore some of the key findings from the study that included four focus groups with 15 students in total. For example, discourse analysis (which was informed by Norman Fairclough’s work) revealed significant evidence of neoliberal influence on student experiences of higher education. The students interviewed from the UK and Estonian universities exercise educational choices in the higher education market, and they are interested in university education for promoting their competitiveness at the labour market. In other words, they want to make right choices in order to enhance their career opportunities. University rankings were mainly taken into account when assessing the value of a particular university. Furthermore, the students ascribed economic value to assessment as an institutional technology of selection and rewarding. This is another way to gain some advantage at the labour market.

However, these consumerist discourses did not emerge in a micro context of assessment: in a relationship of an assessor and assessed. This means that student voice that is now central to education policy appeared to be absent when the students addressed themselves as being assessed. In assessment situations, they are fundamentally shaped by disciplinary power. In an Estonian University it is still a traditional domination of an assessor that students experience, while in the UK University, the power associated with assessment has become much more diffuse, shaped by regulations and marking teams. Students from both universities need to find their own ways to negotiate these power dynamics. In a relatively traditional assessment system of the Estonian University – non-anonymised assessment carried out by a single academic and based on a marking scale from A to F – students are able to identify the assessors’ power and their opportunities for manoeuvring within the power relations; they make use of the ways assessment acts on them. This opportunity makes the students interviewed appear more confident and proactive subjects, particularly if the students have experienced the rewarding side of academics’ power. In a highly neoliberalised setting of the UK University, however, the disciplinary power has also become more diffuse: assessment is anonymised and marking is carried out by a team of assessors based on a complex 22-point marking scale. Students struggle to identify the cause of the pressure they feel, and their response to these constraints results in their becoming strategic learners. From their perspective, it is very difficult to act against the standards and/or academics’ collegiality, as the system is perceived distant and impersonal. The paper therefore suggests that the highly controlled and standardised assessment system – characteristic of neoliberalised universities – does not necessarily reduce the disciplinary power in assessment but alters it in a way that makes it more diffuse and difficult for students to comprehend and resist.


Allan, J. 2013. “Foucault and his Acolytes: Discourse, Power and Ethics.” In Social Theory and Education Research. Understanding Foucault, Habermas, Bourdieu and Derrida, edited by M. Murphy, 21-34. Oxon: Routledge.

Bandaranayake, R. C. 2011. “The Ethics of Student Assessment.” Med Teach, 33 (6): 435-436.

Besley, T., and M. A. Peters. 2007. Subjectivity and Truth. Foucault, Education and the Culture of Self. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Foucault, M. 1975. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Group.

Foucault, M. 1982. “The Subject and Power.” In Power. Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, edited by J. D. Faubion, 326-348. London: Penguin Group.

Foucault, M. 1983. “The Risks of Security.” In Power. Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, edited by J. D. Faubion, 365-381. London: Penguin Group.

Hamann, T. H. 2009. “Neoliberalism, Governmentality, and Ethics.” Foucault Studies 6: 37-59.

Hay, S., and C. Kapitzke. 2009. “’Smart State’ for a Knowledge Economy: Reconstituting Creativity through Student Subjectivity.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 30 (2): 151-164.

Patsarika, M. 2014. “New Capitalism, Educational Modernisation and the New Role of the Professional Student.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 35 (4): 527-539.