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Are students really consumers of higher education? A counter-argument from assessment regimes

Published in Foucault, Latest Posts by Rille Raaper on May 15, 2018

Just published: Raaper, R. (2018). Students as consumers? A counter perspective from student assessment as a disciplinary technology. Teaching in Higher Education [Online First]. doi: 10.1080/13562517.2018.1456421

This blog post is an invitation to discuss the issues of consumerism in higher education, particularly in a context of highly prescriptive assessment regimes. It is a follow-up to my earlier blog post titled as Tracing power and student subjectivity in assessment. A Foucauldian perspective. I have had a number of emails from people interested in exploring the effects of neoliberalism on pedagogical processes. While there is quite a lot written about the enforcement of consumer identity on students, particularly through the consumer law in the UK, there has been a limited discussion on how it shapes classroom practices and the interaction between academics and students. My exploratory article above was an attempt to encourage critical debate in the field.

The paper starts with a conflicting discussion on how students have been positioned as consumers in many higher education policy initiatives. For example, the UK universities are required to comply with consumer law that formalises student-university relations in terms of information provision, terms and conditions, and complaints handling (see, e.g. CMA 2015). It could also be said that the recent Higher Education and Research Act 2017 only adds to these dominant consumerist discourses: it introduces a new quality assurance exercise branded as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The TEF development has been surrounded by the rhetoric of ‘placing students at the centre of higher education’ where student is seen as a consumer who engages in a rational financial transaction to develop one’s employability (Gourlay and Stevenson 2017, 391). The prevailing assumption is that if students act as consumers, they will pressure universities to develop high quality courses and excellent teaching practices (Naidoo and Williams 2015).

The paper will then move on to question the ways in which the consumerist positioning of students might challenge the traditional power dynamics of student assessment. This is where things get messy and where I have found a Foucauldian theorisation helpful. From a Foucauldian perspective, assessment is ‘a normalising gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish’ (Foucault 1975, 184). It enhances students’ visibility, helping to differentiate and judge them. In short, academics as assessors become institutional agents with authority to make judgements about learners (Leach, Neutze, and Zepke 2000). From a neoliberal perspective, however, it could be expected that if students internalise a consumer identity, they would start challenging the unilateral power dynamics in assessment. While this could be a valid assumption, the paper demonstrates the ways in which over regulation of assessment, with a particular attempt to protect student rights, actually limits students’ ability to negotiate power acting on them. The findings suggest that students are increasingly normalised and surveilled by restrictive assessment regimes that include standardised assessment methods, increasing number of regulations and diverse assessment teams (Foucault 1975). Unlike academics, however, who critique the regulations (see, e.g. Raaper 2016), students have limited abilities to compare contexts, standards and regulations. In other words, disciplinary power has become more diffuse and students struggle to identify the cause of the pressure they feel.

In addition to my attempt to shed some light on power relations in assessment, the paper allowed me to bring together two important bodies of work from Foucault’s writings: assessment as a disciplinary technology and the production/negotiation of particular subjectivities. I have been able to argue that assessment in neoliberal settings does not only operate as a disciplinary technology but a technology of government that has far reaching effects on students, academics and higher education more broadly.


CMA. 2015. ‘Higher Education Providers: Consumer Law. 60-Second Summary.’

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

Gourlay, L., and J. Stevenson. 2017. ‘Teaching Excellence in Higher Education: Critical Perspectives.’ Teaching in Higher Education 22 (4): 391-395.

Leach, L., G. Neutze, and N. Zepke. 2000. ‘Learners’ Perceptions of Assessment: Tensions between Philosophy and Practice.’ Studies in the Education of Adults 32 (1): 107-119.

Naidoo, R., and J. Williams. 2015. ‘The Neoliberal Regime in English Higher Education: Charters, Consumers and the Erosion of the Public Good.’ Critical Studies in Education 56 (2): 208-223.

Raaper, R. 2016. ‘Academic Perceptions of Higher Education Assessment Processes in Neoliberal Academia.’ Critical Studies in Education 57 (2): 175-190.

About the author /

Rille is a Lecturer in Education at Durham University. Rille has completed BA and MA in Adult Education in Tallinn University, and Ph.D within the School of Education, University of Glasgow. Rille’s current areas of research include neoliberalisation of university policies and practices, power relations in academia, and widening participation in higher education. She explores these themes by drawing on critical theory and critical discourse analysis. She is particularly interested in Michel Foucault’s theorisation of power, discipline and governmentality.

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