[This is a blog post based on my forthcoming talk at the PESGB Gregynog Conference, taking place in Wales from 23rd-25th July 2018]
The annual Gregynog conference is organised by the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, and the 2018 event will include a number of exciting speakers: Gordon Bearn (Lehigh University), Alison MacKenzie (Queen’s University Belfast), Julian Stern (York St John University), Desiree Weber (College of Wooster) and myself (Durham University). This blog post will provide a brief insight into my talk at the conference.
Guided by a Foucauldian theorisation, my paper will explore the ways in which a selection of sabbatical officers from English students’ unions constructs their political subjectivity within the context of the recent Higher Education and Research Act 2017. I will start by situating the higher education policy making within the wider neoliberal forces where states and institutions are being shaped by ‘new patterns and networks of governance’ (Simons, Olssen and Peters 2009, 43). I will argue that policies are now created by multiple sites and discourses (Ball and Exley 2010). Like Klemenčič (2014) I will also suggest that within such complex policy networks, organised student groups such as students’ unions have become increasingly important stakeholders. They are often seen as protectors of student (read: consumer) interest. I will then draw on my recent British Academy project (funded in collaboration with the PESGB) that traced the ways in which five students’ unions from England and their sabbatical officers made sense of the Act and their role in challenging/informing policy. My discussion will be supported by Brooks (2017), Klemenčič (2014) and Luescher-Mamasela (2013), who suggest that motives for student politics have shifted over the recent years to align with a marketised sector. Many unions have been professionalised to better represent consumer interest. It is also expected that neoliberal societal and policy shifts influence what it means to become and act as a sabbatical officer in contemporary universities. From a Foucauldian perspective, there are no ‘universal necessities in human nature’, only numerous technologies through which the subject is formed (Besley and Peters 2007, 6). However, Foucault (1984) suggests that the subject is not a substance but a form that differs in various situations depending on countless interactions with the social context. In other words, the sabbatical officers’ political subjectivity – the ways in which they understand, engage and negotiate higher education policy in this study – is situational and in a constant process of being produced (Butler 1997). They are enforced to manoeuvre within a changing field of student politics that is increasingly shaped by neoliberal policies, consumer forces and diverse actors.
In particular, my analysis will demonstrate a strong influence of the unions’ professional staff members and the National Union of Students on sabbatical officers’ subjectivity. These actors directed the officers in writing a response to the Government consultation and lobbying politicians, indicating that the sabbatical officers’ political subjectivity was highly dependent on professional actors and discourses rather than student voice. The shift towards professionalisation, however, received different responses from participants. Some perceived it leading to necessary policy amendments; others were concerned about wider depoliticisation of student movement. While all subjectivities are shaped by complex ‘networks of social’ (Foucault 1983, 372) and they are created within the fields of possibilities, these possibilities seemed to receive different contentment by the interviewees. The findings suggest that it is not only difficult to organise students for collective action against neoliberalism or marketisation of universities (Klemenčič 2015), but difficulties emerge at the level of sabbatical officers who hold different views on student politics and their role within it. The findings lead me to question the extent to which the students have become important stakeholders within the higher education policy and argue that students’ unions have turned into a complex policy network with increasingly different actors, views and approaches to policy. This seems to have fragmented the power of students in students’ unions and shifted it to professional staff, raising important questions about whose political agency sabbatical officers enact.
Ball, S. J., & Exley, S. (2010). Making policy with ‘good ideas’: Policy networks and the ‘intellectuals’ of New Labour. Journal of Education Policy, 25(2), 151-169.
Besley, T., & Peters, M.A. (2007). Subjectivity and truth. Foucault, education and the culture of self. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Brooks, R. (2017). Student politics and protest. An introduction. In R. Brooks (Ed.), Student politics and protest. international perspectives (pp. 1-11). Oxon: Routledge.
Butler, J. 1997. The psychic life of power: Theories in subjection. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Foucault, M. (1983). The risks of security. In J. D. Faubion (Ed.), Power. Essential works of Foucault 1954-1984 (pp. 365-381). London: Penguin Group.
Foucault, M. (1984). The ethics of the concern of the self as a practice of freedom. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), Ethics. Essential works of Foucault 1954-1984 (pp. 281-301). London: Penguin Group.
Klemenčič, M. (2014). Student power in a global perspective and contemporary trends in student organising. Studies in Higher Education, 39(3), 396–411.
Klemenčič, M. (2015). What is student agency? An ontological exploration in the context of research on student engagement. In M. Klemenčič, S. Bergand, & R. Primožič (Eds.), Student engagement in Europe: Society, higher education and student governance (pp. 11-29). Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.
Luescher-Mamashela, T. (2013). Student representation in university decision-making: Good reasons, a new lens? Studies in Higher Education, 38(10), 1442–1456.
Simons, M., Olssen, M., & Peters, M. A. (2009). Re-reading education policies. Part 1: The critical education policy orientation. In M. Simons, M. Olssen, & M. A. Peters (Eds.). Re-reading education policy. A handbook studying the policy agenda of the 21st century (pp. 1-35). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.