Who should be responsible for the Future of Higher Education?

In this module: ’contemporary issues in teaching and learning’ we try to explore and critique how higher education is done. This is explicitly stated in the course materials, i.e. we are asked to critically examine, reflect and adapt our own teaching practice based on our new critical engagement, and ‘contribute to and inform the discussion’. Just below the surface, there is an understanding that higher education is a work in progress and the people most likely to influence changes for the better are the ‘next generation’ of academics and higher ed administrators – current PhDs. By putting together this blog we show the wider academic community and each other that we are concerned about the issues which affect how our careers are likely to unfold, and are putting intellectual labour into considering their effects, if not offering solutions.

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This image has nothing to do with the post – i just like it. credit to @osborne_macharia

In the very first seminar of this module something strange happened. We had discussed at length various issues related to higher education, such as REF and TEF, the competing demands of teaching and research, and what effect the commercialisation of higher education might have. All of these are important issues, which are unlikely to be solved before the time when my generation of PhDs become the people who make a lot of the important decisions. We were all on the same page, having a good moan about the issues as we see them and imagining brighter futures. Then we were informed that we would develop these ideas into a public blog.

The mood changed, some were nervous about writing in a new style, which is perfectly understandable. But many were worried about putting critical ideas on paper, lest they come back to haunt them, or hinder their future careers. At the time I was truly unsettled, had we really just spent the past hour discussing the abysmal student experience in our own university, how some students are marginalised and the perils of the tracking bureaucracy, to then just turn our backs when we actually have a chance to speak up, a chance to do something, however small that something might be?

Freeze frame from the film ‘Dear White People’ 

I tried to speak up at the time, my voice quivered, which is untypical of me. Partly because I was holding back the urge to say, ‘see, you don’t really care – unless you’re affected!’. Now I’ve had some time to think about what happened that day, and to read some of the literature, I think that maybe, though the aims of the course are noble, that we have made at least one fallacious assumption – that current PhDs are the ones who can/are willing to build the future in a way that tries fix our current problems.

In my PhD, one of the key theoretical tools that I use is Social Representation Theory (Moscovici, 1988), which helps us to understand how knowledge is constructed in societies and transmitted through interaction with the symbolic environment, communication between individuals and groups. Many disciplines have theories about how knowledge is created, disseminated, contested and changed. So, the tenets of the theory aren’t too important.

What is interesting is that it appears that the social representation of the performative academic (Ball, 2003) is already embedded in the minds of PhD students. Performativity in this context relates to the ways that, to paraphrase Ball, ‘social processes and events are translated into simple figures’ (p.217). The difficulties come in whether such processes are even possible to quantify and if they are, what should be quantified i.e. overall attainment or progress, number of widening participation undergrads who come in, or the number who leave with a good degree? etc.

Ball argues that these processes regulate the behaviour of teachers rather than de-regulating their actions, as can be argued. This is because, although it may be possible to arrive at the outcome desired by the measures in a variety of means, the place at which one must arrive to be ‘successful’ is always the same.

So, for example, if students must express ‘satisfaction’ with your teaching in order for you to receive tenure, it doesn’t really matter if you make assignments easier so everyone gets a good grade, or provide a huge amount of office hours to ensure students are fully prepped for the assignment. As long as at the end of the day they are ‘satisfied’ (I realise I have equated satisfaction with grades but given the cost of education at LSE, many feel that they are buying their qualifications, ergo satisfaction/grade are probably closely related).

In this way Ball argues that this is a new form of control, “controlled de-control”. But, perhaps at this point, 15 years on from the original article, the control is already embedded in the social representations of what it means to teach, or even to exist within the sphere of higher education. As Ball also notes, the standards and accountabilities in higher education are often changing, or not clearly spelt out. As such, when PhD students recoil from critiquing the system perhaps that’s the sensible thing to do. Therefore the ‘technicians of behaviour’ are no longer needed, the architecture of behavioural control is already embedded in the minds of the next generation.

Today we may argue one thing, and 5 years from now the thing we argued for is akin to arguing for Eugenics, as some ‘scholars’ still do. So, if the aim is to succeed within the current system then the crucial thing might be to not argue for anything and just follow the emerging status quo.

We must also consider that in general any PhD student, or academic for that matter, has been successful in the education system as it is. How can we then offer credible critique? The system works for us, why would we want to change it?

When I was younger and trying to find myself, I got clued up to a phrase which I try to use as a personal motto – “if you make an observation, you have an obligation”. That pretty much means if you see something wrong you should say or do something. I see that many aspects of higher education are problematic, for instance, the fact that out of 16,000 professors in the UK only 85 were black in 2015, that science is gendered, that people from backgrounds like mine are more likely to be in prison, than in higher education.

So, I will personally try to break down barriers and one of the easiest ways to do that is to tell LSE to its face that, despite all of the great minds, it’s still not smart enough to figure out how to be fair and equitable either in student acceptances, attainment or as an employer. Similarly, it has not yet been radical in re-imagining what higher education should look like, instead, like others it simply chases the ‘Terrors of Performativity’.

Just another cool pic – don’t know the artist this time 😦

I now know that if I want to be involved in the changes that might bring about an end to the issues I’ve discussed then doing it as a ‘PhD’ probably won’t work, after all, as Audre Lorde (1984) famously said, ‘The Masters Tools will never Dismantle the Masters House’ and to be honest a PhD student is the ‘masters’ key tool. Maybe then we cannot entrust the future of higher education to future academics, perhaps it should be students, or employers, or someone else, but whoever it is, it probably shouldn’t be us.


Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228. http://doi.org/10.1080/0268093022000043065

Lorde, A. (1984). The Masters Tools will never dismantle the masters house. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (pp. 110–114). Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.

Moscovici, S. (1988). Notes towards a description of Social Representations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 18(3), 211–250. http://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2420180303

5 thoughts on “Who should be responsible for the Future of Higher Education?

Add yours

  1. Thanks for a great first post to get the ball rolling, Celestin. Having been in the room when we had the discussion you allude to about a private v. public blog, I must confess I was left with mixed feelings. It made me doubt whether the way I had conceived the module was appropriate. However, I am glad to see that that discussion served a broader purpose and helped open up some contested notions, and in this way became the `inspiration’ for your blog post. In a way, this is how I envisaged the module – as a supportive space for productive discomfort (http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/tomprof/posting.php?ID=810).

    I think you make good points in your post about whether as “tools” of the existing HE system we are in a good position to query the system or bring about change. I think it’s an absolutely important discussion to have and I hope more colleagues will share their views on the points you have raised. I, for one, think it takes all stripes to effect a change. And there are countless examples of people who have been invested in and part of the system they have contested or overthrown (think independence movements, and closer home (i.e. HE), Enlightenment thinkers, critical race theorists, and others). We can throw off the yoke of “decontrolled control” and exercise our rediscovered agency. We just need to have these discussions more frequently.


  2. Thanks for your comments everyone.

    I’m pretty bad at writing (which sucks since the point of my existence at LSE is the write an 80,000 word document lol). If not PhDs then who? is a great question and i have no idea what the answer is. I suppose i’m trying to say it could be PhDs, but probably won’t be – because to critique the system is the put our own future in jeopardy. At least that’s how it seemed in the scenario i describe.

    I perhaps i made ‘speaking up’ sound easier than it is. To speak to power in ways that are constructive requires courage because it is possible that you will be marginalised, even when you have the best intentions. Often we avoid that critical engagement for that reason, or even more probable, because we don’t know or don’t care. For example, some departments (maybe some that colleagues taking the module are part of) have 0 Black PhDs – ever asked the head of dept why that is? In some departments women consistently have lower degree outcomes – brought that up at a meeting? (colleagues may well have – this is just for illustration).

    Pointing out positive change is good as long as its actually positive. So, does the thing actually bring us towards the intended goal, a lot of the time that’s not the case.

    In a way, its about a spirit of love (soz), i love higher ed, so i want it to be the best possible version of itself. So if i see things that stray away from that i try to start constructive conversations, but sometimes that doesnt work and you have to fight for change…

    I suppose maybe what i really meant in this blog is, are PhD students willing to take the consequences of fighting for a more equitable system? I’ve brought things up in my dept, and i’m pretty sure a couple of people still aren’t talking to me…. and i get that rocking the boat isn’t for everyone. We should admit that, because if higher ed is waiting for us to help it be better its probably gonna be waiting a long time. Unfortunately for some, one more day of injustice will be a day too long.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for an interesting read Celestin. It would certainly be difficult for PhD students alone to address the many problematic aspects of higher education that you discuss. Yet, as you state, PhD students – and early career researchers like myself – can still try to break down barriers. I welcome your direct call for more fairness and equity at the LSE and beyond. I wish change were as simple as making a statement that something is wrong and calling for change. Evidence, albeit from other domains, suggests that it would be helpful to point out positive changes that higher education has made – and then to encourage the system and those within it to continue to work towards more positive change (Reynolds et al, 2018). For example, following concerns about a “culture of tolerance” (p.4) at the LSE related to discriminatory behaviours and activities, LSE has provided an online tool to report bullying and harassment (https://info.lse.ac.uk/staff/divisions/Equity-Diversity-and-Inclusion/EDI-and-you/Where-do-you-stand/Report-an-incident). This is a positive step. From my perspective, the next step is to ensure that information from the tool is being acted upon, which is an issue that I have raised with tenured faculty who have more power to enact change. I would be interested to hear more about how to leverage the power that we do have, such as by providing more transparency in the marking criteria and processes for students’ work (O’Donovan et al, 2004). I think this is an important step because students from less advantaged backgrounds are likely to have less experience with how to negotiate marking systems. Or does such a step simply serve to reinforce a performative culture and its negative consequences (Ball, 2003)?

    Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228

    O’Donovan, B., Price, M., & Rust, C. (2004). Know what I mean? Enhancing student understanding of assessment standards and criteria. Teaching in Higher Education, 9(3), 325-335.

    Reynolds, J. P., Webb, T. L., Benn, Y., Chang, B. P., & Sheeran, P. (2018). Feeling bad about progress does not lead people want to change their health behaviour. Psychology & Health, 33(2), 275-291.

    Underwood, S. (2015). Proposals for actions in response to incidents on campus at the start of the 2014-15 academic year. http://www.lse.ac.uk/website-archive/newsAndMedia/newsArchives/2015/02/RegistrarFinalReport.pdf

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for your blog, Celestin. I subscribe to many of the points you make, except that the change shouldn’t come from us. If not us, then who? The government?! Students are almost as equally complicit in the privileges you rightly ascribe to PhDs, so not sure who that leaves… should privilege necessarily exclude us from seeking to create change? To clarify, these are not specifically questions for the author but rather ruminations generated by the engaging post.

    Liked by 1 person

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