English Higher Education as 'dressage': investigating academic and student identities within consumerist discourses

Pelham, Peter William (2021) English Higher Education as 'dressage': investigating academic and student identities within consumerist discourses. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


The study explores the construction of the student-consumer discourse in national higher education policy and higher education institutions - in particular through New Public Management policies. These policies were critically evaluated using Foucauldian discourse analysis. To gain an insight into how the academics and students were negotiating the discourse of the student-consumers a qualitative study was conducted and data were collected from twelve separate focus groups of academics and students. A total of 30 academics and 34 students volunteered for the focus groups. To gain a range of student and academic views the institutions were purposefully chosen to be representative of the sector. These focus groups were conducted in six Higher Education Institutes in England, between December 2016 and December 2017. The resulting data were analysed using Foucault’s concepts of dressage, surveillance, responsibilisation, the parrhesiastic contract and resistance.

The thesis provides an original contribution to knowledge as it finds that, for most students, the discourse of full-fees has been normalised and accepted. However, this acceptance has resulted in a new discourse emerging where student-consumers can be seen to be expecting a service for their money. This expectation suggests some students are adopting a consumerist subjectivity to negotiate the discourse of the student consumer. The study further finds that the management of the student-consumer discourse at the local level seems to give the rise to a schizophrenic environment where academics and students appear pitched against each other. This is due to the inconsistencies in the texts produced by universities which results in confusion about roles and responsibilities. These texts appear to be repositioning academics as service providers whilst at the same time articulating the discourse of the independent learner. In addition this study provides an alternative understanding of how student-consumers can be viewed as either assets or liabilities, and how through constant surveillance universities manage this situation through technology and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) strategies. The study contributes to the literature through the use of Foucault’s concept of the parrhesia (truth-telling) and shows what appears to be a wariness on the part of academics as to how truthful they should be with student-consumers due to the influence or requirements of NPM. This is important as it shows a change in the way academics are negotiating the discourse of the student consumer.

The research suggests that there are elements of resistance to the student-consumer discourse by both academics and students. From the academics’ perspective, this research adds to the literature as it has shown how academics are positioned in a continuous struggle to meet the requirements of New Public Management and the student-consumer. Academics appear to be having to compromise their personal and professional values to ensure positive student-consumer outcomes.

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