Monthly Archives: May 2014

Are you stuck in strata?

Are you stuck in strata?

David Watson, in viewing university history as geology, sets out the higher education sector ‘strata’, denoting the main layers as six distinct waves of development; specialist communities; national and regional institutions serving post-industrial society; public ‘systems of HE’; curriculum and institutional innovation; blurred boundaries and the ‘dual sector’; and the ‘for profit’ sector (Watson 2014) . His analysis mirrors Ron Barnett’s earlier description of the university itself as an intermingling set of narratives that have been laid down over time; rock formations, the separate strata being visible but also running into each other, with old strata reaching up into the new (Barnett 2011).

Judging from recent conversations with colleagues, one noteworthy event in the HE geological timeline, the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (the Act which converted thirty-five polytechnics into universities), is still uppermost in some minds. In fact, it strikes me that some colleagues have their geologic time clock stuck at 1992. They appear to be fixated on labelling certain institutions as ‘post-1992’; a term that for them signifies a university which in research terms and probably in many other respects is dysfunctional and derisory.

Tell me, what is it in 2014 that still triggers this conditioned reflex?


Barnett, R. (2011). Being a University. London & New York, Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.

Watson, D. (2014). The Question of Conscience: Higher education and personal responsibility. London, Institute of Education.

The utility of the economic lexicon in HE

The utility of the economic lexicon in HE

This post is prompted by a reading of Philip Roscoe’s publication, ‘I spend therefore I am: the  true cost of economics’ (2014) Viking

Roscoe’s wistful and entertaining appraisal of the discipline that is economics provides another useful reference point in my quest to go beyond the technical instruments of capital in my doctoral research analysis. In a previous post entitled, ‘Conviviality with a cause’ I observe Bev Skeggs’ assertion that as sociologists we have a duty not to reproduce the logic of capital in everything we analyse. In applying the logic of capital we convert everything into commodity. We become the subject of capital and we internalise its imperatives. The notion of a commodity or commodification in this context merits closer examination.

Roscoe’s wide-ranging treatise which includes a section on, ‘Lists, rankings and the commodification of education’ highlights the malignant legacy of the Chicago School of Economics and in particular, Becker’s theory of human capital which has helped to, ‘reinforce a myopic understanding of the point and purpose of education.’ Roscoe depressingly describes the ‘subtle repositioning’ of education as, ‘some kind of experiential commodity, like a safari or an adventure day in a hot-air balloon.’

In my post entitled, ‘The marketisation marvel in higher education’, I bemoan the existence of a discourse and managerial structure in higher education that is dominated by enterprise and an emulation of the business world although I do assert that universities are still distinguishable from private sector companies. Roscoe it seems, is less optimistic as he contemplates the commodification of university education which has recast students as customers who, according to Roscoe, do not see that buying a tin of beans from the supermarket is a profoundly different transaction from embarking upon a process of education that requires them to participate, ‘to the limits of their ability, imagination and emotional reserve.’ He echoes Mary Beard when he calls for dissatisfied students who are unsettled by what they have learned and, ‘driven to a critical examination of their preconceptions.’

Has higher education become a commodity? Is it now ‘fungible’ (a term deployed by Roscoe); something that is freely traded; one degree or university being indistinguishable from the next with the ‘student experience’ being the differential?

What other signs are there of commodification in higher education?

At the Engage 2013 Conference in Bristol, Professor Ella Ritchie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor with specific responsibility for Engagement and Internationalisation (University of Newcastle), warned that we were in danger of treating university-community engagement as a commodity. And in my post entitled, ‘Why extreme volunteering is too extreme’, I express concern about the industry that has of late emerged around student volunteering or ‘employability’ as it is called these days and suggest that we are in danger of commodifying the very act of student volunteering.

So, does our use of terms and notions such as ‘capital’ and ‘commodity’ REALLY restrict our ability to critically reflect on these important issues? It seems to me that utilising the concept of commodification in this context actually galvanises the sort of reflection that is so badly needed in higher education today on many levels.

It is sometimes necessary to administer a little jolt!

Roscoe wants us to look beyond the ‘machinery of calculation’; beyond the ‘lists, rankings, scores, tabulations and algorithms that populate our lives’ and says that humans are, ‘distinctive because we can treat others as persons, distinctive in our ability to empathize with, commit to and understand one another, and to build relationships that are strong and mutually nourishing.’

But Roscoe does NOT want us to abandon economics altogether. Instead, he wants us to ‘occupy’ economics; make economics subservient to a higher social and democratic vision.

And why not; the economic lexicon does have its uses.


Bev Skeggs, ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’

2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 17th October 2013 –