Over your on-campus morning coffee, take a moment to look up from the words in front of you and notice the familiar product names on the standard menu you ordered from. These choices are repeated in branded coffee shops globally, so that (regardless of your location) the coffee experience is routinely and efficiently delivered to customers.
Now do a quick Google search for a recent policy document aimed at improving the lives of students in university. Before long, you will encounter statements about the student experience or student engagement. Hardly surprising, when a core underpinning value in universities is to enable students from diverse backgrounds to fulfil their hopes and dreams, through personally meaningful education, that lasts throughout their lives
However, when it comes to higher education policy – how confident are educators, students, senior managers, politicians, and media reporters that what is written is actually inclusive or representative of the diversity of students and staff?
The labour of words in higher education
“The Labour of Words in Higher Education: Is it Time to Reoccupy Policy?“, just published by Brill, is a comprehensive linguistic analysis of UK policy documents, examining the language of “the student experience”, “technology enhanced learning”, “student engagement” and “employability”. It concludes that strong levels of repetition and standardised statements will begin to resemble any menu in a global catering chain. A similar logic to marketing a regular cappuccino or a gingerbread latte seems to have been adopted in writing HE strategy, regardless of which university or organisation it may relate to.
But it is worse than that. Whether inadvertently or not, policies also routinely omit references to the very students and staff who are expected to enact the many academic labour processes described. Instead, a strategy, buzz-phrase or framework, is credited with our work:
This student experience strategy delivers the student experience ambitions of the university.
Notice in the example above that it is a “strategy” (and not a human being) that “delivers”. If you look at what the statement claims is actually being delivered, it is the “student experience ambitions of the university” (not the ambitions of students themselves).
The labour of “the student experience”
In 2014, Peter Scott suggested that the student experience “conceals more than it reveals” and the emphasis needs to be on “students building their own “experiences” within the welcoming embrace of their institutions”. Yet it is often “the student experience” (rather than students themselves) that is discussed as the active participant, as below:
The student experience is integral to recruitment, selection, induction and staff performance
As an ill-defined label, “the student experience” is not just a marketable brand like a Costa product. It is also a generic notion that can be controlled, in a system where it can be inserted into measurement processes, such as staff performance reviews and student module evaluations alike. But again, if you read the policy closely, it is neither staff nor students that will be performing this labour.
Now found on university websites and in the headlines of conferences across the sector, “the student experience” is a hardworking buzz phrase. It even gets a mention in Wonkhe’s forthcoming event, which could be a valuable opportunity to question what it actually does to earn its place.
As a singular concept, “the student experience” risks marginalising what students and staff develop together, across diverse individual university learning experiences that should always be discussed in the plural. Instead it fails to respect individual learners and diverse learning communities. At the very least this contradicts the UK Professional Standards Framework’s values.
Examining McPolicy more closely
Dubbed McPolicy in this is a widespread discourse analogous to George Ritzer’s “McDonaldisation” thesis and connecting with the “McUniversity” discussed by Dennis Hayes. A closer look at the language that surrounds our buzz-phrases reveals very little human content and therefore little connection with students themselves:
The university operates effective quality assurance and enhancement mechanisms that drive enhancement of the student learning experience
Don’t human beings (not quality assurance and enhancement mechanisms) undertake office hours with their students to discuss their progress, mark their work, support them in gaining placements and future employment? We could be wrong of course, because below it seems to be “student partnership agreements” that are undertaking these duties for us:
Student partnership agreements are developing the student experience and student engagement
Even “student engagement” seems to be doing its bit for universities in this example:
The focus of student engagement is to enhance the quality of learning
Can “student engagement” (as an entity, not a person), have such a focus? Doesn’t this wording rather detract from the efforts of students themselves in engaging with their own learning?
McDelivery of HE policy
Unfortunately, this persistent pattern of rationalisation and marketing speak gives the impression that universities are the same as any other consumer experience. Terms like “the student experience” and “student engagement” are efficiently packaged for ease of textual and verbal McDelivery.
Examining how millions of words of HE policy statements are formed through the positioning of nouns and verbs, it is possible to notice where the person, or people, who would normally enact a process of human labour are obscured through nominalisation. In recent decades, this particular style of writing policy, that attributes the actions of people (through verbal processes) to strategies, institutions and frameworks (as nouns) has flooded university and national policies. Students pay for their education, yet they are denied their place in written policy concerning their labour. Inviting students to be at the heart of the system, even the name of the Office for Students, means nothing if we proceed to write regulatory documents in a tone that denies the presence of both students and staff.
A proliferation of this way of writing policy in HE is a less obvious form of McDonaldisation, but it is widespread. It therefore needs to be met with scrutiny and resistance, not least because it has been sustained over decades. These are the decades in which academic labour has been increasingly audited for quality and performance. Yet somehow we have failed to quality assure or enhance the very language of McPolicy in which we write our strategies for enhancement.
So, having identified this discourse as an issue, how might we begin to address it?
Convening public conversations to reoccupy policy
When writing just over a year ago for Wonkhe, Andy Westwood pointed out that: “universities need to find more ways to organise and present their knowledge and expertise and to better position it in both political and public conversations”.
A step towards meeting this challenge is to strengthen public conversations (where the real humans behind the policy are present) across local regions surrounding the universities we study and teach in. Academics can often feel isolated and can think the challenges they face are particular to their institution. Then they share their insights in an article, suggest a way forward, point towards further literature and people post a few comments. Universities are very good at researching topics for presentation and publication, but those discussions may peter out, when they could in fact go further, towards a stronger collective voice.
A detached and repetitive form of writing policy needs to be noticed by us all, because it fails to be inclusive. As we have seen, it frequently omits direct reference to the very students and staff who will enact the labour the policy describes.
We are running a Midlands HE policy network debate covering these, and related, issues on February 27 at the University of Wolverhampton, and would encourage all those with an interest in UK HE policy to participate.
The author is grateful for the support of Andy Westwood, Dennis Hayes, and Michael Jopling in developing this piece.