Class Act: Busting out of the framework

What direction?: At what point should education play a role in helping people identify when they are being manipulated and offer them strategies for managing this manipulation?
What direction?: At what point should education play a role in helping people identify when they are being manipulated and offer them strategies for managing this manipulation?

The neoliberal discourse focuses on the responsibility of individuals to equip themselves through education to become economically contributing citizens – this is what is called the human capital approach.

Children are positioned as worthy of investing in now because their education will equip them for a productive future as employees contributing to the national economy. Thus teachers and lecturers focus on the individual – using assessment to identify what the individual knows and can do now, implementing pre-set curricula to provide appropriate learning opportunities, and then measuring the required learning to demonstrate that the child/student has indeed progressed in the required direction.

Teachers and educators alike are increasingly being exposed to the same levels of assessment, measurement and control as they are imposing on their students.

In a sense, we are all now subject to panoptical surveillance through micromanagement. At UNE for example, we have recently been given a (at this point draft) Core Capability Framework which is designed to “identify the required knowledge, skills, attributes and experience required of our academic and professional staff… The Capability Framework contributes to role clarity” (pg. 2).

It is now clearly identified that academic staff at Levels B-E and professional staff at HEO levels 8-10 are expected to “articulate(s) a clear direction and sense of purpose aligned to the university’s vision” and “convert(s) school/directorate priorities into operational activities and required outcomes”.

Nothing in here identifies staff rights to academic freedom, pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, or provides the space to engage in activities that might not directly support the university’s specific goals.

Instead, successful performance is clearly aligned to the institutional goals. Coupled with the Core Capability Framework are the (as yet draft) Academic Profiles which provide more detail as to what staff are expected to do. For example, someone at senior lecturer level is expected to have supervised to completion two higher degree students, have either two external grants as the lead researcher or two successful consultation projects with industry and seven officially recognised publications in any six-year period.

...these documents are examples of what Foucault calls 'neoliberal governmentality'; the process by which staff are coerced into believing they are free to choose how they develop themselves and their career, but in fact are increasingly limited and shaped to self-govern in the direction required...

These are to be used as standards against which staff measure themselves in their annual performance reviews. Thus these documents are examples of what Foucault calls “neoliberal governmentality”; the process by which staff are coerced into believing they are free to choose how they develop themselves and their career, but in fact are increasingly limited and shaped to self-govern in the direction required.

Dean positions this governmentality as practices designed to “shape, sculpt, mobilise and work through the choices, desires, aspirations, needs, wants and lifestyles of individuals” – in other words, control through encouraging forms of self-governance. Those who do not meet these standards are expected to undertake work on themselves to improve their performance. In this sense, documents such as these represent Foucault’s fourth ethical dimension of “telos”; the model to which we are expected to aspire.

Some may perceive this as empowering: identifying what is required and asking people to shape themselves to fit. The reality is those who resist are positioned as deficit, and those who do not meet all these standards are also positioned as problems: failures who have not demonstrated the necessary self-discipline to achieve the required outcomes. Such failure warrants both intervention and punishment (in a recent example a supervisor refused to support study leave for a staff member who has been overwhelmed with high teaching responsibilities and who is thus being “punished” because of lack of publications – noting that one of the espoused purposes of study leave is to support staff to develop and improve their research profile).

There is a fine line between empowerment and manipulation and we have to ask ourselves at what point, in a supposed democracy, education ought to play a role in helping people identify when they are being manipulated and offer them strategies for managing this manipulation.

And I wonder how we can offer these learning opportunities to our students when many of us are unable to identify the manipulation to which we ourselves are subject.