Beyond the Neoliberal University #criticalpedagogy2015

Today I’m on Coventry at the ‘Beyond the Neoliberal University‘ conference in Coventry, just half an hour on the train from Milton Keynes.

Proceedings began with quote from Brecht on the value of criticism and how criticism is itself an art. The conference brings together (i) those interested in critical pedagogy (as a theory of transformative education); (ii) people from the UCU union facing practical issues on a daily basis. The idea is to bring the two together through a focus on practical issues: job insecurity, tuition fees/loans/debt; instrumentalisation of higher education.

Keynote: Andrew Gettigan, author of The Great University Gamble

  • Financial pressures on HE insitutions will increase, be tighter, and be varied
  • It can be shown that the cuts to the HEFCE teaching grant have been replaced by full time undergraduate fees


  • The future will be dominated by questions about the extent to which HE improves human capital and future earnings
  • Neoclassical ideas about market competition underly much of the reform
  • Most profitable courses for HE providers are often the ones with the worst return on investment for the government
  • In the last 5 years replacing the teaching grant with fee income made fiscal sense – in future, increasing fees will just increase government costs
  • Since the 2015 election, £150m a year has been cut from teaching grant
  • New export target of £30bn by 2020 – focus on international students, distance learning
  • Quality assurance review and Teaching Excellence Framework aim to ‘double the proportion of disadvantaged young people in HE relative to 2009’
  • Graduate tax acts as a tax on social mobility: poorer students can expect to be paying back their loan for an additional four years, paying back an additional £9k
  • There is no more scope for budgetary tricks to increase university income


Keynote: Sarah Amsler, author of The Education of Radical Democracy


What is ‘the beyond’?  A space between utopianism and the status quo – something that allows us to think of radical alternatives in ambiguous ways.  Higher education institutions are increasingly empowered to act undemocratically and autocratically in favour of market forces and neoliberalism.  Managerial power is calibrated and refined, and since the 1970s it has become harder to teach critically, connect with social movements, and provide a space for progressive potential. What makes it possible for people to believe that this is somehow not the case (i.e. that there is hope)?

We experience deep ambiguity towards the university:  e,g, both wanting to save it and destroy it.  We see an exodus of academics leaving the academy because of low pay, unstable contracts, etc.  (The same phenomenon can be seen in other educational sectors as well as the NHS.)  Many feel that the neoliberal university holds little appeal for them.

It is only through practical experimentation that we can explore possibilities for resistance.  Counter-hegemonic forms of resistance must be explored through praxis, and becoming comfortable in an uncomfortable, dialectical space.  We tend not to use the language of grief and loss when discussing the neoliberal university but we should mourn the loss of space in higher education for thinking and acting progressively.  

(I struggled to identify the practical things that can be done from this talk – mainly it seems to be about imagining otherwise, identifying concrete possibilities for social change and spaces for radical democracy but to me these things seem quite abstract.)


  •  First question criticised Amsler for concentrating on rather bourgeois concerns – doctors, lecturers, etc. They may be in a position to opt out, but what about those for whom opting out means not paying the rent?
  • McGettigan makes the point that many academics are not really engaged with policy – this shold be something that is brought more fully into the limelight of academic culture
  • Amsler criticised for paying lip service to praxis but not identifying practical forms of resistance: self indulgence?  One person accused the questioner of being dogmatic (I disagree completely).
  • Amsler responds by emphasising autonomous self-organization in response to power, no real specifics though
  • McGettigan notes that UK HE culture is quite robust against direct threats, but is not good at dealing with the indirect threat of financialization and instrumentalization – this does not inspire solidarity between the different elements of the university.
  • Gurnham Singh noted that the neoliberal project has been extremely successful and it’s quite difficult to imagine real resistance.  But McGettigan’s work suggests that it will fall at some stage – hence the need for a reimagining of what is possible.
  • Two sociology teachers emphasized the need for engaging with students and understanding that we have a role in explaining the situation to them.  Students (understandably) are focused on getting a good degree and a good job, not the long term future of the institution.  But how can we do this?  The point is made that for students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university at all might have been a radical engagement.
  • McGettigan notes that the success of the last 20 years of HE policy has been to establish metrics for success (e.g. participation rates, retention rates, graduate employability, increasing access).  Much of these metrics use the garb of equality and social mobility and this makes it harder to critique.  But questioning this reframing should be at the core of rethinking all this – what would success look like?  What is truly progressive?

Workshop:  Introduction to Critical Pedagogy

Introduction by Gurnham Singh:  Pedagogy is the means by which learning is enabled.  It has its roots in the Greek ‘pedagogeu’, literally meaning ‘to lead the child’.  More generally, the word refers to the science and art of human education and cognition.  Influential theorists include Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, Kolb, Shor, Freire, and Knowles.

Critical pedagogy radically challenges traditional, didactic models of education.  Shor characterises this as ‘questioning the answers’ rather than ‘answering the questions’.  It is rooted in the invitation to examine power and the role of power relations in knowledge and cultural formation.  Education is never politically neutral:  it results either in control and subjugation or liberation and greater autonomy.

The methodology of critical pedagogy:  teaching methods may be largely the same an for non-critical pedagogies in practice.  The key thing is the disruption to traditional pedagogical relationships and expectations.

Freire emphasized the importance of literacy:  not just as the ability to read and write but also as an attitude towards personal transformation and social revolution.  He was interested in connecting learning to social action through a pedagogical cycle (Reflection / Analysis / Action ).  Learners must discover new avenues of thought and consciousness for themselves to become better moral subjects who assume greater responsibility for the other.  Only a self-managed life can be call education:  preparation for work is ‘training’ that focuses on conformity and predictability.  Similarly, critical pedagogues often reject classical measures of intelligence and intellectual ability.

Friere referred to his method of teaching as ‘conscientisation’:  it represents a self-awakening and coming to critical consciousness.  This is closely related to Marxist ideas about the emancipation of the proletariat through greater awareness of self and world.  Conscientisation seeks to reverse a prior process of objectification or reification.  In order to move away from false consciousness subjects must come to understand themselves and the world differently.  This usually involves the rejection of fatalism, karmic understandings, naive consciousness and learned helplessness.

For critical pedagogy the vast majority of educational institutions act to maintain the status quo and are thus instruments of power and dominance.  In Marxist terms, a political understanding of power can be developed through understanding the underlying political economy (the example of Jeremy Corbyn was raised).

The distinction between education and training raised in the morning sessions came up again in the discussion.  The mindset of students and graduates is changing and becoming more focused on a return on investment and a way to pay back massive debts accrued while studying.

One delegate noted that universities can easily absorb critical pedagogies and in some sense neuter them by incorporating them into curricula.  How can the critical impulse be retained?  Do we just concentrate on the time spent in the classroom and see this as a possible space for ‘subversive’ activity?

One distinction that was brought out in the discussion was the distinction between self-directed learning (heutagogy); critical thinking skills; and critical pedagogy.


Excerpt on difference between critical thinking and critical pedagogy. Cowden, S. and Singh, G. (2015). Critical Pedagogy: Critical Thinking as a Social Practice. Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education. p. 565.

Workshop: Today’s Learners – Consumers or Producers?

This session began with an overview of the housing crisis for students in Coventry.  Because university-provided accommodation is oversubscribed many students are forced to use privately rented accommodation which is often substandard.  They also often have to work long hours in employment, and this can also have an impact upon their studies.

Students at the university feel aggrieved at this state of affairs.  Their campaign uncovered that the university had declared a profit of some £25 million while still cutting student provision.  The argument was made that students should have a say about how the university resources are used and prioritised.  The suggestion was also made that student representatives should sit on the executive boards of the university and ensure that the student voice is heard.

Library of Birmingham Occupation Movement:  2.5 million people visit this library per year, with a diverse user base.  As part of the austerity faced by the city they cut opening hours and budgets for new books.  Spaces are closed at key times so they can be rented out to private enterprise (receptions, seminars, etc) and more than a hundred staff have been made redundant.  The campaigning group initially coalesced around reduced opening times, then used the library space as a focus for meeting and planning further activity.  A big rally and occupation is planned for October 2015.

The question is posed: why don’t students who are unhappy simply just go off to a different university, or do something else entirely?  Classical economics makes several assumptions about how agents operate within markets, but can we assume that students have enough knowledge of the situation to act as ‘rational’ consumers?  Neoliberalism assigns value through (‘free’) markets, but are there values which we need to impose upon these markets?

Practical Strategies

  1. Teach ourselves university accounting so that narratives can be challenged with authority
  2. Document and share the outcome of interventions
  3. Break down barriers between different interest groups, promote solidarity between staff and students

Further resources

A series of podcasts on critical pedagogy can be found at