Neoliberalising HE – Part II

Part II

In Part I of this short series, I briefly outlined the features of neoliberalism as it appears as a general ideology and it’s associations with managerialism. That post detailed how the growing conception that all organisations can operate under the same processes and be managed by the same techniques has been a creeping feature of public sector services management in a range of sectors including education. This instalment will pick up where the last post ended, in exploring the connections between that broader context and the direct experiences of staff and students working within contemporary HE institutions. This will directly identify links between ideologically driven marketisation and specific mechanisms of management control.

2.1 Marketisation

An important feature of neoliberalism (in the economic definition) relies on the expectation that market exchange of equal commodities leads to a more efficient distribution of resources (‘goods’) in society. However, as organisations are often dissuaded from operating under fair and equitable exchange some state intervention is necessary in order to facilitate marketisation. In other words, state intervention should not be in order to produce certain outcomes, but rather to encourage individuals and organisations to act more like an ideal marketplace. This represents a notable shift in the location of responsibility for outcomes; from the collective actions of the state (or organisation) towards the individual citizen-worker-consumer. Thus, any failure in the equitable distribution of goods is characterised either as a market failure (the operations do not sufficiently resemble free market exchange) or individual failure (the individual has not correctly identified the utility or value of the product).

If HE was to be modelled as a market, it would not be a single market but a combination of markets for students, for research funds, for workers, for donations and so on. While the most obvious state intervention to remodel HE on a market premise has been the introduction of student fees, the introduction of external evaluation mechanisms such as the National Student Survey (NSS)-linked Teaching Evaluation Framework (TEF) serves to de-differentiate between programs of study and at the same time introduce information which will encourage consumer-students to differentiate between university learning ‘products’ on the basis of price. Similar rankings and propositions, such as the ranking of university undergraduate programmes by graduate salaries, are further examples of attempts to ‘marketise’ HE through encouraging student-consumers to select their preferred product in relation to it’s likely performance as an investment in their future career.

2.2 Surveillance and Responsibilisation

This surveillance of past graduates and accompanying idea that the student-consumer is responsible through their ‘free’ choice of university program for their future success is an extension of the neoliberal ideology through an increased responsibilisation of the individual. Such a point of view is not only a particular way of viewing our actions in the world, but it seems may also be a damaging one as indicated by the increasing incidence of mental health struggles experienced by students at university and in an increasingly pressured examination-driven education environment at younger ages. The supposed meritocratic neutrality of these measuring mechanisms only adds to the weight of responsibility felt by the individual in determining their own future success. These student experiences are matched by those of would-be academic workers in the HE labour market who are subject to extensive mechanisms of surveillance concentrated on individual performance, despite many outcomes being linked to factors dictated by choices on institutional or project resource allocation (such as class sizes, length of research projects et cetera). Gonzales, Martinez & Ordu (2014) explore this in relation to the concept of ‘academic capitalism’ in a US university to show how this manifests in everyday work pressure whereby individual academics are ‘engulfed’ by work time infiltrating all aspects of life and a competitive drive for ‘hyperprofessionalism’. That one of their participants is quoted these work conditions and expectations as ‘inhumane’ perhaps highlights why the similar stress and sickness epidemic is prevalent in contemporary UK HE institutions (We are Higher Education 2018)

Uncertain yet perpetual surveillance is a preferred neoliberal technique of control in organisation precisely because it emphasises responsibilisation. While management in the form of supervision of work indicates responsibility for outcomes rests with the organisation and its techniques or strategies, management by surveillance instead encourages the individual to bear responsibility for outcomes. The use of short-term or insecure work contracts further communicates this uncertainty and individual responsibility, as rather than managing performance, the organisation can instead aim to substitute any individual considered insufficient with an alternative worker. Responsibility thus becomes one-sided with the employee bearing the obligation and responsibility for outputs and the organisation concentrated on monitoring rather than active management.  

2.3 Individualization and the human resource

While many aspects of work performance are undoubtedly linked to individual strengths and attributes, the strength of collective effort is often more than the sum of its parts. By coming together in organisations rather than working as individuals, the difficulties faced in periods of being less able to work through sickness or other challenges are a burden shared in the knowledge that such events are a risk faced by all individuals. However, a focus on the human ‘resource’ as an individual measured unit, encouraged by neoliberal thinking, obscures the benefits of collective endeavour.  

Individualization is a concept tied to neoliberalisation in that it describes the increasing responsibilisation of individuals as the authors of their own life narrative (see Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002). In sum, the individual is held to be responsible for their outcomes in life over other factors such as luck or prevalence/lack of opportunities afforded through regional development, wealth, economic and social change, social support networks and so on. This process is highly evident in the assumptions behind the majority of evaluative frameworks applied in HE, and while there are plenty of examples among the surveillance of  academic workers, this is also evident in the uncertain contractual circumstances often faced by workers in support services (where workers are often held to be individually responsible for re-aligning their skills with new roles, to undertake training in their own time and so on).

In the contracting out of services and the reduction of facilities for staff (for example, the closure of common rooms previously available to cleaning and maintenance staff where they could store personal possessions when on shift and socialise during breaks), workers in HE have been increasingly modelled as functionaries towards whom the university has no responsibility beyond their working hours, and this same perspective is the one which acts as the foundation for the current dispute over pensions.  

2.3 Organizational mimesis

Given that there has been substantial media coverage of Vice-Chancellor’s salaries and expenses and other ways in which top managerial staff in organisations affiliated with HE have been seen to profit substantially as individuals within this (public) sector I have curtailed the lengthy segment which I had originally intended to write here (see resources below and in Part I for further reading). Suffice to say that the pursuit of efficiency in HE through techniques appropriated from managerialism in the private sector including responsibilisation, technologies of surveillance, outsourcing, zero-hours or short-term contracts have served to justify the expansion of administrative and managerial roles.

The case of pensions relates specifically to comparison with the private sector, given that in the majority of private sector occupations the availability of defined benefit pension funds has been dramatically reduced as the risk of investment performance for savings has been increasingly shifted to individuals. Due to the increased tendency in recent years for individuals to shift occupations fairly frequently, the move towards an individual focus on pension provision on the surface makes sense (for reasons of transferability). However, this shift results clearly in higher risk not only for individuals but also for the state, in a climate where increased living costs (primarily in housing, but also in loan repayments) is building a generation of workers with few capital assets on which to rely in retirement. The pensions issue itself is detailed and complex (see Grady & X for further details), and the governance of UUK fund management has also come under scrutiny in the course of the dispute.

Pursuit of financial efficiency and a market-driven consumer focus has encouraged universities to more closely mimic commercial institutions (and each other) in a way which is now being questioned by universities themselves following the UCU 2018 Pensions dispute (Toop 2018). Proposals regarding the ways in which these management methods, priorities and structures are undermining the democratic functions of universities and their accountability to the public as sources of public good rather than as providers of degree-products are being tabled and discussed and in this regard there is a drive towards revisiting the obligations and responsibilities a university has to it’s community including it’s students and employees. It remains to be seen whether this will result in a shift away from CEO-style vice-chancellors and a race to the bottom in the casualisation of employment.   


In the final installment in this series, I will outline some of the proposals and actions that have been raised in the course of the 2018 UCU Pension dispute, with the aim of resisting the production of students and employees as neoliberalised subjects.



Academic Articles

Joel D Aberbach and Tom Christensen (2007) Citizens and Consumers, Public Management Review, 7:2, 225-246, DOI: 10.1080/14719030500091319

Louise Archer (2008) “The new neoliberal subjects? Young/er academics’ constructions of professional identity”, Journal of Education Policy, 23:3, 265-285, DOI: 10.1080/02680930701754047

Stephen J. Ball (2009) Privatising education, privatising education policy, privatising educational research: network governance and the ‘competition state’, Journal of Education Policy, 24:1, 83-99,DOI: 10.1080/02680930802419474

Stephen J. Ball (2012) The reluctant state and the beginning of the end of state education, Journal of Educational Administration and History, 44:2, 89-103, DOI: 10.1080/00220620.2012.658764

Taylor C. Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse. (2009). Neoliberalism: From new liberal philosophy to anti-liberal slogan. Studies in Comparative International Development, 44(2), 137–161.

Roger Burrows. (2012). Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary Academy. The Sociological Review, 6(2), 355–372.

Bronwyn Davies and Peter Bansel (2010). Governmentality and Academic Work:Shaping the hearts and minds of academic workers. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 26(3) pp5-20

Rosemary Deem, Sam Hillyard and Mike Reed (2007) Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities Oxford University Press

Willard F Enteman (2007) “Managerialism and the Transformation of the Academy” Philosophy of Management 6(1):5-16

Heather Fraser and Nik Taylor (2016) Neoliberalization, Universities and the Public Intellectual Palgrave Macmillan London

Henry Giroux (2002) Neoliberalism, Corporate Culture, and the Promise of Higher Education: The University as a Democratic Public Sphere. Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 72, No. 4, pp. 425-464.

Leslie D. Gonzales, E.Martinez and C. Ordu (2014). Exploring faculty experiences in a striving university through the lens of academic capitalism. Studies in Higher Education, 39(7), 1097–1115.

Leslie D. Gonzales and Anne-Marie Núñez. (2014). The Ranking Regime and the Production of Knowledge: Implications for Academia. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(31).

Thomas Klikauer (2013) “What is Managerialism?” Critical Sociology 41 (7-8) pp1103-1119

Chris Lorenz, “If You’re So Smart, Why Are You under Surveillance? Universities, Neoliberalism, and New Public Management,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 3 (Spring 2012): 599-629.

Kathleen Lynch (2006) “Neo-liberalisation and marketisation: The implications for Higher Education” European Educational Research Journal 5 (1): 1-17

Mark Olssen and Michael A. Peters (2007) Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism, Journal of Education Policy, 20:3, 313-345, DOI: 10.1080/02680930500108718

Hugo Radice (2013) “How We Got Here: UK Higher Education under Neoliberalism” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 12(2)  [NB A radical publication and not all work is blind-reviewed]

Jeff Rose and Dan Dustin (2009). The neoliberal assault on the public university: The case of recreation, park, and leisure research. Leisure Sciences, 31(4), 397–402.

Cris Shore (2010). Beyond the multiversity: Neoliberalism and the rise of the schizophrenic university. Social Anthropology, 18(1), 15–29

Sandra Smeltzer and Alison Hearn (2014) Student Rights in an Age of Austerity? ‘Security’, Freedom of Expression and the Neoliberal University, Social Movement Studies, 14:3, 352-358, DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2014.945077

Philip A. Woods, Glenys J. Woods & Helen Gunter (2007) Academy schools and entrepreneurialism in education, Journal of Education Policy, 22:2, 237-259, DOI: 10.1080/02680930601158984

News, Magazine articles and social media publications

Jana Bacevic (March 14th 2018) Life or Business as Usual? The lessons of the USS strike (personal blog) Available online at:

Simon Baker (March 12 2018) “Admin and management staff costs rising the fastest, suggest data” Times Higher Education

Jennie Bristow (Mar 5th 2018) “This strike reminds us what universities are for” Spiked!

Martin Henegan, Jo Grady & Liam Foster “Women to be hardest hit by proposed university pension scheme changes” UCU Sheffield blog

The Guardian (12 March 2018) “Accountability and UK University Governance” Letters

Sophie Inge (March 6th 2018) “UK Universities rely on casual staff ‘fur up to half of teaching’ Times Higher Education

Katy Sian (March 14th 2018) “We’re drawing the line’: Our fight against university marketization is about more than pensions” Ceasefire Magazine 

Ned Simons (Feb 28th 2018) “Vice-Chancellors Accused Of Pocketing An ‘Eye-Watering’ 227% Increase In Financial Benefits Since 2010” Huffington Post

Aisha Thomas-Smith (Mar 13th 2018) “Why are University Lecturers on Strike?” Weekly Economics Podcast (see 12:45 onwards for discussion of marketisation).

Stephen Toope (16th March 2018) “The future of UK Universities”  Vice-Chancellor’s Blog, University of Cambridge website Available at: 

UCU (Mar 6th 2018) Edinburgh University under fire over plans to try and break pensions strike with out of date recorded lectures

We are Higher Education (Feb 17th 2018 ) The staff stress and sickness epidemic occurring in Universities across the UK


Neoliberalising HE: The USS Strike Part I

This post is part one in a multi-part series explaining how the 2018 USS Pension strike is closely entwined with and an example of neoliberalisation. It is a long post, but assumes no prior knowledge of any of the concepts or context. If you want to look up the fabulous commentaries of colleagues who are much more familiar with this material and have been following this issue for a considerable amount of time, there are references and links at the bottom of the post.

In this post I will briefly cover neoliberalism, managerialism and some examples of this in the UK public sector. I will then go on to outline some of the ways in which colleagues have raised concerns that this is now ongoing in HE and how it affects this dispute.

1.1 What is neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is a contested term which emerged from debates over economic reform and is often reproduced by its contemporary detractors as a shorthand reference to any political ideology promoting increased marketisation (ie introducing the characteristics of market exchange) of previously non-marketised sectors. Boas & Gans-Morse (2009), writing in the field of development studies, outline that debates in academic literature often refer to different types of neoliberalism; i) economic reform, ii) a politico-economic model for rapid development, iii) ideology and iv) academic paradigm.

Neoliberal economic reform refers to the elimination of price controls, deregulation of capital markets and reduction of trade barriers as well as a broader tendency towards reducing the role of the state and facilitating privatization of state-owned enterprise. In principle this also endorses the reduction or removal of state subsidies, though in practice these are often converted into incentives (at least in the short term) to encourage private industry to take on seemingly unprofitable state functions. In the case of development, the objective of this ‘liberalisation’ of activity is to make a broader range of opportunities for investment available, therefore encouraging an influx of capital to the economy. A further objective lies in the consequent lower financial risks held by the state, making it easier for governments to borrow funds for other projects. Moving from a state-centred development model towards a neoliberal model often requires substantial restructuring of relations between state and other actors, such as labour unions, private enterprise etc. The development model also therefore involves substantial policy changes.

Neoliberal ideology, while often found in conjunction with neoliberal economics or social policy, refers to the emphasis on individual freedoms rather than collective responsibilities as inhabiting the core of social value. Consequently, proponents of this ideology advocate understanding of social and economic issues primarily as they apply to the abstract individual. This ideology is much more frequently found in individualistic cultures, and is popular in countries such as the United Kingdom, United States and Australia.

The neoliberal academic paradigm refers to assumptions about human nature and free will as they inform classical economics, primarily that individuals are rational and efficient maximisers of utility and profit. This particular simplification is sometimes described as a branch of positivist philosophy, as it represents the search for universal laws of human behaviour in markets based on an epistemology which accepts objective observation only. Individual academics hold a wide variety of different positions even within this paradigm, particularly on the importance of the rights of the abstract individual (which may require collective legislation to protect) versus the liberties of specific individuals to do what they please in society. However, the paradigm is widely critiqued as an oversimplification of human decision-making, ignoring the possibility of human development, and as a model which unrealistically prioritises masculinist and anomic assumptions about individuals’ existence outside of their relationships to others.

The popularity of neoliberalism (in all of the above meanings of the term) in public discourse can be seen to mark a particular historical turning point. As Boas and Gans-Morse (ibid) identify, the original proposals of the Freiburg school in Germany during the 1930s in fact were a moderate position as they advocated more regulatory intervention by the State than under laissez-faire liberalism in order to facilitate fair competition in the marketplace and enhance social welfare. However, following the successful economic period of the 1960s, substantial inflation linked to price hikes in oil combined with the growth of economies long challenged by post-war underdevelopment began to challenge dominant Western economies and undermine faith in Keynesian economic policies which foregrounded the role of the state. The resulting widespread advocacy of market fundamentalism in America (Reaganism) and the United Kingdom (Thatcherism) in the 1980s, labeled for critique by opponents as ‘neoliberal’ proposed less state intervention or control of national resources, industry and services. 

1.2 What is New Public Management/New Managerialism?

In the United Kingdom as well as in a number of other countries in the world, we have been going through an historic shift in which legal regulation on individuals has increased, state responsibilities have been decreased and the delegation of state protected industries to private enterprise has been accelerated. In the UK this has coincided with substantial divestment from manufacturing and heavy industry, patchwork divestment from agricultural industry (mainly in relation to treaty agreements with EU and neighbouring producers over commodities such as milk and fish) and a shift towards an economy based on financial services, research and development, legal services and other knowledge work. It is no surprise that these changes coincide with increased competition in manufacturing (increasingly advanced) products overseas and an increase in global trade. Where industry remained with minimal or no state support, substantial arguments over how such activities ought to be run and managed were informed by the growing proponents of managerialism.

Enteman (1993) describes managerialism as a prevailing ideology which is characterised by the belief that the nature of an activity is immaterial to how it ought to be organised, which can be distilled to a set of universal techniques and expert processes. In this interdisciplinarity, managerialism is in alignment with the premises of neoliberalism, as the universal characteristics of management facilitate the justification of divesting state-operated activities to a market of private enterprise or to individuals. This legitimation, along with the frequent challenge that industries had to be ‘competitive’ in order to survive, fuelled the advocacy of managerial practices as politically neutral and reductionist arguments that omit the recognition of the social and political value of certain activities as well as economic value.

More recent scholarship on managerialism has highlighted specific principles which are clearly in common with neoliberalism described above; competition, deregulation, the pursuit of efficiency and the advocation of privatized industries. It is further argued that it is important to recognise the role of business and management schools in advocating and perpetuating this ideology, both among students and through influential publications such as the Harvard Business Review (Klikauer 2015). Individual corporate managers are also identified as beneficiaries of this thinking, as the financial and social value of such work is substantially inflated by this thinking. It is perhaps on this basis that managerialism is also said to describe the colonisation of organisation by layers of highly-paid ‘professional managers’. These communities label the principles of managerialism differently, yet whether ‘modernisation’, ‘market reform’, ‘shareholder value’ or another term is applied, all advocate the prioritisation of the same underlying principles.

Further to the long process of privatisation of a range of state-run or state-owned industries in the UK (from fuel extraction, power generation, sanitation and water supply, rail, airline, telephone and postal networks), very few statutory corporations in state ownership remain, of which the National Health Service (formed following the Beveridge report 1942) is one. In contradiction to neoliberal and managerialist principles, the full nationalisation of British Rail was reversed with respect to the track and signalling infrastructure after the Hatfield Rail Crash in 2000 which exposed flouting of health and safety procedures by the privatised Railtrack and their contractors. This was further evidence that the notion of universal managerial principles in which a certain level of risk was acceptable were not suitable in the management of public infrastructure following the Ladbroke Grove rail crash in 1999 where preventative safety measures had been ruled out in cost-benefit analysis.

Despite contradictory examples challenging the authority of managerialism, political pressures to reduce the cost of state-run services have resulted in the introduction of ‘professional management’ and it’s techniques in areas such as healthcare under the label ‘New Public Management’ (NPM). Under NPM, different public services are encouraged to behave as competitors in a market for public funds, where the introduction of private organisations may also challenge for similar objectives. Decision making is, in addition, decentralised and sub-units of the organisation (such as local clinics) have more scope to decide how to allocate their resources. The use of contractors is encouraged along with a focus on cost-minimisation and target-based performance monitoring. These features of NPM are advocated as providing particular benefits, such as cost reduction, service differentiation (ie services provided are more specific and relevant to the needs of the locality) and choice. The use of NPM in the National Health Service, along with several restructurings and attempts to apply technology to ‘modernise’ and improve efficiency in the service have been widely criticised as unproductive, counter to the demands of public health provision, and short-sighted. A more moderate evaluation of the techniques on their own terms highlights that the proposed benefits do not always align with public demands for equitable and universal access to services (Simonet 2015).

Unlike the National Health Service, provision of education in the UK does not rest within a State-owned corporation but rather in a complex relationship between multiple institutions in receipt of state funding. A range of religious institutions, charitable and fee-paying schools provided education services in the UK until the end of the 19th century until the Education act of 1918 sponsored compulsory provision of primary and secondary education. Nonetheless, in line with managerialist ideology, a number of the same processes applied following privatisation in areas such as rail and mail or in NPM in the NHS can be seen in recent transformations in UK education.  

While the UK school system is complex to those unfamiliar with it, a simplified picture begins with the identification of the majority of institutions historically as either locally-run and publicly owned schools subject to national governance regarding curriculum and regulation by Ofstead, or a minority of independent fee-paying establishments who are mainly exempt. However, reforms beginning in the late 1990s introduced  a range of different school operating models in which capital assets might be owned or operated by private organisations or charitable trusts, staff may be employed by the local government authority, school governing board or a private organisation such as a multi-academy trust.

An important feature of these new developments is the way in which they characterise school buildings as financial assets in which private corporations may invest (privitisation), in the segregation of school governance from local authority oversight in favour of individual negotiation directly with the government Department for Education (deregulation) and in the promotion of differentiation in educational provision measured through Ofstead rankings, KPIs and other published outcomes (competition). Despite these changes, there is no evidence as yet that the new structure (academies) produce overall better educational outcomes (Gorard 2009). However, the differentiation in school provision does lead to substantial disadvantage for those unable to access ‘better’ educational services and impedes the ability for those services to improve without accepting a move to private investment and control. Although the introduction of privatisation has been widespread, these organisations maintain a not-for-profit orientation. Nonetheless, they impose a profit-driven, managerialist and competitive logic in which the state takes a less direct role (Ball 2009; 2012) and in which corporate entrepreneurialism is normalised (Woods et al 2007).

Examples such as rail, health and education show that considerable evidence to challenge the premises of universally appropriate methods and techniques of management, the idea that privately-run services in competition produce better outcomes, that attempts to model public services as commodity markets are effective or that the public can identify with a consumer choice model for such services.

1.3 What does this have to do with the 2018 UCU Pension strike?

In Higher education, as with other areas of education, debates have increasingly focused on the responsibility of universities as trainers of the next generation of value-producing individuals. This has coincided, since the introduction of university tuition fees in 1998 (and in 1999 loans in place of maintenance grants), with language which encourages students to view themselves as consumers making an ‘investment’ in their future career potential. The introduction of tuition fees, while originally advocated in order to address a government financial deficit in HE and to promote increased participation in education at university level, have been a key stage in the promotion of privatization in HE. Although loans for fees and maintenance are issued based on the government-backed Student Loan company, a portion of debts accrued between 1990-1998 have been sold on to private debt collection agencies. Student accommodation firms are also frequently the beneficiaries of the readily available maintenance loans, with multiple universities investing in construction of new accommodation alone or in private partnerships (see Hale 2018 for more on this).

While university funding for home students’ tuition used to be routinely capped at a fixed number of places, the introduction of student fees and later removal of the cap on places (in 2015) encouraged universities to think of themselves as competing ‘providers’ of an educational service to home students in much the same way as they marketed themselves abroad. By removing the regulation on numbers and attaching funding to students, the recruitment of students became a competition for resources and by increasing the annual intake universities benefited from economies of scale, particularly in courses with low costs (such as the humanities). To address the need for additional teaching and administrative capacity, facing uncertain recruitment figures, managers of university departments looked to act as they previously did to cover staff on research leave – employ more staff on short-term contracts, such as hourly paid lecturers and termtime-only administrators. Although these staff were eligible for some of the benefits of other staff, such as the pension scheme or reduced cost childcare, most were paid only a fraction of those on full-time contracts and as such could not afford to pay for such benefits. The introduction of performance ranking measures such as TEF also indicated a likelihood that student numbers would regularly fluctuate in future based on modelling students as consumers of a preferred service.

It is in this context that the administrative organisation representing universities contributing to the USS Pension scheme (Universities UK) began discussions regarding reducing the financial risk of the scheme bourne by university employers. It is important to note that there are two significant pension schemes which cover most UK universities; the USS scheme (which applies to pre-1992 institutions) and the TPS scheme (which applies to post-1992 universities and other schools and colleges). The USS pension was recently subject to substantial changes following disputes over TPS, and in which the negotiated outcome for TPS was broadly matched by USS. The introduction of divergence between the two schemes can (and has) been identified as a basis of competition between the two communities of universities. Beyond the politics of collective negotiation, a wealth of information has also emerged in the early stages of this dispute to indicate that the valuation of the total assets of USS  against its potential liabilities is empirically unsound (see Otsuka’s many 2018 commentaries for a blow-by-blow account of the valuation), and the risk is not as substantial as it appeared.

It is unclear why UUK would continue to attempt to push for the changes to the scheme rather than take time to review their valuation method. However, collections of reports, presentations and other relevant documents by Felicity Callard (2018 twitter) has indicated a narrative focused on entrepreneurialism and choice, and further reports on the financial benefits received by those administering UUK (Havergal 2016) and top positions in Universities (Simons 2018) has lent credence to the idea that the proposed changes are driven by managerialist ideology.  

More on this to come in Part II…..!

Recommended Reading/ Resources

Academic Articles

Joel D Aberbach and Tom Christensen (2007) Citizens and Consumers, Public Management Review, 7:2, 225-246, DOI: 10.1080/14719030500091319

Louise Archer (2008) “The new neoliberal subjects? Young/er academics’ constructions of professional identity”, Journal of Education Policy, 23:3, 265-285, DOI: 10.1080/02680930701754047

Stephen J. Ball (2009) Privatising education, privatising education policy, privatising educational research: network governance and the ‘competition state’, Journal of Education Policy, 24:1, 83-99,DOI: 10.1080/02680930802419474

Stephen J. Ball (2012) The reluctant state and the beginning of the end of state education, Journal of Educational Administration and History, 44:2, 89-103, DOI: 10.1080/00220620.2012.658764

Taylor C. Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse. (2009). Neoliberalism: From new liberal philosophy to anti-liberal slogan. Studies in Comparative International Development, 44(2), 137–161.

Roger Burrows. (2012). Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary Academy. The Sociological Review, 6(2), 355–372.

Raewyn Connell, Barbara Fawcett and Gabrielle Meagher (2009) “Neoliberalism, New Public Management and the human service professions: Introduction to the Special Issue” Journal of Sociology Vol 45, Issue 4, pp. 331 – 338  

Bronwyn Davies and Peter Bansel (2010). Governmentality and Academic Work:Shaping the hearts and minds of academic workers. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 26(3) pp5-20

Rosemary Deem, Sam Hillyard and Mike Reed (2007) Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities Oxford University Press

Willard F Enteman (2007) “Managerialism and the Transformation of the Academy” Philosophy of Management 6(1):5-16

Heather Fraser and Nik Taylor (2016) Neoliberalization, Universities and the Public Intellectual Palgrave Macmillan London

Henry Giroux (2002) Neoliberalism, Corporate Culture, and the Promise of Higher Education: The University as a Democratic Public Sphere. Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 72, No. 4, pp. 425-464.

Leslie D. Gonzales, E.Martinez and C. Ordu (2014). Exploring faculty experiences in a striving university through the lens of academic capitalism. Studies in Higher Education, 39(7), 1097–1115.

Leslie D. Gonzales and Anne-Marie Núñez. (2014). The Ranking Regime and the Production of Knowledge: Implications for Academia. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(31).

Stephen Gorard (2009) What are Academies the answer to?, Journal of Education Policy, 24:1, 101-113, DOI: 10.1080/02680930802660903

Thomas Klikauer (2013) “What is Managerialism?” Critical Sociology 41 (7-8) pp1103-1119

Chris Lorenz, “If You’re So Smart, Why Are You under Surveillance? Universities, Neoliberalism, and New Public Management,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 3 (Spring 2012): 599-629.

Mark Olssen and Michael A. Peters (2007) Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism, Journal of Education Policy, 20:3, 313-345, DOI: 10.1080/02680930500108718

Hugo Radice (2013) “How We Got Here: UK Higher Education under Neoliberalism” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 12(2)  [NB A radical publication and not all work is blind-reviewed]

Jeff Rose and Dan Dustin (2009). The neoliberal assault on the public university: The case of recreation, park, and leisure research. Leisure Sciences, 31(4), 397–402.

Daniel Simonet (2015) “The New Public Management Theory in the British Health Care System: A Critical Review” Administration & Society 47(7) 802-826

Cris Shore (2010). Beyond the multiversity: Neoliberalism and the rise of the schizophrenic university. Social Anthropology, 18(1), 15–29

Sandra Smeltzer and Alison Hearn (2014) Student Rights in an Age of Austerity? ‘Security’, Freedom of Expression and the Neoliberal University, Social Movement Studies, 14:3, 352-358, DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2014.945077

Philip A. Woods, Glenys J. Woods & Helen Gunter (2007) Academy schools and entrepreneurialism in education, Journal of Education Policy, 22:2, 237-259, DOI: 10.1080/02680930601158984

News, Magazine articles and social media publications

Anonymous (Feb 19th 2018) “Why I don’t want to go on strike”, Medium, Available Online:

Jana Bacevic (March 14th 2018) Life or Business as Usual? The lessons of the USS strike (personal blog) Available online at:

Jennie Bristow (Mar 5th 2018) “This strike reminds us what universities are for” Spiked!

Gurminder Bhambra (Feb 23rd 2018) In Defence of the Public University: The USS Strike in Context Discover Society

Felicity Callard (No title: collection of relevant documents and summary analysis) Twitter. Available at: and

Thomas Hale (March 6th 2018) “Universities and the allure of capital markets” Financial Times Alphaville

Thomas Hale (January 26th 2018) “The many problems with a market for Higher Education” Financial Times Alphaville [note the ‘problems’ identified here are not about ideology but about the practicalities of HE operating as a market and defining students as consumers]

Thomas Hale (Feb 7th 2018) “The financing of Student Accomodation” Financial Times Alphaville

William G Pooley (March 6th 2018) Who are UUK anyway? Personal Blog

Michael Otsuka (Feb 12th 2018) “Oxford’s and Cambridge’s role in the demise of USS” Medium

Michael Otsuka (Jan 7th 2018) “No alternative methodology was proposed” Medium

Ned Simons (Feb 28th 2018) “Vice-Chancellors Accused Of Pocketing An ‘Eye-Watering’ 227% Increase In Financial Benefits Since 2010” Huffington Post

Alexander Styre (2014) Neoliberalism, the Free Market, and the Decline of Managerial Capitalism

UCU (Mar 6th 2018) Edinburgh University under fire over plans to try and break pensions strike with out of date recorded lectures

Sophie Inge (March 6th 2018) “UK Universities rely on casual staff ‘for up to half of teaching'” Times Higher Education

Chris Havergal (July 28th 2016) “Bonuses up at USS as pension fund deficit grows by £1.8 billion” Times Higher Education

Alice Evans (15th Feb 2018) It’s scary and unfair: why I’m striking over university pensions The Guardian Higher Education Network


Annual round-up 2017

What did 2017 bring for me? At the turning of the calendar year I like to take a look back and consider…

It’s been a busy year for events, both academic and LARP-related. My country hopping schedule was a bit more restrained than in previous years as my only travel outside of the UK has been to Italy this year. Easter was packed with running the Reality Checkpoint event ALL STARS in Birmingham, which worryingly reflected current political events taken only slightly to the extreme. I think all our players learned something, if only that compulsory macarena dancing is part of their own vision of hell. I prepared quite a lot of writing too, with work which I then presented in the summer at Critical Management Studies and the Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism on death, ethics and on meaningful work in organisations. Wrestling with our university ethics process for my new crowdfunding project was also a challenge eventually overcome.

As course director for our undergraduates I organised an end-of-exams bash for management school students and alumni which was well-received and much of the summer was spent on a huge redesign of our undergraduate degree programs to introduce a range of new modules and eight new single-honours study options. Luckily I had a few articles to work on, conferences to go to and LARP costume to make at the same time! They do say a change is as good as a rest… so I also delivered a session on culture and ethics to our leadership development program which was a very interesting afternoon.

Dan and I went to two weddings this year and he accompanied me on my conference trip to Rome, so we haven’t had much of a holiday this year. We have tried to compensate for that by taking a good amount of time off over Christmas though. I had a fun jaunt to Florence which rather felt like a holiday when I happened to be in Italy on University business in November, and I can only thank colleagues in entrepreneurship at The University of Firenze for allowing a last-minute addition to their workshop. I’m sure there’s more to explore there on the entrepreneurship and the performance of emotion.

Back in Blighty we had a great session in London at the Digital Frontiers workshop and shortly afterwards I launched my first crowdfunding project (which I will post more on soon). While this is about Exploring new ways of working I’ve been enjoying teaching students about the more old-fashioned contrast of the professions this semester, and look forward to their reflections on how this differs from the contemporary expectations placed on would-be graduate employees.

Finally, I joined the MMU games research network this year and it has turned out to be a fab group of people. Having introduced them to LARP I’m sure we will learn a lot from each other in future. In the next week or so, however, I’ll be exploring the past with a play-test of my new Regency LARP system and an event at the Smoke LARP festival in London. I got a great dress at the RSC costume sale for it!

All in all, 2017 has been a pretty busy year so I hope 2018 has some downtime. It has been great to reconnect with old friends and to make new ones. However, with the next Reality Checkpoint Event coming up and a whole host of new academic goals on the horizon 2018 might just be another whirlwind. Here’s to fair weather!

Games and Gamification

What is gamification?

Gamification is the introduction of game-like design principles into non-game activities such as domestic work or consumption, and it has become a widely popular way of developing media campaigns to enhance communication about a range of topics, from new tv releases to public safety. Jonna Koivisto’s doctoral dissertation summarises the most common practices of gamification as the introduction of point-scoring and comparative leaderboards, badged achievements and feedback, as well as clearly specified goals and narratives. While not all of these features might appear in gamified activity, there is also an awareness at present that we appear to be becoming a more ‘ludic’ society in that these features seem to be more widely representative in everyday social life or in the way we talk about our activities. With that in mind, it seems like a good idea to do research on gamification and its link to broader culture in order to understand this further.

Why is gamification so popular?

Aside from the employment of gamification as a means of enhancing the marketing of products and services, making everyday experiences gamified promises to make those experiences more engaging by making them fun. While play may involve any non-serious activity where we set aside the ‘serious’ business of everyday life to simply enjoy interacting with others, the regular pursuit of hobbies or games strives to produce a psychological state described by Csikszentmihalyi as ‘flow’, where all other concerns are temporarily suspended and your awareness is concentrated entirely on the activity in the moment. While everyone might have different tastes in terms of the activities and hobbies they usually enjoy, there are certain underlying mechanics to the pursuit of flow and how these are related to the principles of game design that have been uncovered by social science in the study of games and enjoyment.

However, it is not necessarily the case that gamification is something new; the introduction of games of work by workers to address monotony, or of piece-rate pay combined with ‘leaderboards’ used by managers to motivate employees has been such a foundational feature of organizational life we might speculate such goings-on occurring throughout our history as a species.


Why should we study gamification?

One of the interesting features of games is that they create what Huizinga called ‘a magic circle’ where the rules inside of the game-space are held to be sacred and anything going on outside of the game-space is largely ignored or its relevance suspended. Taking this into account, we can speculate that the extreme gamification of everyday life could be damaging just as easily as it could be engaging. Games are also both emotional and repetitive endeavours. Over the Christmas holiday if you lose at a game of Monopoly with your siblings you can always challenge them to a rematch, but as many of us are well-aware, all sorts of arguments might well break out.


Life, unlike a game, rarely allows for us to ‘go back to square one’ with no penalty. As many games are competitive, particular values and attitudes can be promoted by gamification that do not include sportsmanship and fairness. With these thoughts in mind, I’m really looking forward to exploring this more in the future.

Critical Management Studies Conference

Back in July I attended the Critical Management Studies conference in Liverpool, an interesting experience as it was very close to home (unlike last year’s hike to the USA) and also my first attempt at attending a conference when presenting more than one single-authored paper. While I usually find that conferences are tense affairs until after my presentation is out of the way, the need to be prepared for two paper presentations incentivised me to be very organised for this conference and plan my materials and outlines well in advance. I was also co-convenor of a stream, though as two streams were merged we had plenty of support in organising things. We really needed it, as the conference venue was a beautiful period building (The Adelphi in central Liverpool) but with somewhat compromised facilities when applied to this conference format, and a confusing layout of rooms and corridors at times reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel.

I agreed to present one of my papers at an internal university event only a few weeks prior to the conference which really helped refine my thoughts on the contribution of the paper and I felt nicely confident about conveying the message (if not, perhaps, in the specified timeframe of 20 minutes). This paper explored the possibility of more humane and dignified work relations that might be promoted through turning to rewards based crowdfunding, as the process could encourage workers and organisations to think about their ‘backer’ communities and other stakeholders in a new way. I hope to begin an empirical project on this soon. The stream more broadly included research into how workers are negotiating the digital-analogue interface of app-enabled working, coworking spaces and other forms of innovation and meaning-making around platform capitalism. There were some great papers and I was really pleased with how the stream turned out.

In contrast, however, I heard many colleagues were very dissatisfied with the conference. This was partly instances of poor planning or lapses in organisation of the conference (registration and the lunch buffet each day were chaotic for the number of delegates and the conference dinner venue too prone to echoes to hear the speeches), but also a concern that much of the conference had become hostage to academic performativity. Such a claim is especially tense given that CMS as a scholarly community has been critiqued for its anti-performative stance § , but we ought to distinguish between the published narratives of CMS academics or actions taken in the service of their research ambitions with participants and the performative acts of the community as scholars policing their own boundaries and subject to their own managerial scrutiny.

At the root of colleagues dissatisfaction seems to be the question; what are conferences for?

  • meeting scholars with similar interests
  • engaging in scholarly discussions
  • keeping up to date with developments in the discipline
  • maintaining or reviewing the objectives of a distinct scholarly community
  • presenting research-in-progress to peers for comment and feedback
  • challenging unconventional methodologies
  • disseminating results from completed research projects
  • obtaining support or solidarity for politically unfashionable research topics or agendas
  • reinforcing academic status or position
  • improving manuscripts pre-submission for publication
  • proposing ideas for special issues to editors of journals
  • maintaining your influence or brand image
  • learning or reinforcing norms and expectations about an academic career in the discipline
  • commissioning content for special issues of journals
  • influencing or controlling debate through exclusion
  • finding out about upcoming job opportunities
  • meeting the requirements of a funder
  • demonstrating research activity or influence to your university

The above list suggests a range of ambitions for conference participation, some of which may surprise you. However, despite the ideal of an academic conference as a venue to test ideas and progress knowledge, they have increasingly also contributed to the performative outcomes required by university managers. Conferences as regular features of the academic landscape also play a substantial part in reinforcing dominant power relations; notable concerns at this conference from i) the pre-conference critique on mailing lists of the requirement in the call for stream proposals that planned outputs such as a journal special issue would be expected as part of the application and ii) organising by the women in academia CMS support network VIDA to encourage submissions and activism to address and expose the integrated performative heteronormativity at the conference.

Activity that seemed to fit within the more instrumental or discriminatory practices in the above list was upsetting for some. In the environment of CMS in UK academia that has begun to feel uncertain post-Brexit thanks to the strategic cuts at some universities and threats of them at others, the anti-performativity of CMS is a justifiable worry.  Such an approach results in fewer opportunities for ‘impact’ – an area in which it is expected that management and business schools should excel. However, it is also the case that actions within the community to exclude or fail to approve the work of marginal scholars, or to attempt to replicate the behaviours and paradigms of ‘macho business’ or ‘hard science’ in order to validate scholarly activity in the eye of university management can only be to the detriment of the discipline. This is particularly so in a discipline which spends much of its energy critiquing such behaviour elsewhere. Consequently it was especially refreshing and energising to see these concerns being aired in the intervention by some scholars in the form of development of a game of solidarity/bullshit bingo.

The conference organisers had engaged an illustrator to record the conference (her output is shown in the header picture) and I was personally very excited to see the overviews come together. Yet again, however, engaging an illustrative artist with no grounding in the intellectual debates of the field characterises the activity of illustration as an archival one. While it may make the content more accessible, this objective is in service once again to academic performativity rather than to enhancing understanding of the material. The illustrator, however, consented to some of her materials being appropriated in the production of this poster:

solidarity bingo vignette

For me, the beauty of this poster lies in it’s action to call out the discrepancy between the topics acknowledged as significant to the scholarly community of CMS and its internal actions; streams of research papers were running on ableism, feminism, de-colonialisation and emotion in organisations. Yet in the co-ordination of the conference these very issues had not been addressed. Furthermore, the many features appearing on the bingo boards as evidence of scholarly ‘solidarity’ (e.g. active listening to research presentations, encouraging introductions) or of academic ‘bullshit’ (e.g using Q&A time to tell everyone that your work is of key relevance to them and should be cited instead of engaging in constructive criticism) were being foregrounded by the poster and the game.

All in all, the CMS community, like the broader academic community, may well be in difficult times and have numerous internal tensions over solidarity and action that need to be resolved. Although conferences like these remind us of these tensions, I was extremely pleased to see and support interventions and activism that encourage us to reexamine our priorities and actions with an ambition to forge a better type of scholarly engagement with problems inside and outside of the university.

§ An introduction to the current state of this debate can be found in the recent special issue on critical performativity published in M@n@gement with the remarks from the editors available here

Academy of Management

So after 18 hours of travelling and an 8 hour time difference, I think I can safely say my circadian rhythm has been well and truly disturbed. My business class upgrade on the outgoing journey also definitely spoiled me for the return experience! I returned to the UK at 10am yesterday and just about kept my eyes open until 5pm, then awoke at 4am this morning. At least the early start has allowed me to make some headway with my laundry.

My first experience of the Academy of Management, probably the largest international conference of business and management academics worldwide, was mixed. While some of the sessions in the main program were of extremely high quality, others seemed very underdeveloped. The Academy is broken down into divisions, or interest groups. As I was attending events across multiple divisions I found it particularly interesting to see how the Academy serves, for some, in breaking down institutional silos and encouraging broader views of the topics by drawing audience members from across disciplinary boundaries as well as engaging practitioners. Nonetheless, I was also impressed with a strong feeling of homogeneity of methods and approaches which was slightly worrying in its indication that there is a clear perpetuation of a single way to do research in business and management studies, and that way relies upon survey data collection and statistical analysis. A colleague who shares similar concerns and I got into a very heated debate about this in one of the bars on Sunday evening, but perhaps that’s a tale best left to the imagination…

The role of conferences in academic research are multiple. They serve as a form of peer review of research methods and findings, presenting an opportunity for conclusions to be tested and questioned and in consequence strengthening research. Conferences also act as a vehicle for the dissemination of research findings to a broader interested public, a function which should not be underrated as it is often much more effective to absorb this information over a few days in a conference than to spend weeks and months reading books or articles on the topic. But this dissemination is also of importance to academics too, as an opportunity to find out what research is being done at other universities where we might not have contacts. Finally, though, this is also a mechanism for networking with colleagues and those in the position to recruit new staff in other institutions, as individuals have an eye to their future career prospects.

I found the conference extremely satisfying as an opportunity to meet people at other institutions who are interested in researching the same topics as myself. Since my research is in a very niche area, there are a very small number of academics across the globe studying the subject and it was fabulous to come together and meet in person for the first time. The career-driven networking, on the other hand, was very intimidating to observe and seemed to add a high level of tension to some social events. Nonetheless, in the current UK academic climate, where UK working conditions and research opportunities are looking fairly bleak in the wake of the Brexit referendum, it is perhaps not surprising that many are looking for fresh pastures.

My superiors will no doubt want to know if this expensive conference (in terms of travel costs) was worth the investment. Despite the long-haul discomfort and the disjointed feeling of culture shock, I would say that the activity was definitely a good one as a means of personal development and potential research improvement. If nothing else, I have returned inspired to write and develop my research in a number of different areas alone as well as with those interesting researchers I have met while away, and that’s no small thing.

Theories about Learning motivation and practice

Following a recent post on a friend’s blog about undertaking postgraduate certificate qualifications in teaching at university, I thought I would start the process I have been promising myself I would do for months now: publish my blogs on learning to teach. NB: some of this material has been recently submitted for assessment purposes, enjoy the read but don’t quote in your own teacher training programme!

I formally started the teaching at university programme about six months after I began working at my current university. Unsurprisingly, like at a lot of universities I have heard of, the programme was not held in high regard by academic staff, mostly because they were compelled to undertake it and had developed (over the course of the PhD or over many years of research focussed work) some cynicism towards the programme tutors. Broadly, this cynicism related to three factors; (1) a belief that students who are motivated to learn, do, regardless of  techniques applied by lecturers, (2) a view that programme tutors did not sufficiently account for the constraints on lecturers following from large class sizes, limited resources and bureaucratic impediments to change, (3) skepticism about the political aims behind the programme and whether this signified a move to a ‘customer oriented’ model of teaching that fundamentally undermines the authority of the lecturer as ‘expert’. Following from this third element was a critical attitude towards the political status of universities in the UK and the consequences of changes to student fees and recruitment in the most recent attempt to create a higher education ‘market’.  But I’ll come back to this issue in a later post.

Today’s post focuses solely on point (1): theories about learning and the motivation to learn, and summarises two broad theoretical approaches; behaviourism and cognitivism. What is interesting is that each model has a different role for the teacher, and requires them to engage with the students in a different way. Each also suggests that different rewards or learning environments will produce varying results in how much and how well students learn.

These approaches to the study of learning have much in common with the fields of psychology and social psychology generally, and as such I have been a bit sweeping in my assertions which follow. Each has it’s historical place in influencing learning institutions and systems, and consequently some aspects of learning, teaching and assessment that are often taken for granted can be linked to different parts of these theories.

Behaviourism: looking at external action not internal subjectivities

Behaviourism is one of the earlier approaches to learning, drawing on the notion that since the internal workings of the mind are objectively unknowable then only the external factors can be studied. “Learning is defined simply as the acquisition of new behaviour” (Pritchard 2008:6). Central to this is the basic premise that all creatures respond to stimulus to increase positive experience and decrease negative experience. Central theorists include Watson (1958), Skinner (1953) and Thorndike (1966). Historically, this approach to the study of psychology was particularly functionalist, and much of the research in this area focused on ‘conditioning’ subjects into a particular habit of response. You might have heard of famous examples of this sort of research such as Pavlov’s dog experiments, where dogs are trained to associate the noise of a bell with food, such that eventually, even when the food is not present, the sound of the bell will make them behave as if food is present.

While many conditioning experiments may seem crude, or even laughable, by today’s standards, they were incredibly influential in their practical implications. However, the perspective was not universally well-received, as it placed human beings in the same category as any other kind of animal. Skinner’s (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity is a particularly vehement response to his critics, arguing that humans had to ‘get over’ their belief in their own special status if society was to be functionally improved. This experimental approach was also criticised for oversimplifying the study of behaviour (see Eddie Izzard’s sketch about Pavlov’s cat for a laughable example of what happens when not all variables are controlled)

Based on a simple view of student motivation as merely learned response to stimuli, learning approaches that adopt this view might be summarised as ‘stick’ or ‘carrot’ techniques. Approaches as different as the Victorian ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ and contemporary practices around the need for ‘positive feedback for psychological engagement’ all fit in with this approach. Any focus on rewards for correct behaviour is underpinned by behaviourist theory, whether it is a directly ‘conditioned’ response or a ‘shaping’ (using goal-setting approaches) towards ideal behaviour.

Limitations to using a behaviourist approach to designing learning activities are usually listed as including a limited or ‘surface’ approach to learning, as the desired response could be produced without developing an understanding at a ‘deeper’ level; it is limited to rote-learning (Pritchard 2008).

An interesting part of behaviourism, however, is that it places the responsibility for ‘correct learning’ directly upon the teacher, provided the student complies with the system. It is the responsibility of the teacher to identify desired behaviours and reward them appropriately. Additionally, students may have come from schools or colleges that use this sort of approach, and therefore to an extent are already ‘conditioned’ to expect this sort of learning activity and reward.

Cognitivism (or Constructivism): Looking inside the black box

A different approach to learning is apparent in cognitivism. Focusing on the workings of the brain from multiple different perspectives, cognitivism gives primacy to the idea that learning is an internal process. Much of the research on which these theories are based comes from developmental studies with children, or with those suffering from developmental difficulties. The underlying principle contends (against behaviourism) that learners are active agents in the learning process, and that learning should be approached in a holistic manner (this is associated with ‘gestalt‘ theories). This suggests that students respond to patterns as much as to individual stimulus.

Many different approaches tend to get clustered under the cognitivist label. Two early theorists in the area are Piaget (1926) and Vygotsky (1978). While both share similar principles, they do differ in terms of the priorities they give to particular aspects of the learning experience. Vygotsky’s approach (ibid) focussed on the social interaction between teacher and learner, stressing that it is within that relationship that the teacher can help provide a framework (and break down earlier frameworks) which the learner then strengthens and models for themselves. Piaget, by contrast, stressed that the learner engages with artefacts provided by the teacher independently and develops knowledge which is incorporated into schema (a sort of subjective framework, see Smith, Dockrell & Tomlinson 1997). Both theorists stress the significance of activity undertaken by the learner alone or with the teacher as a key part of the process (Jarvis 2003).

Compared to the behaviourist approach, the constructivist approach as a consequence of a more subjective understanding of learning (by experience) tends to offer a view of learning which allows pluralistic versions of knowledge (i.e. there is space for more than one ‘correct’ answer or way of doing things). By contrast, the behaviourist view presents a much more rigorous position on what does and does not constitute legitimate knowledge that indicates a one-way transmission of that knowledge from teacher to learner. Both different approaches also commit to different priorities and techniques for the design of the teaching and learning environment. Clearly, certain training programmes may tend towards the behaviourist perspective, as some interpretations or behaviours are considered illegitimate, misguided, or even dangerous, whereas disciplinary areas more tolerant of pluralism may be more inclined towards a cognitive view.

A synthesis of constructivist and behaviourist theoretical leanings is apparent in the majority of current approaches to institutionalised learning, perhaps thanks to inherited behaviourist systems of the past, or the failure of cognitivist learning experiments to revolutionise teaching styles. One frequently-used reference point which demonstrates this is Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy of (cognitive) knowledge[1]. Bloom’s taxonomy presents multiple ‘building blocks’ as a progressive hierarchy of knowledge attained through learning where the achievement of each stage requires proficiency in the stage below (this strongly informs international comparison standards regarding the level of achievement in particular qualifications) .


The original presents a continuum which presents a programme suitable to behavioural ‘shaping’, but also stipulates the cognitive activities it is expected that students will undertake. Bloom’s framework was revised in 2001 in order to more comprehensively represent changes in educational language and to incorporate the type of knowledge the student is expected to master (factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive), as well as the cognitive process they engage in to do so (Krathwohl 2002). There have been some critiques of Bloom’s taxonomy, however, which suggest that the hierarchy of cognitive approaches may be reversed, and that the production of knowledge in the form of ‘facts’ is a hard-won outcome of the other processes (Wineburg & Schneider 2010). After all, in scientific endeavour, that is how research produces knowledge!

Wineburg and Schneider’s (2010) argument could be seen as a revisit to Bloom’s framework which highlights a shift away from behaviourist models of learning towards cognitivist approaches.  A behaviourist approach to learning, with its focus on stimulus-response-reward, privileges a basis in the accumulation of facts through rote learning followed by study in the skills of manipulating those facts for logical analysis and evaluation. In this presentation of Bloom’s taxonomy, the teacher provides students with ‘legitimate’ knowledge in the form of facts, then slowly leads them through a process whereby each stage in the process is reinforced through reward, often in the form of good test marks though also sometimes using more mundane rewards (such as sweets or book tokens). Wineburg and Schneider (ibid) argue that the taxonomy may instead be represented in the opposite direction, where knowledge is the outcome of the learning process rather than its base. This derives from a more constructivist approach which builds upon the notion of the learning ‘scaffold’ (see Sylva 1997).


[1] It is important to recognise that the committee of which Bloom was head intended to encourage a synthesis between three different types of learning; cognitive, affective and psychomotor (see Krathwohl 2002). I have rarely come across discussion of the latter two dimensions at university, which may be instructive in how far such discussions have penetrated in the educational domain.




Monstering: changes in the air

It has been a really long time now since I attended a fantasy LARP. Well over a year, and unfortunately my work and personal commitments this year make the outlook bleak. I missed much of last year due to personal and wedding plans,  and subsequently I’m a bit out of the loop on what is going on in our ‘finely woven webs of magic and belief’! I hope to attend 2-3 events later in the summer though, so hopefully we will have fabulous LARPing weather!

So this rather explains why the blog has remained in stasis for so long, but there are new entries to come! In this entry in particular, I have recently noticed that this year seems to be shaping up to be the year of controversy over monstering. So, for the non-LARPers out there, monstering is basically being the helpers, crew or bad guys in any given event (see my previous post). Monsters traditionally participate in events for free, and recieve small benefits in return: this is where controversy is emerging, as some events are beginning to request small fees from monsters to secure a place, or promising bigger rewards. There are always concerns for organizers about monsters, for several reasons;

1) monsters are a cost

Most sites have a per-person charge, or a scale of charges based on occupancy, so the price of tickets for players will always be directly or indirectly affected by the size of the monster crew. Even for the rare event which is being held on an open site, public liability insurance charges also scale on a per-person basis (usually at 50 participants, 100 participants, >150 participants basis though this varies). Keeping costs for players low therefore will always rely on having an effective and appropriately sized monster crew.

2) monsters are needed

A good quality event relies on good monsters who are experienced, informed and enthusiastic. Including organizers in the category of ‘crew’ here, it is simply impossible to have an event without them. It is also true, however, that player expectations in fantasy LARP are seen to demand fewer low-activity events where little effect can be made on the world, and more open-world events where players have free choice to engage in different aspects of the plot or storyline. These type of games require more props, bigger sites, and more monsters.

3) are monsters motivated?

Following the above very significant points, most participants (whether players or monsters) know that enthusiasm and contribution to the event can weigh much more than money. An eager monster who finds some great costume in a drawer and brings it along, a group of friends who come along as a group and can work well together to portray a military unit or even someone who gets enthusiastically stuck in to whatever job needs doing (even making the tea!) is an incredible contribution to the success of any event. Motivated monster crews are also important to increasing player numbers, because many people get their first introduction to LARP through monstering an event.  Yet this is a completely unpredictable element, which may rely fundamentally on any variety of possible causes, so may be nerve-racking for the organizers! There are little things that organizers try to do to improve motivation, including providing tea, coffee and sweeties, priority bunks, experience for your player character or other incentives, but these often include costs which need to be outweighed by the benefits. And there is always the danger that these incentives might drift into ‘payment’, resembling the feeling of work (see below).


So that explains why organizers might have to deal with conflicting ideas about what monsters should be expected to give or pay, and how much/whether they should be rewarded. Yet there also seems to be a problem for monsters around obligation and enjoyment which overlaps between the hobby and other commitments.

4) How much does it cost?

People volunteering to monster an event may well participate for ‘free’ but may have to pay associated costs of transport, catering, accommodation and equipment. These are the same costs that might be a part of playing the game, but with no guaranteed level or type of enjoyable participation in the game, and less leeway to ‘make your own fun’ these costs may seem more significant.

5) Am I having fun? (is this like work)

As a player, it’s easy to choose your own preferred style of play. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed playing very minor monsters; the squishy one-hit-goblin type who is destined to lose (as monsters are, unlike some amazing one-hit super-goblin players with magic swords I could mention). However if you prefer a competitive playing style, taking on roles where you have no chance of winning is not going to be particularly enjoyable. In addition, many of the other tasks that might be necessary as a crew member can be draining and mundane; too much like hard work rather than fun. Even an unlimited supply of sugar and caffeine can sometimes be a poor substitute for enjoyment.

6) Do I have to be here?

As paper bookings gave way to email and online forums have become wider through social media such as facebook, there is in some ways a stronger sense of a LARP community. But in some places this seems to put a serious (stated or implied) obligation on regular players to participate as monster crew or risk losing their hobby altogether. There is an equally strong tendency to report on events as they happen, emphasising what is sometimes termed FOMO (fear of missing out). Also, a wider reach of advertising about events puts more pressure on players and monsters to attend more events, and increases demand for experienced monster crew (including referees and organizers). This presents monstering as a more serious obligation, as a necessary way to maintain the community, adding a level of pressure which may simply override a decision to participate on other grounds.

These pressures on monsters and event organisers are hardly new. In addition, there have been a number of events in the past which have been so popular to monsters and players alike that these grievances have been shown to be insubstantial. But in the circumstances of rising site costs, rising transport costs, dropping player numbers and more significant ‘real-life’ demands, these problems seem to be getting squeezed from both sides.  Of course, this is only a rough summary of debates I have seen elsewhere and I am only adding a little information drawn from wider debates around conditions of economic life in the UK to spice up the discussion.

What has your experience been? As a monster or organizer what is your best experience of an event? Or the worst?

Comments especially welcome to this post!



Praying at the shrine of Loo

aka no I won’t pee in a bush.

Firstly, apologies to regular readers (all five, six of you?). I’ve not been blogging recently because I have been writing up my previous blog post about monsters for an academic conference in Manchester. I am also working on another academic paper at the moment and it seems that all the writing juice has just been squeezed out of me. On second thoughts, bad metaphor there considering the subtitle. But I’ve been inspired to go back to this post by recent comments around gender and sexism in LARP. This post considers how far it is acceptable to go in LARP events when trying to promote immersion in the game. As a player, referee and organiser this is something I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about. Specifically regarding bathroom breaks.

Now I’ll come back to bathroom breaks in a moment. But first, I want to say a few words about sexism in LARP. Now I think that sexism in LARP is not as big a problem as it might sometimes seem, or as is sometimes reported. Many men and women play and enjoy LARP, and if there are fewer women who play outdoor fantasy LARP compared to men, well I think that says more about our social norms around gender and the limitations of campsites than anything else. In my experience of players who have no family commitments, and where events are predominantly situated indoors such as in Cthulhu LARP, there is no clear gender divide in participation. Now what is interesting in settings such as Cthulhu LARP is that as a historically situated game, players often have a lot of fun acting out and challenging the gender norms of the time in a crisis situation. I expect that in games inspired by Jane Austen’s novels players experience the same. However, in playing these games we create a hybrid gender-reality of sorts; a space where despite the conventions of the setting, the values and attitudes of the ‘real world’ we live in tend to come through.

So when addressing issues of gender inequality in LARP, we have to think about how the genre presents gender stereotypes, and how our contemporary society presents gender stereotypes. The game presents a creative space where norms can be challenged and overturned. And lets face it, sometimes its fun to play the damsel in distress, to be the dumb blonde who might cause everyone else in the game to be captured and eaten because they are forced to either abandon the lady (and look like a cowardly character), or otherwise break with the norms of the game genre by allowing the ‘mere girl’ to be the sacrificial hero. So these roles have a sort of power to them which can still be exercised – it just might be quite risky to the character to do so. The fact of LARP is that it is transient, and unlikely to offer an ongoing solution to gender inequality. What tends to get people upset seems to be when the inequalities of the ‘real world’ are brought into the game as if to a ‘natural’ habitat, or when players struggle to accept the differring inequalities presented by the LARP setting.

So to look at a similar example; one of the things our contemporary society has a lot of etiquette around is bathroom breaks. Or, to be more specific, going for a pee. As a woman, I’m not entirely up to speed on gentlemen’s etiquette regarding relieving yourself, but certainly in the fantasy genre, a bush would usually do. Also, considering what I have heard about which urinal men choose to use, I presume if you came across someone else using the bushes, you would have to move a few bushes further down. Stabbing someone with your sword and using their bush may be all very well in the Conan canon, but it just wouldn’t be right in a contemporary LARP. You’d get pee on your sword, for starters. So in the vague in-between space that is part game and part something else, we’ve made a compromise. Ladies, it is said, often go to the bathroom in pairs. But in fantasy novels and movies, they never seem to go at all. It just isn’t ladylike. Bathing, on the other hand, is very ladylike, and there are often many frissons experienced by the characters in books and legends over the challenges of preserving modesty. Now, these genre specific tropes don’t fit very well with contemporary needs. First of all, however immersive and appropriate to the setting and character it might be, I will not pee in a bush. My costume is difficult enough to manage in a portaloo. Secondly, I won’t be bathing in a stream either. Not with Britain’s weather conditions, anyway. Sadly, I don’t have the benefit of a lifetime’s hardship on the tundra my character might have. Luckily, most of the women I know who LARP broadly take the same view, and don’t take such ideas seriously.

Unfortunately, solutions to these particular difficulties often require resolution out of character, in another area or by temporarily dropping out of the game. The maintenance of the game illusion, however, requires that these interruptions be kept to a minimum. They are directly in conflict with the pursuit of immersion.

Bathroom breaks can therefore become quite serious business. One incident which happened some years ago involved a large group of ladies in the playing area stranded some way away from the toilet block. At this point they would have to travel in character across hostile enemy territory or drop out of game in full view of the other players. A sudden feeling of piety saved the day, as the ladies agreed that it was of utmost importance they pay their respects to a noted ancestor revered nearby. This ancestor was named ‘Loo’. In consequence, a large number of characters headed off together across this no-mans land, and in doing so married the demands of immersion with everyday etiquette.

So where does this address issues of sexism and inequality? Fundamentally there are several motifs common to the ‘romance’ of horror and fantasy genres which conflict with contemporary ideologies. For example, family and caste honour which claims ownership of special privileges is not compatible with freedom of individual expression and reward according to merit. Women were traditionally considered property under this feudal perspective, and even in fantasy it presents problems.

So what about ‘progressive’ LARP which incorporates equality into the very fabric of the setting? Well this too presents a struggle where players try to make sure their performance ‘fits’. Perhaps we could all pee on the same bush? I confess, personally I’d find that difficult. But then, perhaps there is still something of the message being put across in such LARP, as there is in presenting Shakespeare in contemporary costume. Although the purists hate it, it brings accessibility to the archaic language. Sometimes the medium and the message have to compromise. So feminist LARP utopia is some way off as yet.

Alternative uses of roleplaying games

It is not a new thing to recognise that the impact of games, or of leisure activity, goes beyond a superficial understanding of entertainment. Competitive sports have been used as training exercises, frameworks for peaceful interaction and even to distract a population from starvation and riot. We know that there is value to be found in the playing of games. It is interesting, then, considering how in UK culture RPGs are generally denigrated and ridiculed, to see how often such games are used for ‘serious’ reasons.
A few weeks ago, I met with the documentary makers of Treasure Trapped to do an interview about LARP and I was asked to comment on the broader use of LARP as a training tool. It will come as no surprise to the LARPers who read this blog that ‘doing it for the experience’ can encompass more than even serious gaming. Lizzie Stark has discussed the use of LARP as a military training exercise in Leaving Mundania, and equally the Nordic LARP scene is well known for it’s serious treatment of realistic scenarios for personal development.
Today, on twitter, I saw someone post a link to the following website, which presents the visitor with a ‘make-your-own-adventure’ style written RPG. Depression Quest is an attempt to raise awareness about depression through the empathy (and possibly pleasure or frustration) people playing the game will experience. The goals of the developers in this case are not necessarily that the player will have a ‘good time’, but that they will have an ‘experience’. One of the main distinguishing features between a written RPG scenario and a live-action event is that in the latter the experience is more dynamic and unpredictable. But more broadly, then, this got me to thinking about the differences between ‘roleplay’ as a game, and ‘simulation training’. LARP may well be taken seriously by few people outside of the LARP community in the UK, but even for those of us who play in LARP games, it is not ‘serious’. The experience is not focussed on a particular outcome with real-world ramifications. Rather, that experience has different meaning for different players based on their engagement with the game. Fundamentally, LARP games are collaborative rather than ‘directed’ in the way that a training exercise might be. So I played through the above game (Depression Quest), and although it aims at promoting empathy, it is a puzzle. The objective is to try to get your character through the scenario and on the road to recovery. Your progress is monitored by criteria listed at the bottom of every page. Objectives in LARP are often not clear, or are negotiable (after all, you could always give in and join the zombie hordes). Perhaps this is where the difference between ‘leisure’ and ‘training tool’ lies.

To be continued….

Comments welcome