An antithetical landscape

The focus of my PhD is an exploration of how Social Policy academics respond to the current Higher Education policy landscape. My sense is that this landscape is at present antithetical to the practice of teaching progressive, critical social policy. I want to know whether Social Policy academics recognise this antithesis, and whether the subvert, condone, affirm or resist their place in this landscape, and its accompanying climate – or whether they adopt another response as yet unconsidered by me. They are, I will argue, at the same time both close observers of policy and the objects of it, feeling it reach into their professional lives and their lived values.

As with all research conducted through the lens of critical theory, there will be, and already is, a focus on the unequal distribution of power in my work. The state shapes policy, which shapes the university, which shapes the lecturer, which shapes the student….. (We might observe that at present, those last two categories are transposed: ‘…which shapes the student, which shapes the lecturer’….).

A PhD is often driven by personal interest and involvement in the topic. I am no exception to this, and in positioning myself, methodologically speaking, in the territory of critical theory, I am at liberty to leave my voice ‘in’ the research. The story of how I came to be teaching Social Policy in higher education underpins my research focus, and has a place in the landscape. Prior to my working in HE,  I had been a very regular blogger, and so this medium, as a place where I might record the meanderings, or grindings, of my reading, researching and writing, makes sense to me.

The first year of my PhD study was focused squarely on the refining of the idea, and culminated in a endlessly-edited confirmation of study document than now forms the basis of my reading and thinking. This was a satisfying process to me, working with my supervisor to craft, within a challenging, concise word count, a clear explanation of my idea and my intentions for the research. Thus I am now, early in my second year, immersed in reading, finding time to do so in the nooks and crannies that I spot in-between a heavy teaching load, and the daily doings of a busy family life. At our last meeting, my supervisor directed me to another recently completed PhD (by publication) as a focus for my reading.

Joss Winn is an academic at Lincoln University, whose current research interests include developing ideas around alternative models for higher education, such as the co-operative university. He explores these ideas with his long term collaborator and then PhD supervisor Mike Neary. The focus of Joss’ PhD is on the tension between the perception of a university education as a private good, a product sold by institutions and bought by students for their consumption, and the alternative perspective that higher education contributes to the general intellectual well-being of society, and is thus a social, public benefit that can be re-invented and re-invigorated (Neary and Winn 2015). I would assert that Social Policy academics are living and feeling this tension in the work they do, as they operate within a constrained, measured environment, while trying to educate the next generation of public sector professionals who will shape society and its experience of policy to a greater or lesser degree. So both Joss and I have a shared starting point, viewing ‘higher education [as] a fundamental public good… a central feature of the knowing society’ (Neary and Morris 2012: 4), while acknowledging that this long held idea is currently losing ground to a more instrumental, neoliberal understanding of the purpose of HE.

My undergraduate degree was Law, and not Sociology, and my teenage years (the eighties) were spent in a staunchly Thatcherite household; thus – and despite my History A Level studies stretching as far forward as the October Revolution – my exposure to anything other than a cursory understanding of Marx has been limited. Gaining this knowledge, and grasping the implications of Marxism for an understanding of what is happening in higher education, has been one of the main challenges of this last year. My supervisor (whom I share with Winn) is a huge help here, as his own work is thoroughly grounded in a Marx’ ideas, and now, reading Joss’ work has really helped me to make further progress. In particular it has, with clarity, illuminated for me how teaching and learning are both forms of ‘labour’, so the illusion of operating with any sort of freedom, while you remain inside the university (an institution that at present reconfigures the sharing of knowledge as a ‘commercial transaction’ and thus grounded in the idea of labour and exchange (Cowden and Singh 2013: 2)) is exactly that – illusory. The Social Policy academics upon which my study is focused are therefore, in this understanding, exploited labourers, stripped of the status and identity they might have enjoyed in an earlier incarnation of the English university. There has been a concomitant decline in their working conditions, as they have become increasingly compelled to serve the ‘commodified machine’ (ibid: 50). Thus we see, for example, a startling rise in insecure contracts for lecturers in recent years, or increasingly prescriptive pronouncements about pedagogy through instruments such as the TEF and NSS, and, just this past week, a demand from a Junior higher education minister to know who is teaching what about Brexit. Winn expresses the loss of freedom mapped out here well:

Such accounts generally respond to an acknowledged decline in the conditions of academic labour across the world and the increasingly instrumentalised role of higher education in national economies… In retrospect, the gains of the 20th century labour movement are diminishing, and one might question whether the critical intellectual tools developed by academics today are adequate for understanding what is happening to us. (2015: 165)


At this point, it is easy to give in to the pervading hopelessness about the condition universities, and their teaching staff, find themselves in. Managerialist, neoliberal, ‘instrumental pedagogy based on a prescriptive, competency-based curriculum’ (Cowden and Singh 2013: 43) has become, for many, the order of the day. Winn is initially complimentary about the work of some scholars, such as Stephen Ball, as they eloquently describe the capitalist nature of academic labour as a form of ‘living death’ (2015: 167). Echoes of this idea abound in the literature: from Bauman, to Barnett, and back to Ball himself, commentators muse upon the ‘liquid’ (Bauman 2000) nature of modernity, the ‘supercomplexity’ (Barnett 2000) of our modern existence, and the confusion that this leads to for all. No wonder that, as Holloway argues, ‘there is room for the scream in academic discourse’ (2010: 3). But, Winn reminds me at this juncture, that there is no consensus as to what a University is, or what it is for, and so it is open to us, as members of a community of scholars, to remain hope-ful of a new iteration of the idea of the university, positioned on our horizon. In this he also pulls back the veil on our behalf, to show us that such liquid supercomplexity is not the cause of the crisis in higher education, but is, rather, the result of allowing capitalist discourse and method to be the only mode of operating. Winn draws here upon Marx, as he in turn strived to not only show us how things appear, but also the ‘real [my emphasis] nature of the abstract social categories that dominate us’ (2015: 168); the curtain is opened, and the working machinery becomes visible to us. Winn goes on to argue persuasively that we have yet to see a full critique of ‘labour’; instead we become preoccupied with trying to make the conditions in which that labour is carried out better, rather than seeking a different, emancipatory conceptualisation of academic work. In this he is moving beyond a traditional understanding of Marxism, to a form-analytic understanding, articulated by Bonefeld (2014) and others, that believes in the possibility of escaping production and reproduction, if only we can pull back the curtain and examine how the categories of ‘labour’ ‘exhcange’ and ‘value’ control all that we do. (It is this idea in particular that Winn has helped me to grasp.) He writes; ‘… [L]abour, although recognised as a key category in critical social theory, was never subjected to a rigorous negative critique in the same way that other features of social life have been’ (2015: 169).

At times, throughout the articles and chapters that form Winn’s thesis, he poses questions that, in combination, cry out – ‘Can we understand what is happening to us?’. He appears, in places throughout the text, to imply that we do not yet have the tools with which to truly appreciate our own unraveling.  Amsler similarly wonders why ‘[e]ven critical teachers feel contradictions in already cramped spaces for critical work as political cultures harden in ways that prohibit dialogical interaction’ (2015: 15), while Sutton sees us as merely working ‘around capitalism’ (2017: 626) rather than confronting it. The work of Harney and Moten (1999) that Winn draws upon is also useful here, as they draw a distinction between the craftsman-academic, who sells his wares at market, and the scholar who moves in the social world, making and sharing knowledge in co-operation with the student. Winn laments the lack of collective agency amongst academics, arguing that we are not responding to Harney and Moten’s model of the social world scholar, and suggesting that instead we ‘remain preoccupied with our individual position in the marketplace of ideas’ (2015: 173).

So what should we do?

Or, for my own research purposes, the question is more accurately, what do we do now, or, what are we already doing now – to resist, to critique, to revolt? I cannot yet know, in advance of the focus groups that will form the backbone of my data collection, how my participants are navigating these choices. In my own practice, and with the support of a group of colleagues who are similarly engaged in the practice of hope-ful critical pedagogy, a path of intelligent, authentic practice opens up as a possibility before me, before us.

And my understanding of Winn’s work is that he, along with others, reminds us, with a keen sense of urgency, of the importance of not giving in to the helplessness and hopelessness discussed earlier. Freire tells us – me – that ‘I must not leave for a random tomorrow something that is part of my task as a progressive educator right now’ (1997: 75). and while we may need to ‘think much harder about how we create a progressive and sustainable future’ (Neary 2012: 164), it is equally important that we remain focused on the ultimate goal of a knowing, knowledgeable society, and ‘negate the negative’ (Holloway 2010:8) of the impact of capitalist economics on our working lives. Winn’s close collaborator, Mike Neary, holds optimism close, encouraging us to move beyond the binary position of resisting neoliberalism (and thus simultaneously giving it power in our lives), arguing that though such possibilities may at present seem fragile, there are ‘revolutionary principles and practices out of which post capitalist society is already emerging, but is always and everywhere at risk’ (Neary 2015 p.u.). Together, we can believe in the idea and existence of a community of scholars who are sufficiently committed to the reinvention of the university, and are eccentric enough to insist on doing things in their own way (Grafton 2010).

Winn and Neary are now, as I stated earlier, exploring the possibilities of other forms of higher education including the adoption of co-operative models. Both have been involved for some time now in the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, part of the free university movement that is gaining traction in England. Thus they are already finding ways to work outside of the commodified, measured university, and to live their values. As Winn states;

In an environment where knowledge is free, the roles of the educator and the institution necessarily change. The educator is no longer a delivery vehicle and the institution becomes a landscape for the production and construction of a mass intellect in commons (2015: 47).



Barnett, R. (2000) ‘Reconfiguring the University’ in Scott, P (Ed) (2000) Higher Education Reformed London: Routledge

Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity Cambridge: Polity Press

Bonefeld, W. (2014) Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy London: Bloomsbury

Grafton, A. (2010) ‘Britain: The disgrace of the universities’ New York Review of Books Available online at:

Holloway, J. (2010) Change the world without taking control London: Pluto Press

Harney, S. and Moten, F. ‘The Academic Speed-up’  Workplace Available online at:

Neary, M. and Morris, A. (2012) ‘Teaching in Public: Reshaping the University’ in Neary, M., Stevenson, H. and Bell, L. (2012) Towards Teaching in Public: Reshaping the University London: Continuum

Neary, M. and Winn, J. (2015) in Winn, J. (2015) Academic Labour and the Capitalist University: A
critique of higher education through the law of value (PhD thesis) Available online at:

Neary, M. (2015) An Introduction to the work of Karl Marx: the science of revolution and revolutionary science Available online at:

Sutton, P. (2017) Lost Souls: the demoralisation of academic labour in the measured university Higher Education Research and Development 36:3 625-636

Winn, J. (2015) Academic Labour and the Capitalist University: A
critique of higher education through the law of value (PhD thesis) Available online at:


The beginning, the muddle, and the end.

Yes, that ‘u’ is intentional.

Why a blog for my PhD?

Why not?

Blogs can work in a variety of ways. They can record, diary-like. They can share ideas, encourage discussion, even, promote the self. I don’t truly know how this one is going to work out. I have had others, and one is still live , if you feel like taking a look.

The idea for this one came out of a discussion with my PhD Supervisor, Mike Neary. He is a marvel, and a tech-savvy one at that. He blogs too. He had an idea that blogging my way through the plotting out of my literature review and other aspects of my research would aid me in reducing the size of the task before me. I think he might be right; it feels comfortable, sensible, to do this. I expect to get confused, frustrated, distracted, disaffected – to feel the ‘muddle’. But I also expect excitement, satisfaction, maybe even pride – to reach an end.

So, for now, I will leave you with this:

Writing to a trusted reader is not a statement from the dock but an invitation to dance, offering a sympathetic partner the chance to play with your text, to hear its harmonies, to note its dissonances, to make it part of their own experience, to put it in motion, to realise its possibilities. 

Game, A. and Metcalf, A. (1996Passionate Sociology London: Sage p.33

‘Til next time.