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The UK National Student Survey: An amalgam of discipline and neo-liberal governmentality

Thiel, Jonas (2019) The UK National Student Survey: An amalgam of discipline and neo-liberal governmentality. British Educational Research Journal. ISSN 0141-1926


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The UK National Student Survey (NSS) has high status on the agenda of UK universities. Its rise in status is linked to its influence on national rankings and associated funding streams referenced to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Consequently, many universities have implemented further assessments of student satisfaction, thereby putting additional internal performative pressures on courses and individual lecturers. The research contribution of this paper consists in an analysis of the NSS through Foucault’s notion of “governmentality” with a particular focus on his work on “discipline” and “neo-liberal governmentality”. More specifically, by utilising qualitative data from interviews, research diaries and observations, it will be demonstrated how the NSS functions as a “disciplinary” technology of government which subjects lecturers, departments and universities to intersecting panoptic gazes and perpetual ratings. In addition, the NSS can also be considered ‘neo-liberal’ (Foucault, 2008, p. 193) in that it governs the academic population through narrow conceptions of “freedom” and omnipresent competition. The paper proposes that it is through the amalgamated forces of intersecting panoptic gazes, on the one hand, and neo-liberal free-market principles, on the other, that student feedback develops its power to govern.

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