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The production of “student voice” and its effects on academia

Thiel, Jonas Jakob (2019) The production of “student voice” and its effects on academia. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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In recent years, rating and ranking practices have proliferated, from Uber to Airbnb, from PISA to dating apps, guiding consumer opinions and preferences in a landscape of supposed choices. This thesis is centred on one such rating and ranking practice: the UK National Student Survey (NSS) which, purportedly, ascertains student voice by gathering final year student satisfaction with university courses. The NSS has had a profound impact on UK academia through its influence on university rankings and government certifications of “teaching excellence”. By pitching universities against one another, so the story goes, courses will surely improve their “quality” and offer better “value for money”. Drawing on data from interviews, unstructured observations and insider narrative accounts, this thesis investigates the effects of the National Student Survey (NSS) on university lecturers, departments and universities. First, the NSS is shown to be a disciplinary technology through exposing lecturers to panoptical observa-tions and perpetual judgements. Moreover, the NSS embodies what Foucault called neo-liberal governmentality by creating an environment in which competition becomes the predominant mode of social relation. As a result, lecturers, departments and institutions are recast into disciplined and competitive subjects who are “free” to find innovative ways to raise student satisfaction scores. Simultaneously, the NSS governs academia by drawing powerful boundaries. This process of boundary formation is explored through Laclau’s work on antagonism where lecturer identities emerge through their rejection of “the demanding and dissatisfied student”. This amalgam of disciplinary, neo-liberal and antagonistic logics then results in an increasing atom-isation of lecturers. Last, DeLanda’s “assemblage theory” and Barad’s agential realism seek to provide a distinctly realist take on the NSS. Notably, Laclau’s and Barad’s works do not only open possibilities of analysing antagonistic relations between students and lecturers, but could also be read as a manual on how to create connectivities between stakeholders.

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