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!

Why is gender a contemporary issue?

[This post accompanies a taught programme for undergraduate students at Keele University]
Some of you may well have noticed the media reports back in November that despite the legislation to equalise pay between men and women which has been part of law in many countries for over 50 years, progress in gender equality as indicated by the pay gap is still limited, not only in the UK, but worldwide. Such media reports focus attention on the persistence of structural inequality, but there are also persistently wide discrepancies in occupation, and in the gender expectations of certain types of work and how it is performed.
Our lecture on MAN 30047 from Dr Deborah Kerfoot emphasised the significance of how we think about difference as something that is performed in our everyday actions. The associated reading also draws on the idea of ‘habitus’, from Bourdieu; the idea that these repeatedly performed attitudes and behaviours become closely inscribed in our identities and in our bodies. Although a contemporary issue, you might be surprised to find out that the notion of the performance of difference (in studies of gender, at least), was widely popularised in an article by West and Zimmerman (1987) entitled Doing Gender‘. If you follow this link and scroll down you will see the large number of articles this publication influenced, which include a large variety of topics on business and organization as well as sociology in general.

This approach is important when you think about how frequently most research is interested only in the business case for diversity in organizations. The ‘business case’ approach often assumes that our identities are fixed by our own decisions, a result of choices freely made throughout our lifetime. What the performative approach emphasises is that many of these decisions might have slipped by unnoticed in our everyday practices of getting by in the workplace and fitting in. As such, small things such as an organizational dress code, or recruitment policies looking for the ‘proper look’ for an organization, neglect to realise that these practices are learned and performed through association with certain communities. It also attempts to rationalise people’s complex lives and connections to each other as the choices of individual ’employment applicants’, thereby justifying ongoing practices of exclusion or even harassment.

These expectations are not only something that affect workers, they are often part of our social experience in education and become a part of how we learn what is appropriate to our identity as we grow and age. An excellent article in The Conversation identifies how we might even experience these expectations as very young children. As such, it wouldn’t be surprising to identify such clear discrepancies between the genders when we get older as ‘natural’; after all, very few people have clear memories of their developing opinions and expectations as a very young child.
This in-built bias is often addressed by attempts to counter it in state-sponsored interventions, such as attempts to increase female participation in education in the STEM subjects. But it is not only women who are disadvantaged. Men are also excluded or discriminated against in particular occupations, even where they can make a genuine claim to merit and, as individuals, work hard to ensure they present themselves ‘in the right way’ (i.e a feminine way). This article on a blog featuring work by members of the American Sociological Association highlights how in some occupations, male workers are simply not tolerated by public expectations around gender performance and ‘natural’ behaviour.

As a student thinking about your own expectations, you might want to consider the sorts of things you might list as measures of ‘appropriate behaviour’ among your own group of friends or acquaintances, and how those expectations might change for people who were work colleagues. Consider what you might consider a challenge to your identity practices. You might find this discussion of ‘policing’ of appropriate behaviour in an American high school informative. Such behaviour in school might influence what sort of further education or training you might be likely to consider a good prospect. Take some time to reflect on this and consider what it might mean in your experience for the tendency for workers to become segregated in different occupations according to gender.

So many outlets, so little time!

…or, why this blog isn’t more regularly updated

Followers of this blog may have been wondering for some time where it’s author has got herself to. In general this is a consequence of writing for other platforms, including academic journals and books, and blogging internally for my students. In order to be more equitable, I have decided to begin simultaneously posting material from my student focussed blog here, for general readers. If you would prefer to see this content on the original site, however, it can be found at

So what is this other blog about?

The MAN 30047 blog is a companion for students studying the module “Contemporary Issues in Management” at Keele University. This module seeks to strengthen student knowledge of management and organisations by emphasising a critical approach to contemporary events. In order to direct everyone’s attention to what happens outside, as well as inside the classroom, the blog serves to encourage students’ active participation with reflections on guest lecture content, links to other source materials and questions for personal reflection. Students have to draw on and reflect upon their experiences of organisations including work and education and share them with the rest of the class. As such, these posts may also be of interest to the general reader.

The taught module relies upon the key text Contemporary Issues in Management, edited by Hamilton, Mitchell and Mangan, published by Edward Elgar. It can be purchased directly from the publisher, or through other booksellers and is available in paperback, hardback and e-book.

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.