Economic Subjectivities in Higher Education: Self, Policy and Practice in the Knowledge Economy

Article excerpt


In the macro-narratives of educational and economic discourse, higher education is 'big business'-a key sector in the global knowledge economy, and a major export industry in the national economies of Anglophone countries.1 As universities engage in competition for students, resources and rankings, the everyday activities and subjectivities of tertiary learners and educators are discursively reconfigured according to market models. Students are clients, educators are service providers, and 'quality' teaching, learning objectives and student attributes and outcomes are the new language of pedagogy. But in the micro-narratives of everyday teaching and learning, higher education is refracted through multiple lenses of experience and encounter. As Gert Biesta points out, 'the role of the University is not exhausted by its economic function' and that 'although neo-liberal policies increasingly present a University education as an investment in one's future employability, we also should not forget those who engage in Higher Education first and foremost for personal fulfilment and for the intrinsic rather than the exchange value of a University degree'.2 Thus the desired/desirable economic subject of higher education discourse-the market-savvy chooser who drives competition through consumer demand for product quality and customer satisfaction, who recognises the worth of his or her own human capital and the (brand) value of degrees within business and industry, and who takes up the technopreneurial challenges and opportunities supposedly on offer-seems to bear only traces of resemblance to the embodied subjects of everyday life and learning who inhabit the classrooms and corridors of academe.

In this article, I consider the discursive constitution of the university as a site for the production of economic subjectivities. Drawing insights from Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Nikolas Rose, I argue that pedagogic encounter-and the subjective and collective possibilities represented therein-is increasingly disciplined through its reconfiguration in terms of economic exchange.3 I explore the implications for those whose learning and labour are shaped in and through the experience of universities, contending that economic discourse displaces, disciplines and disrupts (perhaps even productively) educational discourse. Finally, I engage ideas from feminist economic studies to call for a decentering of market metaphors in educational discourse and to suggest the need for a new language of encounter in the ongoing dialogues between economy and education.4


Over the past decade, concerns about the 'enterprise university' have provoked a number of scholars to consider how the convergence of education with commercialism might impact on both student learning and academic work.5 Much of this scholarship has focused on the ways that students increasingly see education as a product that can be purchased and used as they, its consumers, see fit, and on the implications of consumer orientations for student learning, engagement and ethical conduct.6 The emphasis that policy makers and universities alike place on higher education as a knowledge industry that in turn serves the demands of business, industry and the global knowledge economy, has promoted views of university study that are increasingly outcomes-driven rather than learning-oriented.7 As David Chan and William Lo observe from the Hong Kong context, corporate culture within universities is seen by many as 'an erosion of the conduct of higher education [that] would send an incorrect message to students. For instance, the consumerist culture on campus makes them unable to distinguish the role of citizen from consumer.'8 Scholars have become increasingly concerned about the impacts of managerialism and regulatory audit cultures in the neoliberal university on the everyday working lives of academic subjects. …