When answering the question “Why did you go to university?” The majority of users of The Student Room (TSR) – a website that 70% of all students visit annually – expressed their desire to earn a degree, access to better ones Opportunities to get and a more secure financial situation (Answers include, for example, “I want to be trained to get a better job and just so I have the qualifications” or “To get a better job and make money in the future” ). I was also driven by this logic when I decided to study, because I believed that it would offer me a direct path to a successful professional life. However, through my own experiences and conversations with my colleagues, I began to question the ability of universities to create this sense of security. I observed high levels of anxiety among students as concerns such as “What are you going to do next? How many applications have you sent? How Much Do They Pay Graduates? Will you be able to pay the debt? “Highlighted the risks associated with fee-paying degrees. Universities’ response to this concern always seems to be that higher education (HE) is a way to secure yourself – especially your economic self (Bialostok and Whitman 2012, 12 & 20).
This teleological reasoning gives an answer to the question of financial security, but it does not offer a solution to the ontological uncertainty – that is “security of being, a feeling of trust and confidence that the world is what it seems to be” ( Kinnvall 2004), 746) – you might feel if you are burdened with a large amount of debt, for example. This made me think about how universities produce and promote an idea of security that is not necessarily experienced as ontological security by students and scholars. Now, a few months before graduation, I feel less secure in my being and understanding of the world than what I expected – and to some extent promised – when I got into college. In this context, I have thought about the (in-) security dynamics that seem inseparable to the modern student. Then the question seems to me to be how the university shapes my understanding of security and insecurity. What are the ideological bases for your security concept? And how does that affect the self-esteem of students and academics?
To answer these questions, this paper will take an auto-ethnographic approach to the everyday experience of ontological security at the university. Company, a “layered report” that locates my “experience alongside data, abstract analysis and relevant literature” (Ellis et al., 2010, 20) and in this way avoids “self-extinction” (Dauphinee 2010, 817). In the context of this method, everyday security is described as a “practice of self-protection, which becomes the substance of people’s life, and as a discourse about danger and threat that … demarcate people’s days” (Ochs 2011, 3). In other words, this essay focuses on practices and discourses that shape the understanding of (in) security within the university.
In this paper I will first examine how the university creates a sense of ontological security. After that, I will examine whether this security is rooted in an ideology of neoliberalism found in the modern university, and therefore whether neoliberal subjects are produced by the university. In conclusion, I will ask whether the ontological security produced by neoliberal universities is in fact insecure. The conclusion that the ontological security created by the university is: dogmatic, (re) productive for a neoliberal ideology and built on shaky foundations.
How does the university make us feel safe?
In 2017/18 it was announced that “a record 50.2 percent of English 17-30 year olds have attended higher education” – mainly through the university (Kershaw 2019). When tuition fees were introduced in 1998, it was evident that all of this was being paid for for that privilege, either through self-financing, sponsorship, or by taking out a student loan (Anderson 2016). Clearly, given that outstanding student loans are growing by £ 16 billion annually, there is still an appetite for fee-funded colleges (Bolton 2019). That such demand persists only for fees, despite individual annual costs of £ 9,250, is due to the college’s transformative impact on skills, job prospects and income opportunities (UCAS 2016). In this way, “based on the human capital model … student debt [is]… An investment in the future ”(Scott et al., 2001, 8). In terms of ontological security, the university affirms the individual as a successful and legitimate member of society, to be confident and in a world where he can do better.
A central component of the university’s security regime is then the provision of skills. As pointed out by UCAS – the UK student application service – the university is evolving[s] the essential skills you need for your career and your professional life – communication, organization, time management, teamwork, leadership, problem solving ”(UCAS 2016). These skills reflect the desired criteria for most graduate schools or internship positions, both of which grab the attention of me and most of my colleagues. Indeed, small talk is no longer guided by the weather or television, but applications or career experiences dominate the conversation. In this context, it is not surprising that all of my third year module sketches have sections detailing your “Employment Skills” and that there are sessions as part of the University Career Service to better understand your “Transferable Skills”. By highlighting skills The university equips students with the tools they need to enter the globalized job market and identify themselves as competitive individuals (DfES 2006). In this way, the university constructs a stable personal narrative (Laing 1965) – namely that of a professional – with which the students have the confidence to claim their professional identity
In addition to skills, the university also claims to secure employment – a central component of identity (Levidow 2001). Referring back to TSR, comments such as “There will be jobs you will not be eligible for without a degree” reflect the importance of a university qualification to students. This is also indicated on sections of the degree websites, which almost always provide a list of the “career prospects” made possible by this qualification. It is therefore essential for a degree that it enables the student to work in specific contexts. It is, therefore, a natural conclusion that universities’ response to the increasingly specific expertise required for entry-level jobs in the knowledge economy is to provide an equally specialized graduation classification[s](Molesworth et al., 2009). A qualification is therefore a qualification that legitimizes an individual’s ability to assert knowledge claims that are necessary prerequisites for a specific job. In this way, a degree facilitates the construction of a knowledgeable self, making the subject employable and reducing the risk of poverty or social exclusion. As a result, the graduate is able to maintain a personal narrative that he is a productive and sought-after member of the labor market and, as such, is ontologically secure (Giddens 1991, 54).
The most commonly cited and culturally significant reason for going to university is earning potential. According to UCAS, a degree means “You will earn more.” The average salary for graduates is 30% higher than for non-graduates between the ages of 25 and 30 (UCAS 2016). In addition, a graduate earns an average of £ 168,000 to £ 252,000 more over a lifetime than a non-graduate (Walker and Zhu 2013). Such data is used by universities to justify college costs as an investment in your future self (Scott et al., 2001, 8). This argument is in line with the life cycle hypothesis that when people are young they take out loans – if necessary – to invest in their human capital, then repay it and save until middle age and consume after retirement (Deaton 2005). A degree then becomes a way of securing an economically prosperous future self made ontologically desirable by completing a socially privileged process of knowledge acquisition and then working hard. In addition, disposable income enables a wide range of self-affirmative measures, such as: B. Charitable donations that enable self-reproduction practices. In addition, according to market logic, a person is required who has a well-paid job (Hayek 2007, 114), which confirms the perception of others (Giddens 1991, 53). In this way, but also in the more fundamental sense that money today is a business of social and thus self-assessment (Mazzucato 2019), higher income consolidates one’s own self-confidence.
For this reason, the higher education sector has developed methods through qualification, employment and income to establish an ontologically stable identity for graduates. I saw this in the pride with which a friend told me he had secured a job in investment banking and the sadness with which another told me that his internship in financial services had not resulted in a job offer. The first confirmed that the “skills and expertise” he “acquired” through his “qualification” could secure his position, while the second challenged his “competitiveness”. However, none of our friends raised any doubts about the logic of the market during our conversations, which is behind their respective ontological security and uncertainty. Undoubtedly, however, such logic and neoliberal Dispotifs Now inhabit the university.
The arguments presented in this section underline the idea that by “acquiring” and then “attaining” a degree (Molesworth et al., 2009), ontological security can be (re) constructed. Certain assumptions are fundamental to this idea that market values such as individualism, consumerism and market participation can play an undisputed role at the university. In order to question these assumptions, the following section explains how the modern university produces neoliberal subjects whose ontological security depends on a neoliberal ideology.
The creation of the neoliberal subject
Neoliberalism in the broadest sense is “a value system in which the economic has replaced the intellectual and political and in which the competitive, rational individual outweighs the collective” (Phipps and Young 2014, 306). It is ontologically individualistic, universalizing, utilitarian and market-enhancing (Hayek 1948). In this way, it can already be seen as an undercurrent for much of the security regime described above. With the introduction of tuition fees, among other measures, claims are made that the university has clearly become neoliberal, forcing academics and students to become neoliberal subjects (see e.g. Molesworth et al. 2009; Ball 2012; Jessop 2018). This section therefore examines how the ontological security established by the university is conditioned by neoliberal logic, by what practices the university now implements neoliberalism, and how it therefore produces neoliberal subjects.
The ontological security, which is understood by the university as evoked by skills, employment and income, shows a marketing and “utilitarian preoccupation with extrinsic results” within the university (Brady 2012, 344). In terms of skills and employment, the logic of the market is reflected in the universities’ concern about producing “qualified” graduates (Reich 1991 in Morley 2003, 3). This desire, based on the government’s need to occupy the knowledge-based economy and justified by the characterization of students as profit maximizers, skews higher education education from a learning process to a process of acquisition and transaction (Jessop 2018). By adapting the curricula to the needs of the labor market, education is no longer an end in itself, but a means to employment (Morley 2003, 7). When education becomes a means of payment, it becomes a commodity and the student turns into a “student-consumer” (Naidoo and Jamieson 2006 in Brady 2012, 348). All student-consumer interactions with the university are therefore transactional: a payment is made and, in return, access to the knowledge-based economy is acquired. In this way, students cease to be “learners” and instead become graduates or graduates (Molesworth et al., 2009, 278), which then demonstrates the gainful nature of the modern undergraduate experience. Hence, through transactions and acquisitions that give universities a sense of ontological security, neoliberal logics are observed. This logic is based on the institutionalization of the neoliberal university and its enacted practices.
As outlined in the case of student and consumer ontological security, the university advocates the affirmation of identity by maintaining narratives, worldviews, and systems of being that depend on neoliberal value structures. The question then remains whether the university itself has become institutionally neoliberal and whether its practices – “structured actions embedded in certain contexts” (Adler and Pouliot 2011, 5) – reflect this. To provide an answer, I will analyze how the university disciplines its academics and introduces new management, looking at the students’ experience to see if neoliberalism permeates other aspects of the university.
There is an abundance of ways in which academic ontologies are disciplined – in the sense of Foucauldian (Foucault 1991) – two key avenues are the structures of risk and competition, both deeply neoliberal logics. The risk is shown in the fact that the shift towards a standard has established a relationship of “accountability” between academics who are service providers and students who are buyers (Jones 2007, 209). As the university responds to this logic by introducing practices such as timely module exams, where student feedback is central to the success of academics, there is increasing pressure on academics to keep students happy (Jones 2007, 209-10). As a result, there is a risk of negative personal impact, including content that destabilizes students or “allows time to write and research” where an academic is unresponsive to the students (Morley 2003, 133). To be on the safe side, scientists are embracing a shift towards service delivery and employing private sector technologies like PowerPoint to make their lectures easily accessible to students, undermining knowledge as a process of individual discovery (Tanczer et al. 2019, 14)). In this way, the risk distorts academics’ perceptions of self and reflects the university’s consumer priority nature.
In addition to the risk, the competition within the academy also underscores the neoliberal practice at the university. The competition, illustrated by the mantra “publish or go under”, has arisen in the context of the increasing precariousness of academic professions and permeates the everyday life of academics. Driven by the market logic of reducing costs and increasing productivity, the university demands a performance that can be measured in terms of both impact and profit (Ball 2012, 19). In terms of practice, this is reflected in the central importance of the ResearchGate results for academic profiles as well as in the frequency of citations of published works, both of which contribute to employment prospects (Tanczer et al. 2019, 24). In addition, the likelihood of promotion, if not previously recognized, is partly due to the income an academic can bring to the university, either through research grants or through conducting professional workshops (Molesworth et al., 2009, 280). In this way, fixed criteria are used to make academics “predictable”, which then also provides determinants for professional advancement and enables peer-to-peer measurement and competition.
Linked to the academic discipline is the “new management” regime within the university, in which “deans and department heads resemble managers rather than academic personalities” (Delanty 2001, 107 in Mavelli 2014, 862). A central result of this is the internalization of the logic of the market by those who run the university. This leads to the fact that preference is given to “hegmonic intellectuals” whose effects on the market are stronger and who are in greater demand in particular from companies and foreign students (who pay higher fees) (Jones 2007, 216). This arises from the need to compete successfully in the globalized university market, which, if achieved, will confirm the ontological portrayal of managers as competent neoliberal actors. As a result, education for education’s sake is disadvantaged in favor of “economic efficiency” (Lynch 2006, 7). Management practices ontologically restore the university itself as a being whose narrative confidence depends on the neoliberal understanding of its own success.
Understanding the university as clearly neoliberal raises the question of how it produces neoliberal subjects. This question is different from how the constitution of universities of ontological security depends on neoliberal logic, as the creation of neoliberal subjects goes beyond self-affirmation of a particular ontology through skills, employment, and income, and relates more to the construction of a new ontology. However, by creating neoliberal subjects, the university is concerned with understanding ontological security, insofar as it warrants the feeling of dealing with neoliberal principles.
First, the use of risk and competition as disciplining mechanisms underlines the need for academics to address the “exemplary neoliberal issue”[s]“(Kurowska 2020, 1). By creating a culture where academics are both suspicious of students and actively compete with each other, the result appears to be an increased reliance on logic of self-interest and risk. In an effort to promote themselves and thus improve their social status, the scientists meet the publication and teaching requirements demanded by the neoliberal university (Tanczer et al. 2019, 22). By avoiding content that destabilizes student self-narratives – which are often already neoliberal – they also show a sensitivity to the risky relationship that now drives their transactional relationship with students. It shows the conditions that lead academics to a reflexive dependence on neoliberal behavior. In this way it is shown how scientists move towards neoliberal subjectivities.
The lack of ontologically destabilizing content and the language with which the students are treated show our conditioning as neoliberal subjects. The lack of ontologically destabilizing content is related to managers ‘desire to produce the most employable graduates, as well as academics’ selfish exclusion from problematic issues. By excluding content that does not help secure a job, managers seek to create a graduate identity who is best placed to find employment and, as such, contribute to their ranking in the ranking (QS 2017). Academics working within the framework set by managers then build their modules on employable skills. This leads to a situation where the content of the modules confirms the identity of students and consumers as rational and self-serving market players. Consequently, students are given an ontological certainty that depends on participation in business.
In addition, the college’s language helps produce students as neoliberal subjects. I discovered this when I accessed the Student Loan Company (SLC) website, the nonprofit government student loan provider. The first time I used the SLC website was in my third year of college before I wrote this essay. At this point, I didn’t even have to set up an account as the annual loan application process was done on another Student Funding (SF) website that doesn’t show your total debt. So when setting up my SLC account, which is essentially just a loan repayment portal, I expected a login process like SF where I would provide my email address for registration. Instead, SLC needed a customer reference number. This confirmed two things for me: first, that HE saw me as a student-consumer, and second, that I will remain a “customer” for the time I am going to repay this debt. In this way, the language used catches me in a preoccupation with self-interest, in which I constantly consider whether I have the best value for my HE purchase. In a broader sense, this customer and debt regime produces “commercially oriented professionals”, among whom “values of public interest” play a secondary role in favor of an individualized neoliberal logic (Lynch 2006, 2). Then show how a language that simultaneously reifies the student-consumer (re) constructs graduates as neoliberal subjects.
In summary, ontological security based on skills, employment and income is interwoven with neoliberal assumptions. This then reflects that the university as an institution has now become clearly neoliberal in its practices through which it disciplines its academy and competes with other universities. As a result of these and other practices, the modern university now plays a key role in (re-) producing academics and students as neoliberal subjects. Consequently, it can be seen that the university conditions ontologies and the understanding of ontological security by forcing an alignment with neoliberal dogma and (re) establishing neoliberal identities. The ontological security that the university then offers can be called into question. The last part will therefore take a critical look at this question by asking whether the neoliberal university brings out the understanding of students in such a way that they feel ontologically insecure.
The neoliberal identity and ontological insecurity
To determine whether the neoliberal identity that is being (re) established by the modern university is ontologically insecure, I will fall back on my personal experience with debt-financed education. By focusing on debt, my analysis will not be relevant for the roughly 10% of self-financed students at English universities (Press Association 2019), but will provide a targeted intervention on how a debt-financed fee regime creates ontological uncertainty.
By registering for my SLC account, I became more aware of the neoliberal terms that discipline my interaction with HE. Upon accessing the account and seeing the amount of debt owed, I realized that I was deeply concerned. Fear here – which is “caused by disruptive circumstances or their threat” (Giddens 1991, 13) – is based, in my opinion, on an ontological destabilization which, if it is not caused by debt, is made understandable. Assuming that debt plays a role in this ontological uncertainty, the question remains: Why did seeing debt unbalance my self-esteem? I believe the answer to this is that I felt quantified by debt as it accurately measured the value of my accumulated knowledge and efforts over three years. When I thought about my experiences as a student, the “self-examination” (Giddens 1991, 53) that manifested itself was based on a cost-benefit analysis with the question: Have I received enough value for my investment? That this question dominated my self-analysis undermined the confidence I had in developing my intellectual curiosity about an employable profile during my studies. I then became attracted to a university-approved graduate identity in order to become a skilled and employable high income earner. This wish clearly reflected Kinnval’s view that the greater the ontological uncertainty, the greater the desire for a fixed identity (Kinnvall 2004, 749, 757). In my case, debt-driven fear destabilizes an identity based on intellectual curiosity and instead creates an ontological compulsion to conform to neoliberal logic. In this way, indebtedness undermines the self and creates in its place a neo-liberal subject.
By providing an autobiographical account of my debt experience, I have tried to convey the emotionality that comes with the process of a localized investigation into ontological (in-) security. The university experience, which generally occurs at the intersection of childhood and adulthood, should be expected to influence understanding, particularly of how to secure oneself in the world. I believe the problem that the neoliberalization of the university has brought with it is the instrumentalization of the process of becoming in the interest of maintaining the neoliberal logic of the market.
In summary, the everyday experience of the university – which is felt through its practices, discourses, and structures – can influence the understanding of security and insecurity. The perception of the ontological security it creates for its participants is dogmatic because it is based on a neoliberal ideology. Basic education has therefore largely ceased to be an ontological discovery and has instead become a process that imposes a singular, neoliberal logic on students. This led me to conclude that what previously seemed secure has made me feel insecure about my own identity. An interesting next step in exploring how the day-to-day experience of the fee-paying university affects understanding of ontological security and uncertainty would be to compare my experiences with students who don’t pay for their education. This would be particularly interesting for a country that still has a large public higher education system that exists outside of neo-liberal logic, such as France.
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The author’s identity has been verified by E-International Relations, but wishes to remain private.
Written at: Kings College London
Written for: Dr Emma Mc Cluskey
Date written: 12/2019
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