Bringing back the classroom: the experience of international students in the neo-liberal university

Marr, Elizabeth; Woodman, David and Huggins, Richard (2011). Bringing back the classroom: the experience of international students in the neo-liberal university. In: Changing Practice – Changing Times, Higher Education Academy Annual Conference, 05-06 Jul 2011, Nottingham.

URL: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/events...

Abstract

This paper draws on research into the experience of international students in three UK universities which highlights the need for significant cultural and organisational change in the university, a review of conceptions of the classroom and a radical reconfiguration of the relationship between tutor and student.

This paper has its origins in a piece of research funded by C-SAP, (the subject centre for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics) conducted at three UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). The research highlights the need for significant cultural and organisational change in both the classroom and the university in considering responses to greater diversity in the student body. In light of the research findings, and in an era in which discourses of consumerism increasingly permeate conceptions of students, staff and the role of the university, we argue that universities face a major challenge at both the classroom and institutional level. Existing policies and practices create structural barriers to the achievement of openness and inclusivity, particularly as they impact on the student experience. These barriers include the organisation and distribution of staff activity, attitudes towards staff development and the reification of teaching and research.

We suggest that the ‘iron cage of [institutional] bureaucracy’ has falsely concretised practices which result in a reproduction of existing norms and values, more appropriate to older elitist systems and to the detriment of the experience of students in a mass system. At particular risk are international students, seen as ‘cash cows’ by UK HEIs, (or, indeed, any students who appear ‘other’ in what is still a conservative environment) who are expected to learn the rules of the ‘inner game’ of higher education in order to succeed.

We therefore advocate a radical reconfiguring of the relationship between students and academic staff which focuses on practical engagement and engagement in practice rather than a response formulated in strategy and policy. This has implications for the management of teaching and learning, the design and delivery of courses, the size and shape of learning spaces and the organisational structure of the institution. It may necessitate a root and branch review of a range of institutional strategies, including internationalisation, equality and diversity, estates and services, learning, teaching and assessment and widening participation and a closer alignment between them.

Using examples from the research, we will question whether universities are both able and willing to meet these challenges.

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