Dominant higher education imaginaries: Forced perspectives, ontological limits and recognising the imaginer’s frame

Matt Lumb and Matthew Bunn


With a focus on the Australian and UK higher education (HE) contexts, this chapter considers how dominant social imaginaries construct the HE student as a fully agcntic individual and the way this narrows the possibilities of how to be a student. We implement a sociological perspective on the notion of frame to analyse policy texts from Australia for empirical evidence regarding the ways in which the prevalent notion of employability increasingly patterns the purpose of study. While recognising that ‘understandings of “the student” differ in significant ways both across countries and, to some extent, within them’ (Brooks, 2019, p. 1), we explore in this work how a reified ‘individual’ student in HE is commonly imagined as a decontextualised container through a dominant construction or frame that enables certain horizons of student being while limiting others. Notably, this imagined individual is one that ‘possesses’ ability, aspiration, even education, for rational use orientated towards the maximisation of self-interest and the instrumental pursuit of HE for gaining well-paid careers. These epistemological constructions directly shape the possibilities of student being - across the field of policy, research, evaluation and practice - into an ontology that forecloses the promise of valuing education in any way contrary to the dominant framing. This forced perspective also works to hold in place a ‘naturalness’ of the purpose of HE, one that allows for ‘employable’ modes of self, practice and affect to appear as the benchmark of success. Simultaneously, this provides the conditions for stigmatising those who are unsuccessful in leveraging ‘their’ participation in HE towards industry interests, with worrying implications for projects of equity.

This chapter first sets out a theoretical explanation of a dominant epistemological construction of the student in HE as part of a set of contemporary social imaginaries (Taylor, 2003) that sustains a deeply inequitable status quo. We begin by drawing together sociological conceptualisations of misrecognition in relation to HE. We then relate this to how forced (privileged) perspectives of ‘imaginers’ construct educational spaces and the limits of ontological possibilities within these, including building on previous workthat unsettles taken-for-granted assumptions regarding conceptualisations of agency in educational policy and practice.

The chapter then builds on critiques of employability as it is variously conceived in HE; not to rehearse these or to accept and reinforce them, but to further trouble the underpinnings that facilitate the imagined student in contemporary contexts. To do so, we undertake a deconstruction of policy and programming texts in the Australian context, guided by Ball’s (2010) account of a shift from government to governance that has increasingly involved a blurring across different tiers of government and between private and public sectors. It is evident that these new ways of governing need new knowledge (and new knowledge brokers) to facilitate them. Our analysis aims to apprehend this constitution of‘ongoing transformation of the values, meanings and possibilities within our day-to-day activities in HE’ (Ball, 2010, p. 124). Our concern here is to question persistent notions of employability by paying attention to how the way that HE students arc imagined within governmental and institutional discourse coerces students into adopting these conditions as the limiting ‘common-sense’ that underpins the possible formations of the future. This question leads to our final move in this chapter, in which we draw on Barad’s agential realism in an effort to identify conceptual material for an ongoing project of reimagining our responsibility to students.

A contribution we seek to make throughout this chapter is to question the foundations from which processes of reimagining the HE student might be made and to articulate how this relates to projects of equity. ‘Widening Participation’ in HE is an accelerating concern in many western contexts yet it is power relations that effectively shape the horizon of possibilities. We therefore hold concern for the ways in which the discourses of employability within the current dominant social imaginaries forge realities for students in HE.

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