Student as Producer: reinventing the undergraduate curriculum through systematic and cultural change

Please see these notes for my talk at the Warwick Universities Summit, 2014, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK

15th February, 2014

Thank you for inviting me. It is a pleasure to be here, to share my ideas and my work with you.

I have been asked to speak to the topic: The Measure of a Good Education.

The title for my talk is –  Student as Producer: reinventing the undergraduate curriculum through systematic and cultural change.

There are three parts to my talk which will last twenty minutes:

1. Critique of  the National Student Survey, an influential measure of student satisfaction:  academics argue that the NSS tends towards  instrumental, functionalist and conformist forms of teaching and learning.

2. Alternatives (formal-inside HE) Student as Producer:  reinventing higher education  through a systematic cultural institutional change by re-engineering the relationship between research and teaching so undergraduate students become part of the academic project of the university.  Currently this work is ongoing at the University of Lincoln, as part of an approach to teaching and learning in higher education that began at Warwick and Oxford Brookes University in 2004 with The Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research. The work has continued at Warwick through  Reinvention: An International Journal of Undergraduate Research, published jointly with Monash University in Australia.

3. Alternatives (informal- outside HE)  Social Science Centre, Lincoln, a worker-student cooperative providing free public higher education, attempting to create a new form of ‘living knowledge’  (Roggero 2011): systemic and cultural change at the level of society.

I will conclude with some remarks about the future of the future, and how it has not yet been decided.

1. National Student Survey (NSS)

Since its introduction in 2005 the NSS has come to play a very significant role in academic life, setting measurable standards for the quality of teaching and learning in higher education (Hagyard 2009, Sabri 2011, Buckley 2012). These measures create a competitive environment among Higher Education providers, requiring them to compare each other’s performance as part of National League Tables (Amsler and Bolsman 2012). The NSS has consistently recorded that the quality of teaching and learning is of a high standard (Hagyard 2009). The non-public information derived from the NSS, which includes qualitative comments by students, provides ‘fascinating insights’ into students’ experience of higher education (Surridge 2006, 2007). The NSS generates important information for Higher Education providers on matters relating to the effects of age, ethnicity, gender and disability on student satisfaction (Hagyard 2009). 


The NSS has attracted a considerable amount of criticism from academics (Harvey 2008). Foremost among these criticisms are:

* The survey casts students in the role of passive consumers, when the imperative for the most progressive Higher Education Institutions is to encourage their students to actively engage in both the learning and quality enhancement processes (Sabri 2011, Kuh 2009)

* The NSS is seen as part of an increasingly bureaucratic approach to teaching and learning that reduces the role of academics in the governance and management of their own professional practices (Shattock 2012)

* The difference between university scores can, in some cases, be regarded as statistically insignificant (Hagyard 2009)

* The notion of ‘student satisfaction’ implies a phenomenological approach to pedagogy with no external reference point and grounded in cognitive psychology, while all the time privileging rational-choice theories of human behaviour (Sabri 2011, Amsler and Bolsman 2012)

* This neo-positivist approach to gathering data-driven intelligence about students underplays the social and political issues that lie at the heart of education practices and policies (Sabri 2011).

League Tables

The critiques of the NSS form part of wider dissatisfaction relating to national and international leagues tables in general, where league tables are seen as elitist and exclusionary, leading to the alignment of higher education with neo-liberal rationalities, extending marketised imperatives into every aspect of university life (Amsler and Bolsman 2012, Baker 2010, Stensaker 2005 Morgan 2010, Marginson 2007). It appears as if the main purpose of the NSS is to provide a measure by which Universities can be graded rather than a reliable basis for improvements in teaching and learning (Harvey 2008). In Germany academics are boycotting University rankings, casting doubt on their methodology and motivations, while producing their own alternative method of scholarly evaluation (Universities in Crisis 2013, Mechan Schmidt 2013, Amsler 2013).

Academics argue that the most effective way to improve higher education is through systematic and cultural change at the institutional level (Hagyard 2009). This whole institutional approach needs to be based on a vision of teaching and learning that is shared across the institution (Sabri 2011, Bovill in press). While responding directly to student views and opinions about their learning is important, there is a danger that instrumental approaches to teaching improvement create the kind of teaching regimes that are not the most effective in achieving student success (Kuh 2009). This instrumentalism is seen  in the nature of the questions on teaching and learning in the current NSS, encouraging pedagogical practices that are antithetical to higher learning: Q1 promotes transmission teaching based on the clarity of lecturers’ explanations rather than enquiry-based teaching; Q3 focuses on the performance of the teacher rather than the quality of the learning environment.

HEFCE/HEA Evaluation

Limitations with the current NSS format have been recognised by HEFCE, who have commissioned a pilot study by the HEA. This pilot is complemented by a HEFCE consultation about possible revisions to the current NSS, with the possible intention to introduce a new questionnaire after 2016. It is likely the new format will have a more student engagement focus based on national student engagement surveys already in existence, e.g., in the USA and Australia (Grove 2013). The difference between engagement focused and more consumerist surveys is that while consumerist surveys  focus on what educational offer is made to  students,  student engagement surveys  focus on student involvement  with what is offered (Van der Velden in Buckley 2012).

2. Student as Producer: Mind-Set not Data-Set

How can academics and students  respond positively to the current NSS framework?  The main issue is finding a way to use student intelligence not just as a data-set to which the institution responds, but as a mind-set: an attitude that recognises that students are intelligent subjects with the capacity and potential for enhancing not only the student experience but the quality of academic life.

As we have seen, academics argue the most effective way to improve teaching and learning in  higher education is through systematic and cultural change at the institutional level (Hagyard 2009). This whole institutional approach needs to be based on a vision of teaching and learning that is shared across the institution (Sabri 2011).

At Lincoln that shared vision of teaching and learning is Student as Producer.

Student as Producer is the organising principle for teaching and learning at Lincoln, and the core element of the University’s teaching and learning plan. Student as Producer promotes research-engaged teaching as the default type of teaching and learning across all courses at all levels of the undergraduate curriculum. The key principle is that undergraduate students become part of the academic project and culture of the university. Examples of Student as Producer at Lincoln includes student work in the Life Science: Biobunch and in the Humanities Making Digital History.

Student as Producer is based on the understanding that research and teaching have become disengaged in ways  that are detrimental to academic and student life (Boyer1990). Student as Producer is not simply about teaching and learning, but asks fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of higher education: promoting ‘the idea of the university’, as a radical political project. Student as Producer is derived from a critique of ‘academic capitalism’  and  is an act of resistance to the concept of student as consumer. Student as Producer is aware that a free university is only possible in a free society;  otherwise it’s a reading room in a prison  (After the Fall: Communiques from Occupied California 2009).

There is much that can be said about all of this, not least the theoretical underpinnings of Student as Producer and its grounding in critical and popular pedagogies, including the work of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Student as Producer is derived from the title of Benjamin’s lecture, ‘Author as Producer’ (1934), which attempted to answer the question: ‘How do radical intellectuals act in a moment of crisis? Not all academics at Lincoln are revolutionary Marxists, nor do they all concur with the political philosophy on which Student as Producer is constructed, but many have sought to implement Student as Producer through their own pragmatic, as they might see it, variations. Student as Producer provides a critical framework through which the current nature of academic labour and student life can be considered as an alternative to the managerialist and business logic which has become the  commonsensical language and hegemonic discourse of higher education.

I have written more on this subject and  would like to point you in the direction of that literature (Neary 2012a, 2012b, 2012c; Neary and Amsler  2012; Neary and Hagyard 2011; Neary 2013;  Neary 2014 ). Perhaps I can elaborate on some of  these theoretical points  further during the question and answer session.

Student as Producer has had a significant impact at Lincoln and at other HEI providers nationally, for example, here at Warwick, Liverpool University, the University of Hertfordshire;  and internationally, for example,Vanderbilt University in the USA and the University of British Columbia in Canada. Student as Producer has played a key role in promoting the notion of student engagement and Student as Partners, sponsored by the QAA and the HEA. The danger is that the radical agenda of Student as Producer will be overwhelmed by the logic of the neo-liberal university. The response by some academics and students at Lincoln has been to further radicalise this work by the invention of the Social Science Centre, Lincoln.

3. Social Science Centre, Lincoln

The Social Science Centre, Lincoln provides free cooperative higher education. The Centre has no formal connection with the University of Lincoln.The SSC was set up in 2010 in response to the massive rise in student fees and the withdrawal of all public funds for teaching in the arts, humanities and the social sciences. The Centre uses free available public space in Lincoln, for example, libraries, community centres, museums, art galleries and common land.  Students can study for awards that  correspond to higher education degrees,  granted not by any national validating body but by academics and students (scholars) involved in the Centre, including external members. There is no fee. Members are invited to make a contribution based on their ability to pay. Scholars manage the Centre in  non-hierarchical and democratic ways based on consensual decision making. There are currently more than twenty registered members of the SSC with over 100 names on the mailing list. The SSC has attracted considerable attention: a recent feature article in the Times Higher Education ( May 2013) described the Centre as ‘Something New in Freedom.’ You can also read about the SCC in Adults Learning, published in Spring 2012 by the National Institute for Adult and Community Education. The title of the article is ‘Anyone can teach, everyone can learn.’  In November 2013 members of the SSC were asked to write an article for Radical Philosophy: An Experiment in Free Co-operative Higher Education.

The SSC is part of a  movement to create alternative forms of higher education in the UK, which includes Peoples Political Economy, the Free University Brighton, Ragged University, Cardiff Free University; and internationally, including Edu-factory and the Knowledge Liberation Front.  You can trace some of these projects on a counter-cartographies map curated by my PhD student, Gary Saunders.

The SSC is an attempt to make  systematic and cultural change not within an already existing institution, but as a new form of social institution. This is what Roggero means by ‘living knowledge’.

The future?

Academics argue that the profit motive of academic capitalism, and the measuring systems through which it endures, are antithetical to the academic imperative that seeks  to produce of knowledge and meaning for the benefit of humanity and nature. It is important that those of us who share this academic imperative develop critical interventions that provide  ways of working together as academics and students  based on the politics of abolition,  collaboration, co-operation, democracy, equality and social justice. It is vital that these critical interventions seek to impact not only at the level of the institution, but at the level of society ( Fielding and Moss 2008). The future has not yet been decided!

Further reading

Amsler, S. and Bolsman, C. (2012) ‘University Ranking as Social Exclusion’, British Journal of Sociology of Education (33) 2 283-301

Baker, S. 2010. Share value? Plans to aid creation of HE plc. Times Higher Education, 19th August 26&storycode=413093&c=1.

Bovill, C. (in press) An investigation of co-created curricula within higher education in the UK, Ireland and the USA, Innovations in Education and Teaching International

Boyer, E. ( 1990) Scholarship Reconsidered: The Priorities of  Professoriate, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, Princeton, MA

Buckley, A. (2012) Making it Count: Reflecting on the National Student Survey in the Process of Enhancement, Higher Education Academy, York

Crawford, K. (2013) Report on College of Social Science Workshop to Explore Action Plans Resulting from 2012-2013 Student Surveys, Education Committee, University of Lincoln 25 September

Fielding, M. and Moss, P. (2008 ) Radical Education and the Common School: A Democratic Alternative, Routledge, London and New York

Grove, J. (2013) ‘Hold Bad News About Grades Until After the NSS’, Times Higher Education, 15th August

Hagyard, A. (2009) ‘Student Intelligence: Challenging Received Surveys in Student Surveys’  in L Bell, H Stevenson and M Neary The Future of Higher Education, Continuum, London and New York 112 – 125

Harvey, L. (2008) Jumping Through Hoops on a White Elephant: a survey signifying nothing, Times Higher Education,, June 12th

Kuh, G.D. (2009) The National Survey of Student Engagement: Conceptual and Empirical Foundations, New Directions for Institutional Research  (141) 5 – 20

Marginson, S. (2007) University Rankings, Government and Social Order

Mechan Schmidt, F, (2013) ‘German Academics Boycott CHE ranking system’ Times Higher Education, 21st March

Morgan, J. (2010) Higher Education Becomes a Globally Traded Commodity as Demand Soars, Times Higher Education 22nd July 6–7.

Neary, M (2012) Student as producer: an institution of the common? [or how to recover communist/revolutionary science].’ , Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences, Higher Education Academy, York

Neary, M. (2012b) ‘Teaching Politically: Policy, Pedagogy and the New European University’, Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 10 (2)

Neary, M. and Amsler, A. (2012) ‘Occupy: A New Pedagogy of Space and Time’,Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 10(2)

Neary, M. and Hagyard, A. (2011) Pedagogy of Excess: An Alternative Political Economy for Student Life, In M. Molesworth, E. Nixon and R. Scullion, (eds) The Marketisation of Higher Education and Student as Consumer, Routledge, London and New York:

Neary, M. ( 2012c) ‘Beyond Teaching in Public: The University as a Form of Social Knowing’ in M Neary, H Stevenson and L Bell ( eds) Towards Teaching in Public: Reshaping the Modern University, Continuum, London and New York

Neary, M. (2014), “The university and the city: Social Science Centre, Lincoln – forming the urban revolution”, in Temple, P. (ed) The Physical University: Contours of space and place in higher education. Abingdon: Routledge

Neary, M. (2013) ‘Student as Producer: Radicalising the Mainstream in Higher Education’ in E. Dunn and D. Owen, The Student Engagement Handbook: Practice in Higher Education, Emerald Books, Bingley

Roggero, G. ( 2011) The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Academic Labour in Europe and North America, Temple University Press

Sabri, D,  (2011) ‘What’s Wrong with the Student Experience’ Discourses: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education  32(5) 657 667

Shattock, M (2012) Making Policy in British Higher Education 1945 – 2011, McGraw Hill, Maidenhead and New York

Stensaker, B. (2005) ‘Strategy, identity and branding: Re-inventing Higher Education Institutions’, Paper presented to the City Higher Education Seminar Series (CHESS), City University, London, UK 7th December

Surridge, P. (2006) The National Student Survey 2005: Findings, HEFCE Report

Surridge, P (2007) The National Student Survey 2006: Findings, HEFCE Report
Universities in Crisis (2013) Germans Boycott University Rankings


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