0 comments on “Neoliberalising HE: The USS Strike Part I”

Neoliberalising HE: The USS Strike Part I

This post is part one in a multi-part series explaining how the 2018 USS Pension strike is closely entwined with and an example of neoliberalisation. It is a long post, but assumes no prior knowledge of any of the concepts or context. If you want to look up the fabulous commentaries of colleagues who are much more familiar with this material and have been following this issue for a considerable amount of time, there are references and links at the bottom of the post.

In this post I will briefly cover neoliberalism, managerialism and some examples of this in the UK public sector. I will then go on to outline some of the ways in which colleagues have raised concerns that this is now ongoing in HE and how it affects this dispute.

1.1 What is neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is a contested term which emerged from debates over economic reform and is often reproduced by its contemporary detractors as a shorthand reference to any political ideology promoting increased marketisation (ie introducing the characteristics of market exchange) of previously non-marketised sectors. Boas & Gans-Morse (2009), writing in the field of development studies, outline that debates in academic literature often refer to different types of neoliberalism; i) economic reform, ii) a politico-economic model for rapid development, iii) ideology and iv) academic paradigm.

Neoliberal economic reform refers to the elimination of price controls, deregulation of capital markets and reduction of trade barriers as well as a broader tendency towards reducing the role of the state and facilitating privatization of state-owned enterprise. In principle this also endorses the reduction or removal of state subsidies, though in practice these are often converted into incentives (at least in the short term) to encourage private industry to take on seemingly unprofitable state functions. In the case of development, the objective of this ‘liberalisation’ of activity is to make a broader range of opportunities for investment available, therefore encouraging an influx of capital to the economy. A further objective lies in the consequent lower financial risks held by the state, making it easier for governments to borrow funds for other projects. Moving from a state-centred development model towards a neoliberal model often requires substantial restructuring of relations between state and other actors, such as labour unions, private enterprise etc. The development model also therefore involves substantial policy changes.

Neoliberal ideology, while often found in conjunction with neoliberal economics or social policy, refers to the emphasis on individual freedoms rather than collective responsibilities as inhabiting the core of social value. Consequently, proponents of this ideology advocate understanding of social and economic issues primarily as they apply to the abstract individual. This ideology is much more frequently found in individualistic cultures, and is popular in countries such as the United Kingdom, United States and Australia.

The neoliberal academic paradigm refers to assumptions about human nature and free will as they inform classical economics, primarily that individuals are rational and efficient maximisers of utility and profit. This particular simplification is sometimes described as a branch of positivist philosophy, as it represents the search for universal laws of human behaviour in markets based on an epistemology which accepts objective observation only. Individual academics hold a wide variety of different positions even within this paradigm, particularly on the importance of the rights of the abstract individual (which may require collective legislation to protect) versus the liberties of specific individuals to do what they please in society. However, the paradigm is widely critiqued as an oversimplification of human decision-making, ignoring the possibility of human development, and as a model which unrealistically prioritises masculinist and anomic assumptions about individuals’ existence outside of their relationships to others.

The popularity of neoliberalism (in all of the above meanings of the term) in public discourse can be seen to mark a particular historical turning point. As Boas and Gans-Morse (ibid) identify, the original proposals of the Freiburg school in Germany during the 1930s in fact were a moderate position as they advocated more regulatory intervention by the State than under laissez-faire liberalism in order to facilitate fair competition in the marketplace and enhance social welfare. However, following the successful economic period of the 1960s, substantial inflation linked to price hikes in oil combined with the growth of economies long challenged by post-war underdevelopment began to challenge dominant Western economies and undermine faith in Keynesian economic policies which foregrounded the role of the state. The resulting widespread advocacy of market fundamentalism in America (Reaganism) and the United Kingdom (Thatcherism) in the 1980s, labeled for critique by opponents as ‘neoliberal’ proposed less state intervention or control of national resources, industry and services. 

1.2 What is New Public Management/New Managerialism?

In the United Kingdom as well as in a number of other countries in the world, we have been going through an historic shift in which legal regulation on individuals has increased, state responsibilities have been decreased and the delegation of state protected industries to private enterprise has been accelerated. In the UK this has coincided with substantial divestment from manufacturing and heavy industry, patchwork divestment from agricultural industry (mainly in relation to treaty agreements with EU and neighbouring producers over commodities such as milk and fish) and a shift towards an economy based on financial services, research and development, legal services and other knowledge work. It is no surprise that these changes coincide with increased competition in manufacturing (increasingly advanced) products overseas and an increase in global trade. Where industry remained with minimal or no state support, substantial arguments over how such activities ought to be run and managed were informed by the growing proponents of managerialism.

Enteman (1993) describes managerialism as a prevailing ideology which is characterised by the belief that the nature of an activity is immaterial to how it ought to be organised, which can be distilled to a set of universal techniques and expert processes. In this interdisciplinarity, managerialism is in alignment with the premises of neoliberalism, as the universal characteristics of management facilitate the justification of divesting state-operated activities to a market of private enterprise or to individuals. This legitimation, along with the frequent challenge that industries had to be ‘competitive’ in order to survive, fuelled the advocacy of managerial practices as politically neutral and reductionist arguments that omit the recognition of the social and political value of certain activities as well as economic value.

More recent scholarship on managerialism has highlighted specific principles which are clearly in common with neoliberalism described above; competition, deregulation, the pursuit of efficiency and the advocation of privatized industries. It is further argued that it is important to recognise the role of business and management schools in advocating and perpetuating this ideology, both among students and through influential publications such as the Harvard Business Review (Klikauer 2015). Individual corporate managers are also identified as beneficiaries of this thinking, as the financial and social value of such work is substantially inflated by this thinking. It is perhaps on this basis that managerialism is also said to describe the colonisation of organisation by layers of highly-paid ‘professional managers’. These communities label the principles of managerialism differently, yet whether ‘modernisation’, ‘market reform’, ‘shareholder value’ or another term is applied, all advocate the prioritisation of the same underlying principles.

Further to the long process of privatisation of a range of state-run or state-owned industries in the UK (from fuel extraction, power generation, sanitation and water supply, rail, airline, telephone and postal networks), very few statutory corporations in state ownership remain, of which the National Health Service (formed following the Beveridge report 1942) is one. In contradiction to neoliberal and managerialist principles, the full nationalisation of British Rail was reversed with respect to the track and signalling infrastructure after the Hatfield Rail Crash in 2000 which exposed flouting of health and safety procedures by the privatised Railtrack and their contractors. This was further evidence that the notion of universal managerial principles in which a certain level of risk was acceptable were not suitable in the management of public infrastructure following the Ladbroke Grove rail crash in 1999 where preventative safety measures had been ruled out in cost-benefit analysis.

Despite contradictory examples challenging the authority of managerialism, political pressures to reduce the cost of state-run services have resulted in the introduction of ‘professional management’ and it’s techniques in areas such as healthcare under the label ‘New Public Management’ (NPM). Under NPM, different public services are encouraged to behave as competitors in a market for public funds, where the introduction of private organisations may also challenge for similar objectives. Decision making is, in addition, decentralised and sub-units of the organisation (such as local clinics) have more scope to decide how to allocate their resources. The use of contractors is encouraged along with a focus on cost-minimisation and target-based performance monitoring. These features of NPM are advocated as providing particular benefits, such as cost reduction, service differentiation (ie services provided are more specific and relevant to the needs of the locality) and choice. The use of NPM in the National Health Service, along with several restructurings and attempts to apply technology to ‘modernise’ and improve efficiency in the service have been widely criticised as unproductive, counter to the demands of public health provision, and short-sighted. A more moderate evaluation of the techniques on their own terms highlights that the proposed benefits do not always align with public demands for equitable and universal access to services (Simonet 2015).

Unlike the National Health Service, provision of education in the UK does not rest within a State-owned corporation but rather in a complex relationship between multiple institutions in receipt of state funding. A range of religious institutions, charitable and fee-paying schools provided education services in the UK until the end of the 19th century until the Education act of 1918 sponsored compulsory provision of primary and secondary education. Nonetheless, in line with managerialist ideology, a number of the same processes applied following privatisation in areas such as rail and mail or in NPM in the NHS can be seen in recent transformations in UK education.  

While the UK school system is complex to those unfamiliar with it, a simplified picture begins with the identification of the majority of institutions historically as either locally-run and publicly owned schools subject to national governance regarding curriculum and regulation by Ofstead, or a minority of independent fee-paying establishments who are mainly exempt. However, reforms beginning in the late 1990s introduced  a range of different school operating models in which capital assets might be owned or operated by private organisations or charitable trusts, staff may be employed by the local government authority, school governing board or a private organisation such as a multi-academy trust.

An important feature of these new developments is the way in which they characterise school buildings as financial assets in which private corporations may invest (privitisation), in the segregation of school governance from local authority oversight in favour of individual negotiation directly with the government Department for Education (deregulation) and in the promotion of differentiation in educational provision measured through Ofstead rankings, KPIs and other published outcomes (competition). Despite these changes, there is no evidence as yet that the new structure (academies) produce overall better educational outcomes (Gorard 2009). However, the differentiation in school provision does lead to substantial disadvantage for those unable to access ‘better’ educational services and impedes the ability for those services to improve without accepting a move to private investment and control. Although the introduction of privatisation has been widespread, these organisations maintain a not-for-profit orientation. Nonetheless, they impose a profit-driven, managerialist and competitive logic in which the state takes a less direct role (Ball 2009; 2012) and in which corporate entrepreneurialism is normalised (Woods et al 2007).

Examples such as rail, health and education show that considerable evidence to challenge the premises of universally appropriate methods and techniques of management, the idea that privately-run services in competition produce better outcomes, that attempts to model public services as commodity markets are effective or that the public can identify with a consumer choice model for such services.

1.3 What does this have to do with the 2018 UCU Pension strike?

In Higher education, as with other areas of education, debates have increasingly focused on the responsibility of universities as trainers of the next generation of value-producing individuals. This has coincided, since the introduction of university tuition fees in 1998 (and in 1999 loans in place of maintenance grants), with language which encourages students to view themselves as consumers making an ‘investment’ in their future career potential. The introduction of tuition fees, while originally advocated in order to address a government financial deficit in HE and to promote increased participation in education at university level, have been a key stage in the promotion of privatization in HE. Although loans for fees and maintenance are issued based on the government-backed Student Loan company, a portion of debts accrued between 1990-1998 have been sold on to private debt collection agencies. Student accommodation firms are also frequently the beneficiaries of the readily available maintenance loans, with multiple universities investing in construction of new accommodation alone or in private partnerships (see Hale 2018 for more on this).

While university funding for home students’ tuition used to be routinely capped at a fixed number of places, the introduction of student fees and later removal of the cap on places (in 2015) encouraged universities to think of themselves as competing ‘providers’ of an educational service to home students in much the same way as they marketed themselves abroad. By removing the regulation on numbers and attaching funding to students, the recruitment of students became a competition for resources and by increasing the annual intake universities benefited from economies of scale, particularly in courses with low costs (such as the humanities). To address the need for additional teaching and administrative capacity, facing uncertain recruitment figures, managers of university departments looked to act as they previously did to cover staff on research leave – employ more staff on short-term contracts, such as hourly paid lecturers and termtime-only administrators. Although these staff were eligible for some of the benefits of other staff, such as the pension scheme or reduced cost childcare, most were paid only a fraction of those on full-time contracts and as such could not afford to pay for such benefits. The introduction of performance ranking measures such as TEF also indicated a likelihood that student numbers would regularly fluctuate in future based on modelling students as consumers of a preferred service.

It is in this context that the administrative organisation representing universities contributing to the USS Pension scheme (Universities UK) began discussions regarding reducing the financial risk of the scheme bourne by university employers. It is important to note that there are two significant pension schemes which cover most UK universities; the USS scheme (which applies to pre-1992 institutions) and the TPS scheme (which applies to post-1992 universities and other schools and colleges). The USS pension was recently subject to substantial changes following disputes over TPS, and in which the negotiated outcome for TPS was broadly matched by USS. The introduction of divergence between the two schemes can (and has) been identified as a basis of competition between the two communities of universities. Beyond the politics of collective negotiation, a wealth of information has also emerged in the early stages of this dispute to indicate that the valuation of the total assets of USS  against its potential liabilities is empirically unsound (see Otsuka’s many 2018 commentaries for a blow-by-blow account of the valuation), and the risk is not as substantial as it appeared.

It is unclear why UUK would continue to attempt to push for the changes to the scheme rather than take time to review their valuation method. However, collections of reports, presentations and other relevant documents by Felicity Callard (2018 twitter) has indicated a narrative focused on entrepreneurialism and choice, and further reports on the financial benefits received by those administering UUK (Havergal 2016) and top positions in Universities (Simons 2018) has lent credence to the idea that the proposed changes are driven by managerialist ideology.  

More on this to come in Part II…..!

Recommended Reading/ Resources

Academic Articles

Joel D Aberbach and Tom Christensen (2007) Citizens and Consumers, Public Management Review, 7:2, 225-246, DOI: 10.1080/14719030500091319

Louise Archer (2008) “The new neoliberal subjects? Young/er academics’ constructions of professional identity”, Journal of Education Policy, 23:3, 265-285, DOI: 10.1080/02680930701754047

Stephen J. Ball (2009) Privatising education, privatising education policy, privatising educational research: network governance and the ‘competition state’, Journal of Education Policy, 24:1, 83-99,DOI: 10.1080/02680930802419474

Stephen J. Ball (2012) The reluctant state and the beginning of the end of state education, Journal of Educational Administration and History, 44:2, 89-103, DOI: 10.1080/00220620.2012.658764

Taylor C. Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse. (2009). Neoliberalism: From new liberal philosophy to anti-liberal slogan. Studies in Comparative International Development, 44(2), 137–161.

Roger Burrows. (2012). Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary Academy. The Sociological Review, 6(2), 355–372.

Raewyn Connell, Barbara Fawcett and Gabrielle Meagher (2009) “Neoliberalism, New Public Management and the human service professions: Introduction to the Special Issue” Journal of Sociology Vol 45, Issue 4, pp. 331 – 338 https://doi.org/10.1177/1440783309346472  

Bronwyn Davies and Peter Bansel (2010). Governmentality and Academic Work:Shaping the hearts and minds of academic workers. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 26(3) pp5-20

Rosemary Deem, Sam Hillyard and Mike Reed (2007) Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities Oxford University Press https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=45cXWj4M0acC&printsec=frontcover

Willard F Enteman (2007) “Managerialism and the Transformation of the Academy” Philosophy of Management 6(1):5-16 https://link.springer.com/article/10.5840/pom2007612

Heather Fraser and Nik Taylor (2016) Neoliberalization, Universities and the Public Intellectual Palgrave Macmillan London

Henry Giroux (2002) Neoliberalism, Corporate Culture, and the Promise of Higher Education: The University as a Democratic Public Sphere. Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 72, No. 4, pp. 425-464. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.72.4.0515nr62324n71p1

Leslie D. Gonzales, E.Martinez and C. Ordu (2014). Exploring faculty experiences in a striving university through the lens of academic capitalism. Studies in Higher Education, 39(7), 1097–1115.

Leslie D. Gonzales and Anne-Marie Núñez. (2014). The Ranking Regime and the Production of Knowledge: Implications for Academia. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(31). http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v22n31.2014

Stephen Gorard (2009) What are Academies the answer to?, Journal of Education Policy, 24:1, 101-113, DOI: 10.1080/02680930802660903

Thomas Klikauer (2013) “What is Managerialism?” Critical Sociology 41 (7-8) pp1103-1119 https://doi.org/10.1177/0896920513501351

Chris Lorenz, “If You’re So Smart, Why Are You under Surveillance? Universities, Neoliberalism, and New Public Management,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 3 (Spring 2012): 599-629. https://doi.org/10.1086/664553

Mark Olssen and Michael A. Peters (2007) Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism, Journal of Education Policy, 20:3, 313-345, DOI: 10.1080/02680930500108718

Hugo Radice (2013) “How We Got Here: UK Higher Education under Neoliberalism” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 12(2)  [NB A radical publication and not all work is blind-reviewed]

Jeff Rose and Dan Dustin (2009). The neoliberal assault on the public university: The case of recreation, park, and leisure research. Leisure Sciences, 31(4), 397–402.

Daniel Simonet (2015) “The New Public Management Theory in the British Health Care System: A Critical Review” Administration & Society 47(7) 802-826 https://doi.org/10.1177/0095399713485001

Cris Shore (2010). Beyond the multiversity: Neoliberalism and the rise of the schizophrenic university. Social Anthropology, 18(1), 15–29

Sandra Smeltzer and Alison Hearn (2014) Student Rights in an Age of Austerity? ‘Security’, Freedom of Expression and the Neoliberal University, Social Movement Studies, 14:3, 352-358, DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2014.945077

Philip A. Woods, Glenys J. Woods & Helen Gunter (2007) Academy schools and entrepreneurialism in education, Journal of Education Policy, 22:2, 237-259, DOI: 10.1080/02680930601158984

News, Magazine articles and social media publications

Anonymous (Feb 19th 2018) “Why I don’t want to go on strike”, Medium, Available Online: https://medium.com/@ukacademic/why-i-dont-want-to-go-on-strike-e4a18bed6438

Jana Bacevic (March 14th 2018) Life or Business as Usual? The lessons of the USS strike (personal blog) Available online at: https://janabacevic.net/2018/03/14/life-or-business-as-usual-lessons-of-the-uss-strike/

Jennie Bristow (Mar 5th 2018) “This strike reminds us what universities are for” Spiked! http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/this-strike-reminds-us-what-universities-are-for/21184?utm_content=buffer3b3c4&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer#.WqFABijFJaR

Gurminder Bhambra (Feb 23rd 2018) In Defence of the Public University: The USS Strike in Context Discover Society https://discoversociety.org/2018/02/23/in-defence-of-the-public-university-the-uss-strike-in-context/

Felicity Callard (No title: collection of relevant documents and summary analysis) Twitter. Available at: https://twitter.com/felicitycallard/status/973136190319792129 and  https://twitter.com/felicitycallard/status/973157185088868353

Thomas Hale (March 6th 2018) “Universities and the allure of capital markets” Financial Times Alphaville https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2018/03/06/2199103/universities-and-the-allure-of-capital-markets/

Thomas Hale (January 26th 2018) “The many problems with a market for Higher Education” Financial Times Alphaville https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2018/01/26/2198133/the-many-problems-with-a-market-for-higher-education/ [note the ‘problems’ identified here are not about ideology but about the practicalities of HE operating as a market and defining students as consumers]

Thomas Hale (Feb 7th 2018) “The financing of Student Accomodation” Financial Times Alphaville https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2018/02/05/1517828056000000/The-financing-of-student-accommodation/

William G Pooley (March 6th 2018) Who are UUK anyway? Personal Blog https://williamgpooley.wordpress.com/2018/03/06/who-are-uuk-anyway/

Michael Otsuka (Feb 12th 2018) “Oxford’s and Cambridge’s role in the demise of USS” Medium https://medium.com/@mikeotsuka/oxfords-and-cambridge-s-role-in-the-demise-of-uss-a3034b62c033

Michael Otsuka (Jan 7th 2018) “No alternative methodology was proposed” Medium


Ned Simons (Feb 28th 2018) “Vice-Chancellors Accused Of Pocketing An ‘Eye-Watering’ 227% Increase In Financial Benefits Since 2010” Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/vice-chancellors-have-pocketed-an-eye-watering-227-increase-in-financial-benefits-since-2010_uk_5a96befce4b0e6a523039e82?ncid=tweetlnkukhpmg00000001

Alexander Styre (2014) Neoliberalism, the Free Market, and the Decline of Managerial Capitalism http://www.europeanfinancialreview.com/?p=82

UCU (Mar 6th 2018) Edinburgh University under fire over plans to try and break pensions strike with out of date recorded lectures https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/9386/Edinburgh-University-under-fire-over-plans-to-try-and-break-pensions-strike-with-out-of-date-recorded-lectures#.Wp5-DX9TSNw.twitter

Sophie Inge (March 6th 2018) “UK Universities rely on casual staff ‘for up to half of teaching'” Times Higher Education https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/uk-universities-rely-casual-staff-half-teaching

Chris Havergal (July 28th 2016) “Bonuses up at USS as pension fund deficit grows by £1.8 billion” Times Higher Education https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/bonuses-uss-pension-fund-deficit-grows-ps18-billion

Alice Evans (15th Feb 2018) It’s scary and unfair: why I’m striking over university pensions The Guardian Higher Education Network https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2018/feb/15/its-scary-and-unfair-why-im-striking-over-university-pensions


0 comments on “Crowdfunding and capabilities”

Crowdfunding and capabilities

My recent project to investigate the implications of using a crowdfunding model to promote more dignified workplace relations managed to raise pledges to the tune of almost £400, highlighting a very simple beneficial feature of crowdfunding – the potential to develop support for an idea through co-operation with like-minded others. Though this fell short of the target financial figure, this exercise has been both promising in terms of the future of the project (for which I will re-scale the initial stage and return to supporters about whether they would still be willing to contribute in combination with seeking other funding support), and in terms of my own capability development.

Westermann-Behaylo, Buren and Berman (2016) write about the possibility of capability enhancing practices to promote win-win outcomes between diverse stakeholders, and the potential for contributions to human dignity by pursuit of reciprocity rather than stakeholder tradeoffs.  Capabilities are a foundational concept in the work of Amartya Sen and are understood in conjunction with functionings. Functionings describe a wide range of activities, including the basics of healthy living, having a good job, or even the feeling of self-respect. While Sen defines development as the enhancement of functionings, capabilities are the opportunity to achieve functionings. In existing studies of poverty-stricken economies or regions, some activities such as the support of micro-finance are already acknowledged as contributing to enhanced capabilities. If these capabilities can support improved functionings then there is a strong case for their contribution to human dignity. However, where areas struggle to acquire investment, these practices are a more obvious response to poverty alleviation than we might expect in economies where credit is easier to come by. Yet crowdfunding is not only about the raising of money, but also about establishing networks and communication practices. Consequently, I will still be looking for a further opportunity to test this theory with examination of the real experience of crowdfunders…. watch this space!

0 comments on “Crowdfunding and meaningful work”

Crowdfunding and meaningful work

Crowdfunding is a fascinating financial innovation through which individuals or groups can use an online platform to raise funds from a diverse range of supporters. It comes in a wide range of types, and increasingly platforms are specialised for hosting particular kinds of projects, distinguishing start-ups from community or charitable causes. In the USA there is now even a specialist platform for raising funds for research projects.

I’m interested in crowdfunding as a social innovation, based on some work I did for my masters project 10 years ago. When interviewing self-employed entrepreneurs, the contributors to that project all agreed that they hadn’t become entrepreneurs for the earning potential, or even for better work-life balance. Instead they talked about how being an entrepreneur felt; the self-satisfaction of their achievements, being part of a local business community, and being respected by others, feelings they had found absent from waged employment. Independence was key to these individuals, but they also admitted a need for a community of support. These factors (and others) closely matched research on the search for dignity and meaning in work, often hindered by ‘management’ practices or individuals in conventional wage relations.

With the advent of crowdfunding, I began to wonder if the mechanics of the financial innovation could also support this search for dignity. Meaningful work is not only to be found in employment, but also in voluntary work, and either type of project can build a community of supporters through a crowdfunding platform. One successful project near me has been the transformation of Star and Shadow, a project to develop a cinema and community space which relies on crowd sourced funds and work. Individual photography projects and innovative technological start ups successfully obtaining crowdfunding also seem to follow the same path to build a community for whom the project is meaningful – and often as more than an investment.

I, too, am using crowdfunding. As an attempt to fund further research into this phenomenon. Because if crowdfunding is a route to dignity and meaningful work, that’s a message which needs to spread. If you are interested in following or donating to the project you can find it on Kickstarter here.

0 comments on “Annual round-up 2017”

Annual round-up 2017

What did 2017 bring for me? At the turning of the calendar year I like to take a look back and consider…

It’s been a busy year for events, both academic and LARP-related. My country hopping schedule was a bit more restrained than in previous years as my only travel outside of the UK has been to Italy this year. Easter was packed with running the Reality Checkpoint event ALL STARS in Birmingham, which worryingly reflected current political events taken only slightly to the extreme. I think all our players learned something, if only that compulsory macarena dancing is part of their own vision of hell. I prepared quite a lot of writing too, with work which I then presented in the summer at Critical Management Studies and the Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism on death, ethics and on meaningful work in organisations. Wrestling with our university ethics process for my new crowdfunding project was also a challenge eventually overcome.

As course director for our undergraduates I organised an end-of-exams bash for management school students and alumni which was well-received and much of the summer was spent on a huge redesign of our undergraduate degree programs to introduce a range of new modules and eight new single-honours study options. Luckily I had a few articles to work on, conferences to go to and LARP costume to make at the same time! They do say a change is as good as a rest… so I also delivered a session on culture and ethics to our leadership development program which was a very interesting afternoon.

Dan and I went to two weddings this year and he accompanied me on my conference trip to Rome, so we haven’t had much of a holiday this year. We have tried to compensate for that by taking a good amount of time off over Christmas though. I had a fun jaunt to Florence which rather felt like a holiday when I happened to be in Italy on University business in November, and I can only thank colleagues in entrepreneurship at The University of Firenze for allowing a last-minute addition to their workshop. I’m sure there’s more to explore there on the entrepreneurship and the performance of emotion.

Back in Blighty we had a great session in London at the Digital Frontiers workshop and shortly afterwards I launched my first crowdfunding project (which I will post more on soon). While this is about Exploring new ways of working I’ve been enjoying teaching students about the more old-fashioned contrast of the professions this semester, and look forward to their reflections on how this differs from the contemporary expectations placed on would-be graduate employees.

Finally, I joined the MMU games research network this year and it has turned out to be a fab group of people. Having introduced them to LARP I’m sure we will learn a lot from each other in future. In the next week or so, however, I’ll be exploring the past with a play-test of my new Regency LARP system and an event at the Smoke LARP festival in London. I got a great dress at the RSC costume sale for it!

All in all, 2017 has been a pretty busy year so I hope 2018 has some downtime. It has been great to reconnect with old friends and to make new ones. However, with the next Reality Checkpoint Event coming up and a whole host of new academic goals on the horizon 2018 might just be another whirlwind. Here’s to fair weather!

0 comments on “Games and Gamification”

Games and Gamification

What is gamification?

Gamification is the introduction of game-like design principles into non-game activities such as domestic work or consumption, and it has become a widely popular way of developing media campaigns to enhance communication about a range of topics, from new tv releases to public safety. Jonna Koivisto’s doctoral dissertation summarises the most common practices of gamification as the introduction of point-scoring and comparative leaderboards, badged achievements and feedback, as well as clearly specified goals and narratives. While not all of these features might appear in gamified activity, there is also an awareness at present that we appear to be becoming a more ‘ludic’ society in that these features seem to be more widely representative in everyday social life or in the way we talk about our activities. With that in mind, it seems like a good idea to do research on gamification and its link to broader culture in order to understand this further.

Why is gamification so popular?

Aside from the employment of gamification as a means of enhancing the marketing of products and services, making everyday experiences gamified promises to make those experiences more engaging by making them fun. While play may involve any non-serious activity where we set aside the ‘serious’ business of everyday life to simply enjoy interacting with others, the regular pursuit of hobbies or games strives to produce a psychological state described by Csikszentmihalyi as ‘flow’, where all other concerns are temporarily suspended and your awareness is concentrated entirely on the activity in the moment. While everyone might have different tastes in terms of the activities and hobbies they usually enjoy, there are certain underlying mechanics to the pursuit of flow and how these are related to the principles of game design that have been uncovered by social science in the study of games and enjoyment.

However, it is not necessarily the case that gamification is something new; the introduction of games of work by workers to address monotony, or of piece-rate pay combined with ‘leaderboards’ used by managers to motivate employees has been such a foundational feature of organizational life we might speculate such goings-on occurring throughout our history as a species.


Why should we study gamification?

One of the interesting features of games is that they create what Huizinga called ‘a magic circle’ where the rules inside of the game-space are held to be sacred and anything going on outside of the game-space is largely ignored or its relevance suspended. Taking this into account, we can speculate that the extreme gamification of everyday life could be damaging just as easily as it could be engaging. Games are also both emotional and repetitive endeavours. Over the Christmas holiday if you lose at a game of Monopoly with your siblings you can always challenge them to a rematch, but as many of us are well-aware, all sorts of arguments might well break out.


Life, unlike a game, rarely allows for us to ‘go back to square one’ with no penalty. As many games are competitive, particular values and attitudes can be promoted by gamification that do not include sportsmanship and fairness. With these thoughts in mind, I’m really looking forward to exploring this more in the future.

0 comments on “Halloween as a basis for Universal Income”

Halloween as a basis for Universal Income

The appeal of Halloween today, according to the views of costume-rental businesses, comes from the fact that it is one of the few major (Anglo-American-Abrahamic) festivals which allows us to treat ourselves. It’s a perfect opportunity for consumerism. However, it is also a festival premised on giving charity to others, who challenge us to extend our hospitality not only to friends and family but to ghosts and ghouls.

Gift-giving is distinct from charity in that gifts carry an obligation to the reciever. Throughout history this has been intensely entwined with obligations to the provider (for example through hospitality in the provision of food, drink and lodging to passing soldiers, pilgrims or other travellers) as a matter of honour.

Policies regarding state welfare payments are frequently contested due to differing views on whether they should be understood as charity, economic mechanism, or gift. The extensive critiques of the application of the UK welfare system in recent years have highlighted how these state ‘gifts’ can be accompanied by toxic obligations which nullify their value. Horror stories of those with terminal illness or accessing church and charity-run food banks on state support attempt to bring to government attention that our collective hospitality is failing, and this is a cause for shame. Unlike the householder who fails to stock enough apples and sweets for the trick-or-treaters, however, governments react hardly at all to their house being egged.

Universal basic income attempts to promote a different model of welfare akin to promising all trick-or-treating monsters the same reward regardless of the quality of their costume. It’s promotion lies not only in its potential as an economic mechanism, but also in the characterisation of such payments as hospitality rather than an obligation-conferring gift. 

Although today’s Halloween festival is one that in our society is not compulsory, it’s cultural significance as a mechanism for allowing ourselves to give freely to unknown others is one we should examine more closely. The spectre of generations in poverty and stifled economic growth may otherwise haunt us for much of the future.

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What to do in Lectures: a guide

It’s that time of the year again and campus is filling up with fresh-faced undergraduates wondering just what they’ve let themselves in for. The more confident second year undergraduates are returning from their holidays, looking forward to seeing friends and perhaps a little worried about the fact that their second year is beginning and the work ‘counts’ now (as it contributes towards their degree classification). So for both the newbies and the experienced students now is a great time to get prepared for the sessions ahead. But, really, what are you actually supposed to do in lectures?


I’m going to ramble about this, but for those who’d prefer a one-page graphic guide I have taken inspiration from my friend Matt over at Errant Science and made you a comic. First of all, let me introduce you to my comic self…



Hi there!

In a traditional lecture, an academic will spend most of the time talking to you about a specific subject in which they have expertise. We like to talk! But while we talk, what do you do?

The point of having a lecturer is that they are a subject expert, and as such they have lots of information and expertise that it would take you years to read up on. Think of them as being like a knowledge funnel, condensing all of that information down into a smaller space (and time). The problem is, that in many university degrees (and almost certainly in the lecture) you won’t be using that information straight away, so it can be hard to absorb.

You might have heard about learning styles – the idea that some people learn better by listening, or reading, or drawing…. that’s actually now been shown to be incorrect. Though you might have a preference for the way you like to be taught, you mostly learn the same as everyone else – by problem solving. Human beings are hard-wired problem solvers. But when the problem isn’t immediate, it can be hard to understand what you should be doing while your lecturer is there at the front rambling away!

But actually, everybody there does have a problem to solve – how to get a great degree! Often, this also includes an ambition to get the knowledge you need for a great career afterwards too. And to attack these problems requires a more focused approach in your lecture. Your immediate problems to focus on are:

  • How can I pay attention throughout this lecture (especially if I’m really sleepy)?
  • How can I transform this lecture into a record I can learn from?
  • How can I identify the most important information in this lecture?
  • How can I work out what areas I understand and where I need to ask questions to make sure I will do well in my assessments?
  • How do I come up with the right sort of questions?



For most students, the wonder of technology seems to promise an answer to many of these questions – after all, the lecturer has provided powerpoint slides or notes that you can download, right? Also, it’s pretty easy to use your smartphone to record what they say!

Unfortunately, powerpoint is not a great resource to learn from, especially as it’s a pretty poor format for communicating complicated or non-linear ideas. Also, as it’s such a boring format, it’s more…. likely….. to………..zzzzzZZZZZ

Oh, is that the time? Sorry, I was snoozing there for a second.

The best thing you can do in a lecture is use techniques to help you engage with what is being said. One such technique is taking notes! Taking notes will help you pay attention and create great personalised records for you to learn from. If you use a method such as the Cornell Method presented here, it will also help set up your learning activities to do after the class time is over.

The Cornell Method relies upon you taking written notes, but helps you use a standard format to organise the page to encourage you to 1) create a summary of what you hear, 2) pinpoint key ideas and concepts by looking for verbal or non-verbal cues such as repetition or gesturing, as well as flag points you don’t understand so you can ask questions about it at an appropriate time, 3) collate your key messages together from each page in preparation for your follow-up work.

Organising your page according to the Cornell Method is really simple.


In Part 1, the main section of your page, you should aim to make comprehensive notes on what is being said according to what you hear from the lecturer (which may or may not reflect what they have put online). You won’t be able to capture every word, so abbreviate and focus on things that are repeated, emphasised with gestures or tone, or which seem to form the central or most significant points of the discussion.

In Part 2 of your page, the side column, you can note slide numbers or references, so if a section of the lecture refers to a specific reading or theory you could mark this next to the section you have written on it. This makes it much easier to review these notes later. You could also put question marks next to parts that confuse you, or that you might need to investigate further.

In the bottom section of your page, Part 3, you should leave blank during the lecture to give you space to go back and review your notes after the lecture is over. This will help you see the ‘bigger picture’ and may help come up with questions you need to ask your lecturer or tutor. It’s also a really useful space in which to summarise the lecture or section of your notes so you can find relevant material to prepare your assessments or revise for exams!

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Are we adventurers in Platform Capitalism?

A review of Srnicek, Nick (2016) Platform Capitalism, Polity Press: Cambridge


At 171 pages and only three chapters, Nick Srnicek’s book is a brief and digestible entrance to the shifting territory of an increasingly digitally-mediated form of economics and labour that is beginning to be debated under a diversity of terms, including the ‘gig economy’ or ‘the fourth industrial revolution’. In particular, I had high hopes for the text as a way of catching up on debates on the social impact of technology on work, the changing conceptualisation of capitalism as the free-surfing internet age has transformed into the ‘app for that’ age of smartphones and social media, and possibly the way in which this has impacted on our notion of value in a global economy. Unfortunately I have to admit that I found the book disappointing in these areas, particularly considering that the content of the BBC’s Thinking Allowed interview was considerably more thought-provoking.

Overall, the book focuses mainly on the context of the United States, appropriate considering the location of many tech headquarters in Silicon Valley, California and their historical role in the development and emergence of new digital technologies and in the promulgation of alternative business models for technological enterprises (most notoriously in the unsuccessful dot-com boom and bust). The first chapter of the book paints an abbreviated historical picture of shifts in the regulatory and economic context affecting business (mainly manufacturing) from the 1950s to the present. This focuses primarily on the role of government investment, accessibility of venture capital and economic interventions such as quantitative easing and how these responded to and effected change in corporate strategies. While the chapter highlights the impact of changing economic environments in heightening global competition, I would have liked to have seen a more explicit statement here on the author’s theoretical position on the source of economic value. While the focus on the United States may have been appropriate to the book’s intended audience, I also think this omits important reflection on the economic transformations in India and China which are of significant importance to any analysis identifying outsourcing and technological transformation as key to it’s historical arguments.

The second chapter sets out to consider whether we are living in a new age of capitalism, defined by the new technologies supported by extensive smartphone use. In the first few pages of this chapter, the author skims over a wide range of debate regarding how we theorise the source of value in contemporary capitalism, and while there is some further discussion in the notes the limited presentation of this debate was disappointing. Briefly alluding to Italian autonomism and debates on collaboration and knowledge as a source of value, the author also speeds past the contentious debate regarding immaterial labour[i] to claim that we can analyse platforms by viewing data as a raw material extracted from service users. Despite this allusion to Marxist analysis, there are points in the book where the analysis seems to rely on a conventional economic framing regarding the problems of marginal utility faced by these firms. The discussion then moves to a description of the characteristics of platforms in general, specifically how they stand in relation to monopolising the acquisition of this ‘resource’ and tailoring their services to ever-increase this monopolising tendency such that all user activity is captured. By this reasoning, the strategy of applications such as Uber, for example, is to aim to acquire all records of requests for transportation and their fulfillment in all geographic spaces. In becoming ubiquitous, this service drives out any and all interactions that do not comply with the model.

The presentation of different types of platform; advertising, cloud, industrial, product and lean comprises the remainder of the chapter, and offers some interesting areas of insight for those undertaking research and analysis in platform activities.

The final chapter of the book, dramatically entitled ‘Great Platform Wars’ outlines the structural and strategic activities and tendencies of specific firms in the attempt to capture or acquire more data. This makes a few allusions to the influence of the practices and policies of different nation-states in industries such as manufacturing, including China’s overproduction of steel, and hints at the way in which the behaviour of platform enterprises may perhaps be understood in an American search for continued strategic economic power. Unfortunately this line of discussion is not much pursued by the book, and although it offers a tantalising glimpse of what areas of research may be possible through a focus on the dynamics of platform based enterprises, readers may have to undertake their own further research to get a more satisfying picture.

[i] in general, the analysis presented by Srnick (as in publications by Langley and Leyshon and others) focus on material economic relations and have little to say about the contribution of labour other than as a free source of data generation or the means by which algorithms are developed for it’s organisation. For a more in depth discussion regarding the question of labour’s contribution see Toms 2008, Beverungen, Bohm & Land 2015, and Pitts 2016.

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Critical Management Studies Conference

CMS 2017 Conference illustration by Vanessa Randle

Back in July I attended the Critical Management Studies conference in Liverpool, an interesting experience as it was very close to home (unlike last year’s hike to the USA) and also my first attempt at attending a conference when presenting more than one single-authored paper. While I usually find that conferences are tense affairs until after my presentation is out of the way, the need to be prepared for two paper presentations incentivised me to be very organised for this conference and plan my materials and outlines well in advance. I was also co-convenor of a stream, though as two streams were merged we had plenty of support in organising things. We really needed it, as the conference venue was a beautiful period building (The Adelphi in central Liverpool) but with somewhat compromised facilities when applied to this conference format, and a confusing layout of rooms and corridors at times reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel.

I agreed to present one of my papers at an internal university event only a few weeks prior to the conference which really helped refine my thoughts on the contribution of the paper and I felt nicely confident about conveying the message (if not, perhaps, in the specified timeframe of 20 minutes). This paper explored the possibility of more humane and dignified work relations that might be promoted through turning to rewards based crowdfunding, as the process could encourage workers and organisations to think about their ‘backer’ communities and other stakeholders in a new way. I hope to begin an empirical project on this soon. The stream more broadly included research into how workers are negotiating the digital-analogue interface of app-enabled working, coworking spaces and other forms of innovation and meaning-making around platform capitalism. There were some great papers and I was really pleased with how the stream turned out.

In contrast, however, I heard many colleagues were very dissatisfied with the conference. This was partly instances of poor planning or lapses in organisation of the conference (registration and the lunch buffet each day were chaotic for the number of delegates and the conference dinner venue too prone to echoes to hear the speeches), but also a concern that much of the conference had become hostage to academic performativity. Such a claim is especially tense given that CMS as a scholarly community has been critiqued for its anti-performative stance § , but we ought to distinguish between the published narratives of CMS academics or actions taken in the service of their research ambitions with participants and the performative acts of the community as scholars policing their own boundaries and subject to their own managerial scrutiny.

At the root of colleagues dissatisfaction seems to be the question; what are conferences for?

  • meeting scholars with similar interests
  • engaging in scholarly discussions
  • keeping up to date with developments in the discipline
  • maintaining or reviewing the objectives of a distinct scholarly community
  • presenting research-in-progress to peers for comment and feedback
  • challenging unconventional methodologies
  • disseminating results from completed research projects
  • obtaining support or solidarity for politically unfashionable research topics or agendas
  • reinforcing academic status or position
  • improving manuscripts pre-submission for publication
  • proposing ideas for special issues to editors of journals
  • maintaining your influence or brand image
  • learning or reinforcing norms and expectations about an academic career in the discipline
  • commissioning content for special issues of journals
  • influencing or controlling debate through exclusion
  • finding out about upcoming job opportunities
  • meeting the requirements of a funder
  • demonstrating research activity or influence to your university

The above list suggests a range of ambitions for conference participation, some of which may surprise you. However, despite the ideal of an academic conference as a venue to test ideas and progress knowledge, they have increasingly also contributed to the performative outcomes required by university managers. Conferences as regular features of the academic landscape also play a substantial part in reinforcing dominant power relations; notable concerns at this conference from i) the pre-conference critique on mailing lists of the requirement in the call for stream proposals that planned outputs such as a journal special issue would be expected as part of the application and ii) organising by the women in academia CMS support network VIDA to encourage submissions and activism to address and expose the integrated performative heteronormativity at the conference.

Activity that seemed to fit within the more instrumental or discriminatory practices in the above list was upsetting for some. In the environment of CMS in UK academia that has begun to feel uncertain post-Brexit thanks to the strategic cuts at some universities and threats of them at others, the anti-performativity of CMS is a justifiable worry.  Such an approach results in fewer opportunities for ‘impact’ – an area in which it is expected that management and business schools should excel. However, it is also the case that actions within the community to exclude or fail to approve the work of marginal scholars, or to attempt to replicate the behaviours and paradigms of ‘macho business’ or ‘hard science’ in order to validate scholarly activity in the eye of university management can only be to the detriment of the discipline. This is particularly so in a discipline which spends much of its energy critiquing such behaviour elsewhere. Consequently it was especially refreshing and energising to see these concerns being aired in the intervention by some scholars in the form of development of a game of solidarity/bullshit bingo.

The conference organisers had engaged an illustrator to record the conference (her output is shown in the header picture) and I was personally very excited to see the overviews come together. Yet again, however, engaging an illustrative artist with no grounding in the intellectual debates of the field characterises the activity of illustration as an archival one. While it may make the content more accessible, this objective is in service once again to academic performativity rather than to enhancing understanding of the material. The illustrator, however, consented to some of her materials being appropriated in the production of this poster:

solidarity bingo vignette

For me, the beauty of this poster lies in it’s action to call out the discrepancy between the topics acknowledged as significant to the scholarly community of CMS and its internal actions; streams of research papers were running on ableism, feminism, de-colonialisation and emotion in organisations. Yet in the co-ordination of the conference these very issues had not been addressed. Furthermore, the many features appearing on the bingo boards as evidence of scholarly ‘solidarity’ (e.g. active listening to research presentations, encouraging introductions) or of academic ‘bullshit’ (e.g using Q&A time to tell everyone that your work is of key relevance to them and should be cited instead of engaging in constructive criticism) were being foregrounded by the poster and the game.

All in all, the CMS community, like the broader academic community, may well be in difficult times and have numerous internal tensions over solidarity and action that need to be resolved. Although conferences like these remind us of these tensions, I was extremely pleased to see and support interventions and activism that encourage us to reexamine our priorities and actions with an ambition to forge a better type of scholarly engagement with problems inside and outside of the university.

§ An introduction to the current state of this debate can be found in the recent special issue on critical performativity published in M@n@gement with the remarks from the editors available here

0 comments on “Security, dignity, and quality”

Security, dignity, and quality

Today, UCU are foregrounding their campaign against casualisation of university teaching in their ‘stamp out casual contracts‘ day of action (you can find their newsletter here). A substantial part of their campaign, as well as the more general campaign by trade unions against zero hours contracts, emphasises the psychological as well as the financial burden placed on employees by insecure and uncertain work.

We may all have experienced the uncertainty of trying to find a job in order to pay our bills and achieve a decent standard of living, but when you have found employment, and that remains no guarantee of keeping the wolf from the door, workers remain in a state of ongoing anxiety and must devote a substantial proportion of their efforts to looking for additional work or sources of income. There is a fine line between claiming such tactics encourage entrepreneurial behaviour and promoting extreme exploitation as firms attempt to evade their moral responsibilities towards employees.

Such arguments sometimes fall upon deaf ears, after all those of us earning enough to succeed by such work may see little harm in the arrangements. But in doing so we are often inclined to overlook our own privilege in health, wealth and the unpaid support of family or friends. With individuals as with corporations, our successes are never truly our own, they rely upon the supportive and nurturing work of others who came before us to provide us with education, nurse us through sickness and protect us from tasks of which we were not yet capable. It is also easy to over-simplistically compare our situation with those of other countries which exhibit wildly different taxation arrangements with significant consequences for quality of life.

It is worth noting that our moral actions and sentiments promote collective productivity and sustainable lifestyles, while the egoism of putting the individual first often comes at the cost of long term prosperity and happiness. In the International Labour Organization’s measurement factors of decent work, job security is a notable factor contributing to the dignity of workers. This is not because job security is a marker of status in society, but rather because of our interdependence as human beings. Having some security in our work and income allows us to enter into supportive relationships with others; to support our parents or our children, to make plans for our future, to develop time for our education or to give something back to our communities. From this, many more than the employees of one company benefit from the stability, and such organizations benefit from peaceful, stable markets in return. Workers are also less fearful, and are more likely to raise issues with their employer, which though it may reduce productivity in the short term, help to develop a better company, better products and better relationships within that company.

In the case of academic work, the pursuit of knowledge is not assisted by anxiety, fear and a reticence to speak out promoted by casual contracts. It may not seem immediately apparent to students surrounded by beautiful new buildings and high-tech equipment, but without the dignity and wellbeing of securely employed staff, these are a poor measure of educational quality. The best teacher or mentor, advisor or adminstrator you will ever need, might be that person who wasn’t able to keep up with the three jobs worth of work they were only being paid one salary to perform. They might be the person sleeping in their car between lectures because they stayed up all night marking exams. They might be the person who becomes unable to get to work because they simply couldn’t make ends meet. A small mistake might undermine your learning due to no hours being paid to update your teacher’s training in the library, or your administrator’s knowledge of new software. And as a result, they might not be there for you, at their best when you need them most.

We are much more interdependent than an uncertain transaction of time would have you believe. Stamp out zero hours contracts; not only for worker’s dignity, but in recognition of our worth together, as more than the sum of our parts.