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Opening Teaching to Play

Today I am delivering a short session as part of the Open University’s pre-conference development workshop for scholars of Critical Management Studies, aimed specifically at early career researchers and PhD students. I’m particularly excited about being able to present, side-by-side, games promoting social change from 2018 (Who’s She by Playeress), and from 1908 (Suffrageto, sold by the WSPU).

Gamification is a current popular trend in HE. While there are many examples of poor or even unethical gamification, research has indicated that games offer a productive mechanism for cognitive learning, and even that the affective potential of games can help students develop valued graduate attributes. Drawing on Huizinga’s (1932) argument that play precedes culture, we can also identify playful behaviour within a wide variety of seemingly sacred social contexts (e.g. law courts), and particularly in the development of knowledge through wordplay and social competition. Office politics or the ‘game playing’ of career oriented behaviour is one such example! The way in which scholars publish, critique and challenge each other’s ideas to advance knowledge is an advanced form of this game-playing instinct.

So why should we keep games out of the classroom? Many teaching contexts continue to rely on information delivery based on talk and writing, with perhaps some limited discussion. This is then supported by independent learning using a variety of techniques, which may be supported or unsupported by institutional training. While many students have become highly proficient in this method through prior experience, it does not come naturally. By contrast, playing games does. The main challenge to such adoption lies in discovering or developing games which promote the designed learning outcomes. I call these ‘intended gaming outcomes’.

Follow the links if you would like to download the slides and handouts from the session.

0 comments on “Are we Homo Ludens? Huizinga’s 5-point definition of play.”

Are we Homo Ludens? Huizinga’s 5-point definition of play.

Homo Ludens is a text frequently cited yet less often read with respect to games and culture. Establishing the concept of the ‘magic circle’, many subsequent studies of games use this work of historical analysis to convey authority and gravitas to the field, and Huizinga’s key message is still a compelling one: that to play is necessary to human life and culture.

This post will shortly be available as a video on the Seriously Learned Youtube channel, meanwhile you can hear Laura talking about Huizinga on BBC Radio 3 here.

Who was Johan Huizinga?

Johan Huizinga was a linguist and historian based at Leiden University when he wrote Homo Ludens in the 1930s. He was particularly interested in the behaviours of courtly life in the medieval, renaissance and late baroque periods, and noted their tendency towards play. However, in scholarly circles in the Netherlands he was a controversial figure and branded a detached recluse for concentrating on telling tales of a beautiful and idealised past, rather than addressing the contemporary dangers of Fascism and Nazism. Nonetheless, anti-Nazi actions he had taken in the 1930s and later criticism of the occupation of the Netherlands had him detained in 1942 and he was subsequently refused permission to return to Leiden. He died in 1945.

Colie (1964) was instrumental in foregrounding Huizinga’s contribution to English-speaking scholars in the post-war period. She highlights that Homo Ludens is not a theory of games, but rather a theory of the function of play in human culture. Colie implies that Huizinga’s work on play is important for recognising that as social beings we don’t only come up with rules to get along together, but also allow for spaces where we can break those rules in order to explore alternative ways of organising.

What is play?

In Homo Ludens, Huizinga points out that Ancient Greek culture distinguished between paidia – lighthearted or child’s play, and agon – sport or games, but to the Romans, all was included in the term ludus – play. By exploring the challenges and contests in Greek sport and identifying the linguistic approach to play in Germanic and Romance languages, as well as Sanskrit, Sinitic (Chinese) and Native American (Blackfoot), Huizinga sides with the Roman characterisation of both types of activity as the same. He identifies that play incorporates descriptions of nature and human action, pretence and limits, freedom of movement and of competition. Most frequently, Huizinga identifies play as comprising a pledge to undergo some kind of risk and tension, even to the degree of deadly seriousness as in violent sporting matches.

The 5 characteristics.

Huizinga outlines five characteristics of play;

Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life”

1. Play is voluntary

The voluntary nature of play is in contrast to the involuntary nature of the things we must do for survival. This is obvious in tasks such as washing or tending crops but less obvious when we start to consider ‘playful’ activities such as craft or artistry which require toil or training. Huizinga debates this in the distinction between the musical (arts) and plastic (crafts) to argue that while performance is a type of free play which may rely upon expertise and training, the training or crafting of skill or a piece of art is work. In this distinction, the showing of a painting might be play, but the production of it is labour.

2. Play is Rule Ordered

When we enter into play, we agree to play by explicit or implied rules, which are often different to those we normally follow. These rules are rules of behaviour as well as of material significance. For example, the idea of taking turns, and that everyone shall have a turn to act or speak is a frequent unwritten rule of most conversational games. The use of physical tokens to represent action is another frequent rule, along with details such as how many tokens a player has and how actions through them may be performed.

3. Play happens within fixed boundaries: the ‘magic circle’

The setting aside of play as a distinct practice is closely related to the understanding of the specific order and binding rules of play. When we agree to the restriction of rules, we also agree that these restrictions will only apply for a time and/or place. We allow ourselves the freedom to step outside of that space or time, whether loser or victor, and return to a different set of rules of behaviour. Those who breach the boundaries are contemptuous, spoil-sports or barbarians, and are swiftly excluded.

4. Play is different

When we play, we are distinctly aware that what we are doing is not ‘ordinary life’, though we might mimic everyday activities. We inhabit a different ‘mental world’ where there might be consequences to what we are doing, but those consequences usually adhere to different rules. This is one of the main reasons why play can be so satisfying, as we sometimes need to enter a space where the rules are different to everyday life – fairer or more clearly specified, in order to explore why some practices have been successful or unsuccessful.

5. Play is not useful or in a material interest

One of the important elements of play is “what is at stake”. Although gambling and risk-taking are identified by Huizinga as key to understanding the tension and excitement of play, play is nonetheless non-purposeful. Huizinga compares professional and amateur sports in this respect, highlighting that once the playing of a game is subservient to a material interest it no longer can be understood as pure play. However, in conjunction with the concept of the magic circle, it remains possible to identify play as having serious and material consequences without necessarily invalidating its status. Importantly, although satisfaction is key to play, Huizinga’s definition does not rely solely upon a psychological perspective of play as producing a ‘feeling’ of engagement (or flow) as a definitive factor.

Play and Culture

Huizinga explores a wide range of social activities in Homo Ludens that we might not identify as play. These include ‘sporting’ activities such as duels to the death or verbal ‘battles’ such as public debates. He also points out the importance of play to ceremony and performance. Both dance and music are play performances, though we would not often think of these as we do games.

Gifts: Conspicuous consumption and destruction

A significant type of play identified in Homo Ludens is drawn from Mauss’ work on gift-exchange, which shares similarities with Veblen’s work on conspicuous consumption.

one proves one’s superiority not merely by the lavish prodigality of one’s gifts but, what is even more striking, by the wholesale destruction of one’s possessions just to show that one can do without them.

This highlights how the practice of giving away high-value items conveys a message regarding the wealth and virtue of the gift-giver, and places an obligation on the receiver to reciprocate, or in the case of the destruction of property, to compete.

This type of competition compares with boasting or slanging matches, and is labelled a ‘squandering match’ by Huizinga. The expression of excessive politeness is a comparable reversed game to that of the boasting match, in which each participant strives to be more courteous than the other.

Knowledge: play to learn

Just as there are forms of contest based on chance, dexterity or physical ability, Huizinga points out the common occurrence of knowledge contests in history and myth. Knowledge contests also remain so central to contemporary life we don’t even recognise them as such – though we call them ‘tests’ and ‘qualifying exams’! In Homo Ludens, Huizinga focuses on the role of wordplay and riddles in schooling particular types of thinking or expertise.

The answer to an enigmatic question is not found by reflection or logical reasoning. It comes quite literally as a sudden solution – a loosening of the tie by which the questioner holds you bound. The corollary of this is that by giving the correct answer you strike him powerless. In principle there is only one answer to every question. It can be found if you know the rules of the game.

While this resembles being quizzed in front of a class, the riddle-question can also push the limit of knowledge by motivating participation in the challenge. Huizinga presents the example of the ‘superlative question’ game, such as “what is sweeter than…” where each answer become the next question. To answer “I don’t know” is to lose the game, so it motivates scholarship. If we take a different version of this question, such as “what is smaller than…” our eventual result today would be to study advanced mathematics or particle physics!

Law: the courtroom as a ‘magic circle’

the lawsuit can be regarded as a game of chance, a contest, or a verbal battle

When we consider the seriousness of a court of law, Huizinga’s assertion that we can identify law as a type of play seems an extreme one. It relies upon the recognition of  historical and cultural approaches to justice which rely upon the setting aside of a context in which a trial may be fairly conducted. The pursuit of justice must be set apart from other social activity in order to establish principles of fairness, and as such it utilises the characteristics of a play contest. This setting-apart of the courtroom also applies to the judge and other roles within it – as these individuals must set aside personal attitudes and concerns. This presents some explanation, Huizinga suggests, for the peculiar use of costume or regalia in the legal profession.

Play and War: worlds apart?

Its principle of reciprocal rights, its diplomatic forms, its mutual obligations in the matter of honouring treaties and, in the event of war, officially abrogating peace, all bear a formal resemblance to play-rules inasmuch as they are only binding while the game itself – i.e. the need for order in human affairs – is recognized.

If we look to ancient civilization it is not difficult to find a link between violent sports and the training of skills for war. From ancient strategy games to contemporary computer games, the theme of warplay is a popular one. Unlike the moral panics which propose that warplay encourages violence, Huizinga proposes that the limiting rules of play are fundamentally necessary to distinguishing between human engagement in war, an aggressive combat between equals, and animal violence in the pursuit of survival.

Implicit to Huizinga’s writing on this seems to be the proposal that war without limitations is a challenge to all human civilisation; war without limitations is not an activity that may be claimed by homo sapiens without placing that very categorisation in jeopardy.

We might, in a purely formal sense, call all society a game if we bear in mind that this game is the living principle of all civilization.

Is everything play?

Since Huizinga, other influential scholars have presented definitions of play which make different distinctions. Caillois’ Man, Play and Games (1961) reintroduced the distinction between ‘play’ (imaginative fantasy) and ‘sport’ (skill-based games), while some psychologists have proposed a definition of ‘unstructured’ play as the individual experience of creativity or improvisation.

Purposeful play, or the appropriation of play-like characteristics to activity which is not different to “ordinary life”, for Huizinga, is false play. In the final chapter of Homo Ludens, Huizinga expresses concerns about the use of play to conceal political or social agendas or to promote ‘barbaric’ tendencies such as the infantilisation, subjugation or oppression of others.

Overall, Homo Ludens highlights how many cultural activities incorporate play-like characteristics, and also indicates that new cultural practices can emerge from playing with existing norms and formats. Yet Huizinga makes no assumption about the quality of play activity; suggesting that it can be debased to meaningless repetition, or can be elevated to ritual or sacred status. Where play offers scope for development and improvisation of culture, it may be seen as a productive force. Yet some characteristics of play may be employed to inhibit the development of collective culture, and the victories achieved through play are empty ones.

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SCOS 2018 Tokyo

This summer I was privileged to attend the Standing Conference on Organisational Symbolism to present the collaborative work I have been developing with colleagues elsewhere in Europe on how the playing of games support learning in entrepreneurial communities. The broader theme of the conference was Wabi-Sabi, or the Japanese aesthetic philosophy which privileges imperfection, impermanence and restraint. This aesthetic is most commonly associated with the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, yet is also significant throughout Japanese culture.

A number of presentations explored how this particular aesthetic manifests in an interest in setting aside differences in power and position in the interests of employee well-being, whether through the promotion of particular values or activities which might often be excluded from everyday business. The long association of Japanese manufacturing and lean production methods might initially seem to contradict such messages, and a range of scholars explored how contemporary types of organising often focus on extreme mechanised and documented perfection, enforced by technological surveillance systems. However, AGILE methodologies were also questioned as unsuccessful revolutions in employee management, too successful to live up to the romantic aspirations of their founders.

As yet, there are few conclusions to the questions provoked by these cultural conundrums. However, the range of studies presented there are likely to contribute towards ongoing theorising about the impact and potential of cultural awareness in both the practical organising of business and the study of its operations. If I took away one useful message from this event, it was that thinking about how cultural business practices can be represented by artistic themes can be highly thought provoking!

 

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Neoliberalising HE – Part II

Part II

In Part I of this short series, I briefly outlined the features of neoliberalism as it appears as a general ideology and it’s associations with managerialism. That post detailed how the growing conception that all organisations can operate under the same processes and be managed by the same techniques has been a creeping feature of public sector services management in a range of sectors including education. This instalment will pick up where the last post ended, in exploring the connections between that broader context and the direct experiences of staff and students working within contemporary HE institutions. This will directly identify links between ideologically driven marketisation and specific mechanisms of management control.

2.1 Marketisation

An important feature of neoliberalism (in the economic definition) relies on the expectation that market exchange of equal commodities leads to a more efficient distribution of resources (‘goods’) in society. However, as organisations are often dissuaded from operating under fair and equitable exchange some state intervention is necessary in order to facilitate marketisation. In other words, state intervention should not be in order to produce certain outcomes, but rather to encourage individuals and organisations to act more like an ideal marketplace. This represents a notable shift in the location of responsibility for outcomes; from the collective actions of the state (or organisation) towards the individual citizen-worker-consumer. Thus, any failure in the equitable distribution of goods is characterised either as a market failure (the operations do not sufficiently resemble free market exchange) or individual failure (the individual has not correctly identified the utility or value of the product).

If HE was to be modelled as a market, it would not be a single market but a combination of markets for students, for research funds, for workers, for donations and so on. While the most obvious state intervention to remodel HE on a market premise has been the introduction of student fees, the introduction of external evaluation mechanisms such as the National Student Survey (NSS)-linked Teaching Evaluation Framework (TEF) serves to de-differentiate between programs of study and at the same time introduce information which will encourage consumer-students to differentiate between university learning ‘products’ on the basis of price. Similar rankings and propositions, such as the ranking of university undergraduate programmes by graduate salaries, are further examples of attempts to ‘marketise’ HE through encouraging student-consumers to select their preferred product in relation to it’s likely performance as an investment in their future career.

2.2 Surveillance and Responsibilisation

This surveillance of past graduates and accompanying idea that the student-consumer is responsible through their ‘free’ choice of university program for their future success is an extension of the neoliberal ideology through an increased responsibilisation of the individual. Such a point of view is not only a particular way of viewing our actions in the world, but it seems may also be a damaging one as indicated by the increasing incidence of mental health struggles experienced by students at university and in an increasingly pressured examination-driven education environment at younger ages. The supposed meritocratic neutrality of these measuring mechanisms only adds to the weight of responsibility felt by the individual in determining their own future success. These student experiences are matched by those of would-be academic workers in the HE labour market who are subject to extensive mechanisms of surveillance concentrated on individual performance, despite many outcomes being linked to factors dictated by choices on institutional or project resource allocation (such as class sizes, length of research projects et cetera). Gonzales, Martinez & Ordu (2014) explore this in relation to the concept of ‘academic capitalism’ in a US university to show how this manifests in everyday work pressure whereby individual academics are ‘engulfed’ by work time infiltrating all aspects of life and a competitive drive for ‘hyperprofessionalism’. That one of their participants is quoted these work conditions and expectations as ‘inhumane’ perhaps highlights why the similar stress and sickness epidemic is prevalent in contemporary UK HE institutions (We are Higher Education 2018)

Uncertain yet perpetual surveillance is a preferred neoliberal technique of control in organisation precisely because it emphasises responsibilisation. While management in the form of supervision of work indicates responsibility for outcomes rests with the organisation and its techniques or strategies, management by surveillance instead encourages the individual to bear responsibility for outcomes. The use of short-term or insecure work contracts further communicates this uncertainty and individual responsibility, as rather than managing performance, the organisation can instead aim to substitute any individual considered insufficient with an alternative worker. Responsibility thus becomes one-sided with the employee bearing the obligation and responsibility for outputs and the organisation concentrated on monitoring rather than active management.  

2.3 Individualization and the human resource

While many aspects of work performance are undoubtedly linked to individual strengths and attributes, the strength of collective effort is often more than the sum of its parts. By coming together in organisations rather than working as individuals, the difficulties faced in periods of being less able to work through sickness or other challenges are a burden shared in the knowledge that such events are a risk faced by all individuals. However, a focus on the human ‘resource’ as an individual measured unit, encouraged by neoliberal thinking, obscures the benefits of collective endeavour.  

Individualization is a concept tied to neoliberalisation in that it describes the increasing responsibilisation of individuals as the authors of their own life narrative (see Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002). In sum, the individual is held to be responsible for their outcomes in life over other factors such as luck or prevalence/lack of opportunities afforded through regional development, wealth, economic and social change, social support networks and so on. This process is highly evident in the assumptions behind the majority of evaluative frameworks applied in HE, and while there are plenty of examples among the surveillance of  academic workers, this is also evident in the uncertain contractual circumstances often faced by workers in support services (where workers are often held to be individually responsible for re-aligning their skills with new roles, to undertake training in their own time and so on).

In the contracting out of services and the reduction of facilities for staff (for example, the closure of common rooms previously available to cleaning and maintenance staff where they could store personal possessions when on shift and socialise during breaks), workers in HE have been increasingly modelled as functionaries towards whom the university has no responsibility beyond their working hours, and this same perspective is the one which acts as the foundation for the current dispute over pensions.  

2.3 Organizational mimesis

Given that there has been substantial media coverage of Vice-Chancellor’s salaries and expenses and other ways in which top managerial staff in organisations affiliated with HE have been seen to profit substantially as individuals within this (public) sector I have curtailed the lengthy segment which I had originally intended to write here (see resources below and in Part I for further reading). Suffice to say that the pursuit of efficiency in HE through techniques appropriated from managerialism in the private sector including responsibilisation, technologies of surveillance, outsourcing, zero-hours or short-term contracts have served to justify the expansion of administrative and managerial roles.

The case of pensions relates specifically to comparison with the private sector, given that in the majority of private sector occupations the availability of defined benefit pension funds has been dramatically reduced as the risk of investment performance for savings has been increasingly shifted to individuals. Due to the increased tendency in recent years for individuals to shift occupations fairly frequently, the move towards an individual focus on pension provision on the surface makes sense (for reasons of transferability). However, this shift results clearly in higher risk not only for individuals but also for the state, in a climate where increased living costs (primarily in housing, but also in loan repayments) is building a generation of workers with few capital assets on which to rely in retirement. The pensions issue itself is detailed and complex (see Grady & X for further details), and the governance of UUK fund management has also come under scrutiny in the course of the dispute.

Pursuit of financial efficiency and a market-driven consumer focus has encouraged universities to more closely mimic commercial institutions (and each other) in a way which is now being questioned by universities themselves following the UCU 2018 Pensions dispute (Toop 2018). Proposals regarding the ways in which these management methods, priorities and structures are undermining the democratic functions of universities and their accountability to the public as sources of public good rather than as providers of degree-products are being tabled and discussed and in this regard there is a drive towards revisiting the obligations and responsibilities a university has to it’s community including it’s students and employees. It remains to be seen whether this will result in a shift away from CEO-style vice-chancellors and a race to the bottom in the casualisation of employment.   

 

In the final installment in this series, I will outline some of the proposals and actions that have been raised in the course of the 2018 UCU Pension dispute, with the aim of resisting the production of students and employees as neoliberalised subjects.

 

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.

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

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

Kathleen Lynch (2006) “Neo-liberalisation and marketisation: The implications for Higher Education” European Educational Research Journal 5 (1): 1-17 https://doi.org/10.2304/eerj.2006.5.1.1

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) http://142.207.145.31/index.php/acme/article/view/969  [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.

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

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/

Simon Baker (March 12 2018) “Admin and management staff costs rising the fastest, suggest data” Times Higher Education  https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/admin-and-management-staff-costs-rising-fastest-suggest-data

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

Martin Henegan, Jo Grady & Liam Foster “Women to be hardest hit by proposed university pension scheme changes” UCU Sheffield blog http://ucu.group.shef.ac.uk/women-to-be-hardest-hit-by-proposed-university-pension-scheme-changes/

The Guardian (12 March 2018) “Accountability and UK University Governance” Letters https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/mar/12/accountability-and-uk-university-governance?CMP=share_btn_tw

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

Katy Sian (March 14th 2018) “We’re drawing the line’: Our fight against university marketization is about more than pensions” Ceasefire Magazine https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/were-drawing-line-fight-university-marketization-pensions/ 

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

Aisha Thomas-Smith (Mar 13th 2018) “Why are University Lecturers on Strike?” Weekly Economics Podcast https://soundcloud.com/weeklyeconomicspodcast/why-are-university-lecturers-on-strike (see 12:45 onwards for discussion of marketisation).

Stephen Toope (16th March 2018) “The future of UK Universities”  Vice-Chancellor’s Blog, University of Cambridge website Available at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/news/the-future-of-uk-universities-vice-chancellors-blog 

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

We are Higher Education (Feb 17th 2018 ) The staff stress and sickness epidemic occurring in Universities across the UK https://wearehighereducation.org/2018/02/17/is-the-higher-education-sector-in-crisis-the-staff-stress-and-sickness-epidemic-occurring-in-universities-across-the-uk/

 

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) http://142.207.145.31/index.php/acme/article/view/969  [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

https://medium.com/@mikeotsuka/no-alternative-methodology-was-proposed-f96eee1740b7

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 “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.

comparing

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.

xmas_fights

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 “What to do in Lectures: a guide”

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?

hint

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…

me

 

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?

 

tech

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.

page

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.