Opportunities and Threats to the Marketized University’s Pursuit of Social Justice


Neoliberalism’s shaping of the global higher education sector is well understood. Less acknowledged however are the ways in which the lived student experience has become operationalised and developed in line with the commercial ideology of education as a business.


To understand the relationship between the student experience and power. Some forms of pedagogical power threaten social justice initiatives while others nurture them. Which forms of power are dominant in UK HE and what are their impacts on students?

Theoretical Perspective

We drew on Lacan’s theory of the four discourses (‘Master’, ‘University’, ‘Hysteric’ and ‘Analyst’) to investigate relationships between power, social justice, and the student experience.


Fifteen final year undergraduates were interviewed using a flexible, semi-structured schedule that explored instances of the four discourses in their student journeys. Lacanian discourse analysis guided our analysis.


Our student participants confronted different challenges to exercise agency as they negotiated their own journeys through the four discourses. Jack vacillated primarily between the discourses of the Master and the University, that is, between exercising subservient and subsistence agency. The son of a retired policeman, he happily adopted the role of the obedient apprentice. A mature student who had worked since she was 14, Caitlin didn’t appreciate what she considered being taught like a school pupil or attending badly organised seminars. She valued professionalism and positioned herself beyond Master’s discourse. Simultaneously rude and evasive, yet cheeky and beguiling, Zach predominantly spoke from the subliminal position of the protesting Hysteric. Facing the existential crises that plague many students approaching graduation, Zach’s ambivalence, detachment, and unwillingness to conform led him to muse on the struggle to attain sublime agency: “If you try to be an anarchist, you’ve picked a social role…it’s a loop that you’re never going to get out of…unless you try and start a fucking one-man revolution.” Molly could comfortably critique the University’s many failings and was securely competent in the Analyst’s discourse.


We argue that although the two dominant discourses in the marketised university (the Master and the University) threaten the pursuit of social justice, the two marginalised discourses (the Hysteric and the Analyst) have expansive potential for a just world. Morphostatic positions of subservience and subsistence oblige students to conform to pedagogical dictates (as in Master’s discourse), or to comply with rules and regulations (as in University discourse). Sadly a rationalised and commercially oriented curriculum discourages student morphogenesis by pathologising subliminal and sublime agentic positions.