Conference Papers

Political Discourses of Higher Education:- The Discursive Separation of ‘Academic’ Learning from Skills Required for Progression in Ideological Reform Agendas

As with New Labour, contemporary political discourses of education centre upon economy driven ideological reform, with recent developments also aligning the coalition government with a neoconservative reform agenda (Ball, 2013). This reform climate can be seen to be engendering top down autocratic control (McGettigan, 2013), where the voice of academic practitioners is becoming increasingly marginalised. This reform context highlights a discursive distinction between ‘academic’ learning and the skills perceived to be required in terms of students’ progression from university (Willetts and Cable, 2011). Separate ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ pathways are suggested for education and this signals the belief within the political domain that ‘public good’ ideals do not sit neatly with economic imperatives (Collini, 2012).

Drawing upon practitioner perspectives at Newman University – and utilising Critical Discourse Analysis as a methodology (Fairclough, 2009) – discursive reform meaning configurations (Fairclough, 1995) within grey literature (Alberani et al, 1990) are inspected and critiqued. Through the inspection of how these meaning configurations are transformed down to a micro institutional context, the authors are seeking to enter into a constructive debate around what is needed for undergraduate student progression within higher education. Here, the discursive separation between ‘academic’ learning and skills required outside of university is specifically brought into question.

These experiences at Newman University, as well as the experience of others within HE (Sarson, 2013), suggest that the current reform agenda will not successfully address issues of student progression. The analysis highlights the importance of formative learning for students – in terms of its reflective, metacognitive and critical functions (Mills, 2002) that cannot be easily quantified and valued economically (Collini, 2012). Here we would argue the distinction between ‘academic’ learning and ‘vocational/technical’ skills is not useful for students in terms of progression, and a more nuanced, shared stakeholder understanding is required. In order to move the focus of reform from an individual stakeholder to a collaborative group, the authors of this paper suggest that stakeholders should adopt the position of ‘professional activists’ (Sachs, 2000) to find an agreed way forwards that will be centred upon the needs of undergraduate student progression.

Alberani, V., De Castro Pietrangeli, P. & Mazza, a M. (1990) ‘The use of grey literature in health sciences: a preliminary survey’, Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 78 (4), pp.358–63.

Ball, S. (2013) The Education Debate. 2nd Edn. Bristol: Policy Press.

Collini (2012) What are Universities For? London: Penguin.

Fairclough, N. (2009) ‘A dialectical – relational approach to critical discourse analysis in social research’ in Wodak, R. & Meyer, M. (eds.) Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis. London: SAGE, pp.162-186.

Fairclough, N. (1995) Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Longman.

McGettigan, M. (2013) The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and The Future of Higher Education. London: Pluto Press.

Mills, V. (2002) ‘Employability, Globalization and Lifelong Learning – a Scottish Perspective’. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 21, pp.347–356.

Sachs, J. (2000) ‘The Activist Professional’, Journal of Educational Change, 1 (1), pp.77-95.

Sarson, S. (2013) ‘Employability Agenda isn’t working’, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 21 March [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 25.3.13).

Willetts, D. & Cable, V. (2011) Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 25.6.13).

Sanders, R. (2014) 'Political Discourses of Higher Education:- The Discursive Separation of ‘Academic’ Learning from Skills Required for Progression in Ideological Reform Agendas', paper presented to The 10th Annual Conference of the British Education Studies Association (BESA), 26–27 June, viewed 08 August 2020, <>