Conference Papers

Students’ well-being, wild-ness and freedom from the ‘magic capture’ of assessments.

Neoliberalism has dictated policies and attitudes in higher education for well over a decade (Hursh and Wall, 2011; Lynch, 2006; Sanders-McDonagh and Davis, 2018). Within the neoliberal model “the individual (rather than the nation) is held responsible for her or his own well-being.” (Lynch, 2006, p. 1). However, In Wales the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Welsh Government, 2015) prioritises people’s wellbeing and supposedly puts sustainability and global responsibility at the heart of its aims. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that students in Wales are facing huge challenges to their health and future prosperity. Debt has become “a normative university experience” (Evans and Donelly, p.1278), common mental health disorders are on the rise in young people in higher education (Education Policy Institute, 2018) as are suicide rates (Office of National Statistics, 2018). In addition, a prevailing “hyperactive focus on employability” (Feigenbaum, 2007) and the “tyranny of numbers” (Ball, 2015) means that an oppressive accountability culture arguably distils education down to assessment grades. Under such a regime, pedagogy is “twisted into a kind of ‘service’” (Alexander, 2007, p.104).

This study explored how, despite living in neoliberal times and being “governed by numbers” (Ozga, 2008), education in a South Wales university moved beyond training and assessment foci. Students took part in a range of creative and wellbeing activities as part of their modules and extra-curricular work. These ranged from mindfulness, yoga, to working with visiting primary school children. Many of these activities took place in an ancient woodland on the university campus. This community approach provided scope for students to explore, enjoy, interpret and adapt their experience within HE into their own practice and life.

Emergent findings from recent group interviews, highlight students’ perceptions on how they have benefitted from engaging in these activities in terms of their personal wellbeing, their intellectual development and their emotional and holistic development. The students’ responses are situated within Dewey’s (1908/2016) ethical stance on education as being about democracy and experience, and Freire’s (1996) call for an emancipatory, dialogic pedagogy.  By offering students activities that focussed on the students’ holistic development (Quinlan, 2011; Miller, 1991), seems to have allowed the “magic” of education to be released, at least temporarily, in the minds of the participating students, from its neoliberal “apparatus of capture” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987/2004). The implications of these findings are positioned within conceptualisations of HE and the purpose of a university.


Alexander, J. (2007) The uncreating word’: some ways not to teach English. In Ellis, V., Fox, C. and Street, B. (Eds), Rethinking English in Schools, London: Continuum, 102-116

Ball, S. J. (2015). Education, governance and the tyranny of numbers. Journal of Education Policy, 30(3), 299-301.

Dewey, J. (1908/2016)  Ethics. London: Forgotten Books.

Education Policy Institute. Prevalence of mental health issues within the student-aged population. Available at: [Accessed February 2nd, 2019].

Evans, C., & Donnelly, M. (2018). Deterred by debt? Young people, schools and the escalating cost of UK higher education. Journal of Youth Studies, 1-16.

Feigenbaum A (2007) The teachable moment: feminist pedagogy and the neoliberal classroom. Review of  Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 29(4): 337–349.

Freire, Paulo. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

Gadamer, H. G. (1977). Philosophische Lehrjahre E. Rückschau.

Hursh, D., & Wall, A. F. (2011). Repoliticizing higher education assessment within neoliberal globalization. Policy Futures in Education, 9(5), 560-572.

Miller, R. (1991). Ed. New Directions in Education: Selections from Holistic Education Review. Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press.

Office of National Statistics, 2018, ‘Estimating Suicide Among Higher Education Students, England and Wales’ Available at: [Accessed February 2nd, 2019].

Quinlan, K. M. (2011). Developing the whole student: leading higher education initiatives that integrate mind and heart. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Ozga, J. (2008). Governing Knowledge: research steering and research quality. European Educational Research Journal, 7(3), 261-272.

Sanders-McDonagh, E., & Davis, C. (2018). Resisting neoliberal policies in UK higher education: Exploring the impact of critical pedagogies on non-traditional students in a post-1992 university. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 13(3), 217-228.

Adams, D. and Young, N. (2019) 'Students’ well-being, wild-ness and freedom from the ‘magic capture’ of assessments.', paper presented to The 15th Annual Conference of the British Education Studies Association (BESA), 27–28 June, viewed 13 August 2020, <>

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