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.
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