We are the university – local actors’ roles in policy implementation

I am always fascinated by discussion in HE around the notion of ‘the university’. When engaging in conversations on the subject of policy, there is usually some mention of how ‘the university’ controls aspects of the behaviour of people who work in those organisations. It is intriguing to consider how staff deal with a whole bricolage of policy devices which impinge into the workplace and therefore the classroom. I wonder if increasingly staff feel a sense of this because of the managerialist culture which is embedded within most government education policy.

Whilst policies and discourse around the commodification of education represent structural features of the context of teaching these are juxtaposed with attempts by teaching staff to maintain a sense of agency. Trowler, Saunders & Knight (2003) talk about back of the stage and under the stage discussions which take place in contrast to front of the stage conversations which occur in more ‘official’ fora. To get to the bottom of what occurs at the chalkface it is important to take into account these more unofficial discussions as they reflect a different understanding of policy implementation. Policy implementation which is underpinned through a top down lens is in danger of failing to understand these processes since it presents a mechanistic view of implementation.

Policy texts are interpreted by local actors, through individual’s interpretations and understandings of what policies mean and more collective understandings or commonly agreed ways of thinking about a policy issue. Policy is vernacularized or given localised meanings. For instance, during my research into how teaching staff implemented equality policies in one HEI I noticed that equality seemed to be equated to access for all, but this also meant not giving an advantage to some over others, which in turn led to misgivings about giving disabled students extra time. There was also consternation about students who were given specialist tuition, who then required adjustments to assessment processes, as this was seen as doubly compensating (doubly unfair to non-disabled students who couldn’t get any of this support). 

Thomson et al (2010) demonstrated the way in which policies (which can be described as under the umbrella of performativity) may be reproduced in ‘vernacularised’ ways by individual teachers through various teaching strategies which actually led to disengagement. The policy was translated into practice which was dependent on individual characteristics of the teachers (such as level of experience, ability to control bad behaviour etc.). Whilst they appeared to be producing the required policy outcomes in terms of government defined statistics, the outcome for the students was a lack of genuine engagement or recognition of individual motivations. For the one student it was reproducing patterns of educational disadvantage which was seen in her parents and close relatives.

Which leads me back to the notion of ‘the university’. Surely, we’re all part of what the university is. To students in particular, the majority of the interactions they have with ‘the university’ are through the teaching sessions they attend and the ways in which these are delivered, is influenced by the ways in which these staff vernacularise policy.  

 

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