Student Engagement: Towards A Critical Policy Sociology

Michael Tomlinson
2017 Higher Education Policy  
This paper develops a critical policy analysis of the student engagement agenda, exploring its establishment as a key policy framework in HE and why it has developed such momentum. Based on a critical policy sociology approach, this article analyses the levels through which student engagement can be conceptualised: macro, meso and micro. At the macro level, the concept can be seen as partly aligned to the market-driven and massified institutional context and informed by New Public Management
more » ... icy levers intended to enhance the performative value of contemporary universities. At the meso level, student engagement has been instituted by policies and practices evaluated by a range of performance measures that purportedly capture the efficacy of engagement practices. At a micro level, it presents issues around students' relationship with institutions in light of their changing role. If student engagement policy and practice is able to elevate students as active co-producers of self-directed learning, they may also potentially affirm their role as regulatory customers. Policy sociology; neoliberalism; performativity; engagement; studentship Introduction: problem and context The concept of student engagement has become firmly established in the lexicon of contemporary higher education (HE) policy and has informed much discussion on the 2 management of student experience (Kuh, 2010) . However, it remains conceptually ambiguous, largely due to the multiple ways in which it can be conceived and the multiple contexts in which it is played out (Baron and Corbin, 2012) . Student engagement has been defined broadly as the level of effort and investment students make towards their formal study, resulting from educationally purposeful provision that enriches their formal experiences. It is acknowledged that it is likely to have multiple componentsfor instance, Trowler (2010) has identified cognitive, emotional and behavioural dimensions, each of which are achieved through different facets of students' experiences. Much of the research and analysis has framed the issue in terms of the favourable institutional and pedagogic conditions that encourage students to make further cognitive investments in their higher education learning. A key concern preoccupying those involved in HE teaching and learning has been to develop institutional and pedagogic strategies that enhance student engagement (Coates, 2005) . This is followed by endeavours to best capture how effective these are and how well they can be implemented and then measured. This tends to work from the premise that student engagement provision is inherently beneficial to students and that provision must be tailored to enrich its impact. Student engagement has therefore become viewed as a key lever towards the enhancement of institutional effectiveness and quality at a time when policy makers have emphasised the importance of maximising the formal benefits of participating in HE. This has also taken place during a period when, in many countries at least, the costs of participating have transferred more significantly onto individual students. There are a reportedly large range of associated benefits from improved student engagement, ranging from enhanced subject knowledge, employability development, meta-cognitive skills acquisition and positive dispositions towards continued learning (Coates, 2005) 3 An alternative focus, and one which invites a different level of analysis, is to consider why the concept of student engagement has become so pervasive in contemporary higher education. Drilling further down into this question opens up related issues concerning why HEIs across most international contexts have largely been so willing to embrace this agenda and what may be at stake in the pursuit for making students more fully engaged in their formal learning. To address such questions, the focus shifts from mainstream policy questions concerning its effective implementation and enhancement to the shifting institutional and policy context that has given rise to this agenda and helps continue its momentum. This article engages with this agenda by drawing on some of the perspectives of critical policy sociology. In employing this approach, the paper locates student engagement across three levels: macro, meso and micro. This article illustrates how, at the macro level, the concept of student engagement can be seen as partly aligned to the market-driven and massified institutional context. The marketization of HE is underpinned by a neoliberal ideological policy framework and new public management policy levers intended to enhance the value and outputs of contemporary universities. At the meso level, student engagement is largely instituted by policies and practices evaluated by a range of performance measures that purportedly capture the efficacy of engagement practices. At a micro level, it maps onto significant issues about students' formal learning experiences and related expectations in light of their changing role. This is intimately connected to continued discussions of students' relationship with institutions and shifting identity positions in a mass marketised HE context. 4 Applying a policy sociology perspective 'Policy sociology' is a term used for analytical approaches to education policy (but also applicable to other public services) that conceives policy formation and institutionalisation as a process which connects the local enactment and experience of policy to wider ideological and socio-political influences over the shaping of institutions (Rivzi and Lingard, 2010). This approach focuses on the relationship between wider systematic global policy shifts and its practice, including the ways in which policy is mediated and mobilised within institutional contexts (Ball, 1997; 1999) . In Ball's conceptualising, policy developments can take on almost paradigmatic ways of organising understanding of institutional practices, relations and subjectivities for whom they impact; be that students, educators and managers. Thus, whilst policy reform movements signal in part a reconfiguration of the aims and purposes of educational systems, they also embody re-workings of actors' lived experiences at an institutional level. Policy movements are also enshrined with values and discursive framings that shape key actors' thinking about institutions and how they should operate. In adopting an analytical rather than normative approach to policy development, attention is shifted from a policy agenda's effective maintenance to the wider socio-political and institutional context through which it is mediated. In applying this approach to a policy agenda such as 'student engagement', closer analysis is given to the extent to which this reflects wider reform movements and other related policy movements within HE. A key concern within the policy sociology framework tradition is therefore critically engaging with the underlying assumption of a policy agenda in terms of what it seeks to achieve, what existent practices it may transform and what overall effects this may produce. Such an approach is captured neatly by Taylor et al., (1997) who discuss the analysis of policy as something which: 5 ... involves more than a narrow concern simply with a policy document or text. We need to understand the background and context of policies, including their historical antecedents and relations with other texts, and the short-and longer term impacts of policies in practice. A useful framework which encompasses this breadth distinguishes between contexts, texts and consequences of policy (Taylor et al,. 1997, 44) At one level, policy can be seen to reflect a wider political project of reform based on the reconfiguring of institutions and the nature of their activities. This is often predicated on a wider set of goals for institutions and how they should be organised to meet broader social and economic imperatives. At another level, generic reform agenda is accompanied by a set of discursive strategies that shapes ways of thinking consistent with reform goals (Fairclough, 2003). For instance, student-centred policy which emphasises 'learners at the heart of the system' employs a range of discursive techniques that foreground institutions' responsiveness in meeting students' demands, as well as students' active role in the service they experience (DBIS, 2011). However, as Ball (1999) argues, policy discourses on reform modernisation and enhancement can be paradoxical: students are sometimes enacted as 'active learners' and citizens whilst contemporaneously identified as being regulatory stakeholders and consumers. Similarly, senior managers can be depicted as 'change agents' as well as faithful implementers of reform (Wallace et al., 2011) . Generic policy goals are translated into institutional practices by a range of policy levers which help establish the pace and direction of reform. Within a market-driven HE context, there are some very immediate policy levers, the most significant being the transfer of costs onto 6 individuals students, the large-scale production of institutional performance data via key metrics and the entry of new providers (Brown and Carasso, 2013) . This in turn has generated a number of (largely unintended) consequences, including an increase in inter-institutional competition, reputational ranking and the widespread branding of institutions' offerings to an increasingly global audience. A further effect is the closer monitoring of the quality of teaching and learning, which in the UK is assessed through tools such as the National Student Survey which enables students to formally evaluate their experiences. The three-fold policy theme model developed by Bell and Stevenson (2006) is potentially very useful in linking wider structural shifts to emergent policy agendas, including student engagement. These authors have identified three dominant policy frames -human capital, accountability and social justiceand are all applicable to policy developments in higher education, including student engagement. These themes all, to some degree, become organising principles in the way in which institutions seek to adapt to the changing social and politicoeconomic context in which they now exist. In applying a policy sociology perspective to student engagement, a number of key areas of context need to be addressed. First are the wider macro-level political-economic drivers that shape this agenda and provide a framework for understanding current students' relationship to HE. The macro level provides a wider context to the policy and its interaction with national and global reform movements. Second is the meso-level, concerning the implementation, governance and evaluation of the policy at an institutional level. This includes policy instruments designed to best capture, enhance and evaluate how effectively students are engaged in their formal university experiences. Thirdly is the meaning and practice of student engagement at a micro level. This not only addresses the lived experience of this policy agenda, 7 but also potentially different concepts of students' relationship to their institutions and the meanings ascribed to their formal experiences Macro level: the changing political economy of HE and related policy themes Several inter-weaving themes can be identified in terms of the broader macro-level framing to student engagement. First concerns the move towards increasing neoliberal governance in HE, manifest largely by the growing marketization of the system. This is closely allied to economically-driven logics pertaining to universities' role in responding to wider economic imperatives, not least in enhancing the future skills and human capital of the workforce. The neoliberalisation of HE systems is often intimately linked to increased performance management, informed largely by the principles of New Public Management and associated governance tools. Accordingly, it is seen that HE systems need to be more responsive to their external environment and accountable to diverse stakeholders' demands. Furthermore, any focus on macro-level shifts needs to consider the global massification of the system, encompassing a more heterogeneous student population and a more diverse range of institutional provisions. The idea that higher education has been subject to the forces of neoliberal ideology and related policy technologies at a global level is now fairly well established and has been discussed extensively for several decades (Olssen and Peters, 2005; Ball, 2012; Lynch, 2014) . One of the salient features of this movement has been the system-wide move towards marketization and the transformation of university outcomes, most particularly research and graduates, into marketable commodities which has purchase in a wider globalised milieu. The neoliberalisation of higher education and its accompanying marketization policy framework 8 have been critically examined both for what it constitutes educationally and professionally, but also as genuine model of organisation and governance (Marginson, 2014) . The marketization of HE is most keenly felt in liberal economies such as the US, UK and Australia. Market-driven reform is characterised by a shift from providers to purchasers in controlling institutional-level delivery and related outcomes. This is seen to leverage quality of provision as fee-paying customers exert greater control over what they can expect higher education to provide and how well it meets their demands (Brown and Carasso, 2013) . Providers are encouraged to compete on both quality and price, one seen as being a precedent to the other. These changes also impact on senior managers who ultimately have to implement policy makers' directives, mediate between central and local policy and broker the institutional acceptance for reform and its specific institutional adaptation (Wallace et al., 2011. In a neoliberal policy environment, considerable focus is placed universities' outputs, not least the production of skilled and employable graduates. The logic of human capital theory (Becker, 1993) underscores considerable macro-level policy framings on the role and responsiveness of higher education institutions. First, HE is charged with supplying the economy with relevant skills and knowledge, mainly through the production of economically adept graduates who have engaged in relevant forms of learning. HEIs have become increasingly charged with developing and implementing modes of curricula and provision that best enhance the vocational competences and future employability of graduates (McCowan, 2016) . This in turn is believed to enhance their so-called economic value when in the labour market. Human capital approaches see the continued expansion of HE as justified, based on the matched supply of graduates to their demand in the labour market and consequent enhancement of productivity. Given that HE is essentially an investment that accrues longer-term benefits, the shift of 9 personal costs onto individuals is justified on the basis of a 'shared investment' between individuals, government and society. One of the features of marketised HE is, however, the continued role of state regulation and audit which, in light of increased private costs, has intensified and strongly informed by the principles of New Public Management (Ferlie et al., 1996) Neoliberal policy frameworks effectively establish 'managed markets' (Palfreyman and Tapper, 2014) , or what in the context of increased inter-institutional competition, might be seen as measured markets. In marketised HE systems, political and market accountability are often conjoined and interact reciprocally: the systematic regulation of intuitional performance through explicit forms of audit and evaluation are designed to enhance institutions' market positions, in turn driving demand. Institutional performance data provides key market information which purportedly informs student choice, potentially enabling institutions to increase their fee levels on the basis of relative performance on student-driven and student-evaluated output. In the UK following the introduction of a three-fold increase in student tuition fees there has been growing emphasis on
doi:10.1057/s41307-016-0035-3 fatcat:3yncifzicbb2zb6xyn6pchnc2a