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Marketisation of higher education systems is a global phenomenon, albeit one that plays out differently depending on national contexts (Bowl, 2018). English higher education has, over the last 35 years, become steadily more subject to market competition and in many ways has become the most market oriented HE system in global comparison, accompanied by the highest average tuition fees outside of the HE market in the United States. Marketisation necessarily impacts almost all aspects of academic life; from how HE providers are governed and managed, through the working context for (and relationship between) academics and students, to the nature of how access to higher education is secured. This seminar brings together two research-informed critical perspectives on the uses of discourse in relation to the marketisation of HE and will provide an opportunity for participants to explore the methodological approaches used in the papers shared. 

Following the presentation of the papers, our discussant Debbie McVitty will respond to them both and identify questions for further exploration. During the day, there will be time for questions, and to explore the discourses of marketisation and the methodological approaches both in small groups, and with the panel. 



Arrival and welcome


Colin McCaig’s presentation and policy activity




Steven Jones’ presentation and media activity


Debbie McVitty’s response – and questions for breakout groups


Breakout discussions


Questions to the panel (Steve, Colin & Debbie)


Presentation overviews
Professor Colin McCaig (Sheffield Hallam University) will discuss the political economy of widening participation (WP) policy in the English market context, specifically focusing on how WP policy – at national and institutional level - has evolved in response to two major policy imperatives of the last 50 years: the human capital-driven expansion of the system; and the process of marketisation through differentiation begun with the 1987 White Paper. Drawing on some recent work in this area, including McCaig, Rainford, and Squire (2022) and McCaig (2018), this paper uses a policy analysis approach (Fairclough and Fairclough 2013) to trace changes in arguments employed by successive governments in Widening Participation (WP) since the 1980s to justify the marketisation process. Situating WP as a natural corollary of system expansion (dating from the Robbins report of 1963) and a developing process of marketisation of the English system. 

Professor Steven Jones (University of Manchester) will discuss changes in the ways that the marketised university is framed in contemporary policy and media discourses. Drawing on his most recent book, Universities Under Fire (2012), he will demonstrate how the higher education sector faces a hitherto unknown challenge to defend itself against changes of profligacy, irrelevance, elitism and ‘wokeness’. Using a mix of Critical Discourse Analysis approaches developed by Fairclough (2013), and building specifically on work by Morrish and Stauntson (2019), he explores the connection between knowledge and power, particularly in relation to societal institutions, and the discourses that sustain this connection. At its heart, the approach draws upon Wittgenstein’s (2010) idea that language and action are not separate entities, but rather interwoven threads of the same fabric.

Speaker biographies 
Colin McCaig is Professor of Higher Education Policy at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University. He has around twenty years’ experience of researching the field of widening access and participation policy and practice, often employing critical discourse analysis and policy discourse analyses to explore the relationship between the evolving marketisation of the English sector and how WP is reflected in differentiated practices at institutional level. Other related research has focused on admissions policy since the Schwartz Review of 2004, and the impact of student number controls – and their removal in 2015/16 – on the English HE market we see today. 

Steven Jones is Professor of Higher Education and Head of Manchester Institute of Education, which is part of The University of Manchester. Co-author of commissioned reports for the Sutton Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and HEFCE, Professor Jones is particularly interested in how the marketisation of English Higher Education has impacted on staff and students. He is one of the most prominent commentators on English universities, having written op-ed pieces for the Guardian and other newspapers, and made regular contributions to WonkHE, HEPI, the Times Higher and the Conversation. Always keen to disseminate his work to as wide a range of stakeholders as possible, he has presented research findings to Universities UK, HM Treasury, the Association of School and College Leaders, and the Sunday Times Festival of Education, and given evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary University Group in the House of Commons. 

Debbie McVitty is editor of Wonkhe and is an experienced commentator on higher education (HE) policy. Debbie is interested in the social impact of HE, learning, teaching and curriculum, institutional change and innovation, and in bringing to light diverse and under-represented voices in the HE policy debate. She has previously worked in policy and communications roles at Universities UK, the University of Bedfordshire and the National Union of Students. She holds a DPhil in English Literature from the University of Oxford and an MRes in higher education research, evaluation and enhancement from Lancaster University. 


Jones, S. (2022) Universities Under Fire: Hostile Discourses and Integrity Deficits in Higher Education. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
McCaig, C., Rainford, J. & Squire, R. (Eds) (2022) The Business of Widening Participation: policy, practice and culture, Bingley: Emerald Publishing
McCaig, C. (2018) The marketisation of English Higher Education: a policy analysis of a risk-based system, Bingley: Emerald Publishing 
Morrish, L., & Sauntson, H. (2019). Academic irregularities: Language and neoliberalism in higher education. London: Routledge.
Wittgenstein, L. (2010). Philosophical investigations. London: Wiley

June 1st, 2023 from 11:00 AM to  3:30 PM
Society House, Regents Wharf
8 All Saints Street
London, N1 9RL
United Kingdom
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