The UK doctorate: policy, power and professionals in the neoliberal university

Roberts, Paul (2021) The UK doctorate: policy, power and professionals in the neoliberal university. Doctoral thesis (EdD), University of Sussex.

[img] PDF - Published Version
Download (5MB)


Nature and scope of enquiry

This thesis explores the lived experiences of eight Graduate School Managers, drawing on the time they spent fulfilling the role in eleven UK Universities. It aims to answer through an analysis of power and affect the following questions:

• How can we evaluate Graduate School Managers as neo-liberal subjects?

• What power do Graduate School Managers possess to get others to do or not do things?

• What is the affective formation Graduate School Managers make of their own roles?

• What do Graduate School Managers believe needs to be done differently?

The conceptual framework for the study builds on a growing body of critical higher education studies on the impact of neoliberal reason on UK Universities. I draw on a Foucauldian theoretical framework, such as his description of capillary power and his conception that discourses are ‘practices that form the objects of which they speak’ (Foucault, 1972:49). This is augmented by other poststructuralist writers such as Brown (2015) and Butler (2005, 2006) and affect theorists (Ahmed, 2004 & Wetherell, 2012).

Contribution to knowledge and practice

My contribution to knowledge lies ‘not in the hope of proving anything, but rather in the hope of learning something’ (Flyvbjerg, 2006:224). There are currently more ‘non-academic’ staff or professional services staff employed by UK Universities (the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency, for the academic year 2018-19 recorded 222,885 non-academic staff and 217,065 academic staff) and yet there remains a silence about their experiences. They appear to escape being the object of study, which in doctoral education is invariably either the student or the supervisor. By focusing on Graduate School Managers’ lived experiences, I aim to contribute to a breaking of the silence about the experiences of non-academic staff members within the neoliberal UK University.

The interviews with eight Graduate School Managers provided a number of specific recommendations for practice:

• Institutions need to be aware of gendered roles and the appropriate professional development and support.

• University executives should pay greater consideration to doctoral researchers, who make up just over 4% of the student population in the UK. Doctoral education should be appropriately included in institutional plans and not ignored.

• Support for the affective lives of all participants in the neoliberal university should be provided.


The thesis is based on interviews with eight individuals who had served as Graduate School Managers in eleven different institutions (eight Pre-1992 institutions and three Post-1992 institutions). All interviews were transcribed and analysed through close reading and thematic analysis.

Principal arguments in this thesis are that:

• The political economy of neoliberalism in the late capitalist economy has been installed via material, discursive and affective means.

• Discussions about the neoliberal university tend to focus on the ‘macro-processes’ and attention should be paid to the micro level of lived experiences.

• Discourse has affect and the affective lives of all groups of staff in the neoliberal university should be researched.

• By highlighting the affective economy of neoliberalism, a reverse discourse to the dominant narratives of neoliberalism can be created.


Graduate School Managers should not be simply dismissed as agents of neoliberalism, nor as one homogenised category of analysis. My main findings were that:

• Policy provides a valuable lens through which to evaluate Graduate School Managers as neo-liberal subjects. Their experience of policy changes was: steeped in affect; laden with values and creative potential; yet also constraining/disciplining.

• Power was most evident through Graduate School Managers interaction with policy.

• The affective formation described by Graduate School Managers included gains that were both emotional and material alongside substantive losses of time to reflect and feelings of security/certainty.

• Despite identifying many of the negative features recognised in the literature on neoliberalism in higher education, Graduate School Managers beliefs on what should be done differently were more incremental than revolutionary. They could all be accommodated within the neoliberal university.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Education and Social Work > Education
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher education > LB2371 Graduate education
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 09 Jun 2021 13:51
Last Modified: 09 Jun 2021 13:51

View download statistics for this item

📧 Request an update