[How Do We “Know” The World Series] Part XI: To what extent does a colonial present pervade Higher Education and serve to reproduce structural hierarchies?

by Su-ming Khoo and  Paul Prinsloo

How does the concept and pursuit of ‘quality’ in Higer Education (HE) bind to, or unbind HE from, stubborn inequalities? To what extent does a colonial present pervade HE and serve to reproduce structural hierarchies? We believe that it is essential to examine historical-structural roots of inequities and understand how these bound and bind HE values, identities and approaches to generating ‘expert’ knowledge. This process is crucial if we are to make it possible for HE to become sustainable in the sense of social and ecological survivability and justice, rather than resigning ourselves to a HE that sacrifices both in the name of economic expansion and competitiveness.

The rapid global expansion of HE has resulted in an explosion of quantity, but with the inevitable corollary of increasing concerns about ‘quality’, which then has to be defined and controlled. The concern with quality has become an imperative for quality assurance regimes centred on quantification, accountability and audit of research and teaching. While there is little consensus on what ‘quality’ actually means (Ryan 2015), the lack of agreement has not forestalled a race towards performative ‘quality’, enacted through quality assurance measures that are ‘more competitive and rigorous than ever before’, standardized and recognized regionally and internationally (Council for Higher Education Accreditation 2007). Quality as ‘performed’ by HE means ‘governance by numbers’ (Ball 2015), numbers that enable institutions and individuals to be evaluated and scrutinised in terms of measurable outputs. What does this tell us about who gets to decide what ‘quality’ means and how we ‘know the world’ in the context of HE?

Neoliberal notions of ‘quality’ embed the principle of competitiveness as the central logic of market societies. Neoliberalism  can be described as ‘disenchantment of politics by economics’ (Davies 2017), a disenchantment that is more than the simple promotion of a ‘flat world’ of ‘free’ markets. The conception of the market is implicitly hierarchical and concerned with extending the logic of competition as a moral and political rationality into all spheres of life (Davies 2017). Neoliberal marketization hinges on competitive ordering, via the valuation or devaluation of different types of activities and ‘outputs’. Global schemes of competitive ordering tune individual student and researcher values and identities towards ‘productivity’, narrowly-defined and determined by academic publishers and student evaluations. This logic results in competitive gaming, cheating and tyranny through distortions, distraction and confusion of purpose (Muller 2018). It also maintains levels of profitability for academic publishing that outstrip Google and Amazon (Buranyi 2017). On one hand, there are many ways ‘quality’ can reinforce oppression, as every evaluative scheme and criterion reproduces and deepens existing hierarchies, prejudice and disadvantage. ‘Oppression’ has five ‘faces: marginalization, status hierarchy, domination, exploitation, and cultural imperialism (Young 1990).  In performatively reproducing ‘quality’ criteria, HE diminishes non-market values and purposes such as critical thought, dissent, inclusion, emancipation, intrinsic truth and inquiry, even though such values remain historically associated with HE. On the other hand, there may be prospects for disruptive counter-performativities, which we hope to explore under the signs of ‘unbounded’, ‘open’ and ‘connected’ HE practices and potentialities.

The ‘value for money’ focus has opened up a legitimacy crisis and existential debate about the purpose and value of HE in the first place, and whether such value can, or should be, measured in terms of economic return (Tomlinson 2018). As Davies argues, one of the ‘limits of neoliberalism’ is how long it can carry on reproducing an assumed ‘level playing field’, as inequality mounts up and hardens into intergenerational mechanisms and structures.

There is space to only briefly mention two critiques and attempts at transformative thinking – the ‘Western’ democratic critique of egalitarianism and African critiques of Western epistemic domination. The critique of egalitarian theory seeks to overcome the fixation of egalitarian thought with improbable and abstract scenarios, to the detriment of those who are actually politically oppressed, fighting against inequalities of race, gender, class and caste, or the victims of nationalism, genocide, slavery and ethnic or misogynistic subordination (Anderson 1999). Egalitarian justice’s negative aim is to end oppression, which is not an individual characteristic (which must be compensated with whatever individuals ‘morally deserve’), but is a social imposition, (implying the positive aim to construct a democratic society in which people stand in relations of equality to others) (Anderson 1999, 289). Inegalitarian ideologies of racism, sexism, nationalism, caste, class, and eugenics generate and justify inegalitarian social relations and consequently inegalitarian distributions of freedoms, resources, and welfare. African critiques seek to liberate thought from its colonial history of epistemic domination (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2018), and to imagine escape from the racial ‘logic of enclosure’ that haunts the colonized subject (Mbembe 2017).

We are currently hoping to take our own institutions as exploratory starting points (UNISA in South Africa and NUIG in Ireland). Through collective intelligence and curriculum piloting, we will seek to explore the problem of bounded inequities and how equality can be placed at the centre of, a renewed conception of ‘quality’ that rejects exclusionary, exploitative and competitive hierarchy in favour of equal dignity, plural values and justifiable achievements.

A renewed conception of quality centrally incorporates the public equality mission of HE – defined as obligations to lead, enact and sustain a transformative post-Apartheid knowledge society in South Africa and to uphold a new (2014), positive Public Sector Duty to counter discrimination and promote equality and rights in Ireland. We hope these obligations warrant an exploration of the nature of oppression within, and through, HE in a world of widening inequalities and social divisions. In constructing and advancing a basic theoretical and conceptual framework for understanding bounded inequities in HE, we hope to potentially ‘unthink’ inegalitarian quality assurance and rethink the meaning of ‘quality’ in ways that free equality from oppressively-defined boundedness.

Su-ming Khoo is a Lecturer in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway, Ireland

Paul Prinsloo is Research Professor of Open and Distance Learning at UNISA, South Africa


Anderson, Elizabeth S. 1999. “What is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109 (2): 287-337.

Buranyi, Michael. 2017. “Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?” Guardian, June 27. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science.

Council for Higher Education Accreditation. 2007. What Presidents need to know about international accreditation and quality assurance. CHEA.

Davies, William. 2017. The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition . London: Sage.

Mbembe, Achille. 2017. Critique of Black Reason. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Muller, John. 2018. The Tyranny of Metrics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Sabelo. 2018. Epistemic Freedom in Africa. London: Routledge.

Ryan, Tricia. 2015. “Quality Assurance in Higher Education.” Higher Education Learning Research Communication 5 (4).

Tomlinson, Michael. 2018. “Conceptions of the value of higher education in a measured market.” Higher Education 75: 711–727.

Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.




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