University of Sussex
Felix, Sara Maria Camacho.pdf (1.96 MB)

Fostering criticality within neoliberal higher education: a critical action research study with first year students in Kazakhstan

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posted on 2023-06-09, 01:28 authored by Sara Maria Camacho Felix
This dissertation considers how I, as a practitioner in international higher education (HE), can engage students in criticality, as defined by critical pedagogy (CP), despite a global trend towards the neoliberalisation of HE policy. I examine alternative purposes to neoliberal HE that consider the importance of developing criticality and the role of context and identity in its development. I conduct a piece of critical action research (CAR) at a state university in Kazakhstan, a unique context due to its recent independence in 1991, its multi-ethnic population, and its current formation of a national identity. My central research question is: how do students voice their criticality through engagement in writing narrative reflective essays? I begin by questioning the neoliberal conception of HE and, in particular, its claim that HE is a private good. I argue that the neoliberal conception of HE is failing by its own standards as socio-political and ethnic / gender inequities remain regardless of access to HE. Therefore, I consider HE through the perspective of CP to understand additional purposes of HE beyond neoliberal values. Drawing from Allman, Barnett, Freire, and Kincheloe, I argue that HE should also foster critical beings who question the structures and tacit assumptions of socio political contexts while imagining alternatives. I suggest criticality is central to fostering critical beings – where the thinker questions themselves and who they are as well as the sociopolitical context in which they are framed. I conducted a CAR to engage with how I encourage students’ journeys towards developing criticality in their context: Kazakhstan. I asked thirteen students to write student self-evaluations (SSEs), which are narrative essays written and re-written four times within a three-term module. In the SSEs, students are invited to tell the story of themselves and their learning throughout the year. For this research, I analysed the first and the final drafts of the SSEs using thematic analysis. I also conducted interviews with the thirteen students at the beginning of the second term to explore ideas in their SSEs. This dissertation’s originality is its contextualization within Kazakhstan’s HE system. Because my theorization of criticality focuses on the engagement with the students’ selves within their context, I question Kazakhstan as a socio-political place in terms of the performance of identity, drawing on Foucault’s theory of performativity. I attempt to understand the complexity of identities that students may bring into the classroom, such as a complex national identity in a multi-ethnic state, a historical context where ethnic minorities arrived into the geographic region as political and ethnic exiles, and a continual struggle around gender equality since independence. The theorization of how this Kazakhstani socio-political context may impact on my students allows me to better engage with the criticality they share through their SSEs. The CAR documents a significant development. Students who initially determined the value of their learning through marks/ grades (a hallmark of neoliberal performativity) began to reflect on their learning beyond marks through the SSE process. Students expressed an engagement with their own tacit assumptions about their contexts in their final SSEs in a way that they did not verbalize in the classroom. More individual voices developed, with some starting to imagine alternatives, while others questioned the feasibility of such alternatives within the context of Kazakhstan. I conclude with some reservations regarding those findings. It is delicate to consider what the students’ development might have been without the SSEs. One also needs to consider whether students were simply replacing one form of teacher pleasing performance (getting good grades) with another (being self critical). However, this thesis argues that spaces can be created for practitioners that help foster student criticality within a neoliberal HE system.


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