In search of student time: Student temporality and the future university

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Inspired by the title of Marcel Proust’s major work (In Search of Lost Time), we are exploring the warped notion of student time and temporality in contemporary higher education. The philosophical argument and discussion will take its point of departure in examples from the Danish and UK higher education policy debates, together with recent studies that highlight the interplay between different forms of political and institutional engagement with student temporality and students’ understandings of time in their higher education learning trajectories.

As Gibbs et al argue (2015) universities and higher education practice today seem underpinned by a certain ontological premise about change; that the institutions, its teachers and students, should and must change. This idea of perpetual change has crept into the very core of the university, and its existence has today become one of progress reform, activity templates, attendance charts, and assessment programmes for effective learning and teaching. The management of student time also becomes a management of student place (telling students not only when to be, but also where to be), of student thinking (fusing epistemology with study progress reforms), and student being and identity (ontologically framing learning as linear, functional time). Thus, the notion of student time and temporality extends much wider both epistemologically and ontologically than even imagined in higher education policy. Ultimately, the ideal profile for students of higher education, which we find in the policy discourse, is derived from a specific and narrow understanding of time.

In the Danish higher education policy discourse, the notion of study time and temporality is central. In the Danish government’s recent policy initiatives, such as the Study Progress Reform and quantitative performance measures for enhancing the quality (e.g. the ‘educational zoom’), there is a strong focus on students’ completion times; how much time they spend on their studies outside the classroom, and how much ‘contact time’ they have with their teachers and supervisors. Currently in the UK higher education debate, there is also a strong emphasis on 'contact hours' and 'learning gains' (DBIS 2016; UUK 2016). These debates are taking place within the context of the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the newly established (and, in some ways, controversial) Office for Students (OfS) (Adonis, 2018). On a regional level, such understandings of time are linked to the discourse of the 'knowledge economy', where OECD and EU initiatives also encourage and drive higher education metrics, the skills agenda and other forms of performativity (Filippakou, 2017).

Commonly the present initiatives concerning the increase of student intensity draw from a quantifiable understanding of intensity to be worked into demands for more hours on site in the classroom and institutionally organised extra-curricular activities (usually aiming, particularly in the UK, to enhance students’ employability skills).

However, the qualitative and existential aspects of study time are rarely discussed in relation to these initiatives. Our aim with the paper is to develop a conceptual platform for more nuanced understandings of time and temporality in higher education that differentiate the discussion of students’ experiences of time – and critically reflects the changes that the recent policy acts in Denmark and UK may involve in their temporalities of learning. In doing so, we explore concepts of time that also allow for understanding of the learning potential in warped temporalities like boredom, procrastination, the waste of time, and the stretch of time in, what students experience to be, interesting discussions and deep learning. We shall apply three central philosophies of time from the works of Henri Bergson (1998), Martin Heidegger (2010), and Emmanuel Levinas (2003).

From Bergson, we use the concept of ‘duration’ to argue that student temporality always takes the form of lived time. Here, time is experiental and existential, and therefore bound by and embedded within individual perceptions and specific learning contexts. From a Bergsonian perspective, students do not apply time as an organising tool, but are within time and in the flow of time. There is, thus, no distinction between students and the time they spend on their studies, as students are the very time itself. Temporality is not an aspect of learning – learning is temporality.

From Heidegger, we use the concept of ‘waiting’ to argue that temporality is not only connected to explicit and visible learning activities, but also related to times, where nothing happens and no goals are pursued. Heidegger distinguishes between ‘awaiting’ (waiting for something or someone) and ‘waiting’ (without direction and purpose). Similar to Bergson’s idea of ‘ripening’, Heidegger’s concept of ‘waiting’ allows us to understand and describe student learning that takes place in this other and more alien dimension of time.

From Levinas, we use the concept of ‘infinity’ to argue that the policy makers’ expectation of student change is to some extent a pseudo-change. Change, here, only means an increase of something that is already known and familiar; what Levinas calls a ‘totality’. In this line of argument, change becomes a pseudonym for the extension of the status quo, and points out a surprisingly reactionary logic inherent in the policy discourse. Should change really be desired, seen from Levinas, it should take the shape of exteriority; of engaging fully with what is strange and Other. Such forms of student change cannot, however, be either planned or comprehended structurally and strategically.

Our analysis points to a range of implications for the future university that we wish to discuss with the audience. Inspired by the works of Bruce Macfarlane (2016), Simon Marginson (2018) and Ronald Barnett (2018) we shall discuss new forms of student agency and temporal ecologies in the wake of our analysis of student time.
Original languageEnglish
Publication yearApr 2018
StateSubmitted - Apr 2018
EventPhilosophy of higher education conference - Middlesex University , London, United Kingdom
Duration: 10 Sep 201812 Sep 2018


ConferencePhilosophy of higher education conference
LocationMiddlesex University
CountryUnited Kingdom

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