The subjugation of students


Chapter 6 of

Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education


by Brian Martin

Go to Tied Knowledge contents page

The domination over students by academic staff is a key power system within academia. The staff individually and collectively exercise almost complete control over the choice of material that is taught, the methods of teaching, the process of assessment and the awarding of credentials. Student participation in these areas is usually nominal at most. The staff-student relationship is very far from being one of partnership in learning.

One driving force behind staff domination is the interests of staff in maintaining their own power. On a collective level, the privileges of academics depend on restricting entry to the profession and in tying knowledge to their own interests and the interests of patron groups. As well, in order to reproduce the academic profession, students must be inducted into the established knowledge frameworks and socialised into proper behaviour. Nonconformists must be weeded out.

Many individual academics gain a sense of self-importance through their power over students. This is not essential to staff dominance, but rather is a by-product of it.

The staff who have the greatest structural control over students are those in elite academic positions where they have greater power to determine admissions to courses, specify the syllabus, ratify course offerings, appoint staff and so forth. The expansion of higher education has given more power to administrators, who run the system according to bureaucratic principles. The academic elites have greatest power over both students and junior academic staff. The junior staff, realising that their influence within the administration is minimal, may relish what power they do have, namely over students.

The other main driving force behind staff domination is the interest of various non-academic groups. The professions in particular are concerned to restrict entry into their privileged occupations and to ensure that new entrants accept the current power structure within the occupation. Corporate and state elites prefer that academic knowledge is selectively useful to them, and this means that it cannot be too readily accessible to beginning students.

Staff domination in part is a continuation of domination over students which prevails at the primary and secondary levels, a domination that is intrinsic to state and adult control over the learning of children. Many sections of higher education operate on the assumption that students are children.

The major hitch in the pattern of staff domination is that academics are supposed to be teaching the students the secrets of academic knowledge. Some students are future members of the academic club, and others are destined for top jobs in other occupations. There is a contradiction between academics tying knowledge to their own interests - through elaborate knowledge frameworks, jargon and esoteric research - and imparting that same knowledge to students, most of whom will not become academics.

The resolution of this contradiction is to offer beginning students a textbook version of the discipline. The contradiction is not as serious as it sounds, since the recondite knowledge frameworks provide their own protection against easy understanding. Induction into the realities of the discipline, and relaxation of the control over curriculum, is reserved for later years, particularly advanced work.

Ideas in most academic disciplines are organised mainly to be useful to researchers, namely to the academics themselves. The researcher-oriented organisation of ideas may not be the most valuable for teaching. For example, physics may be taught as a deductive science, built on abstract principles which are presented to students as sacred texts formulated by the 'greats' in the field. The approach is logically elegant but sacrifices practical and intuitive understanding for most students.

The divergence between the aims of helping students understand an area of knowledge and tying that knowledge to particular interests is a serious one. It opens many possibilities for academics to give more control to students, to break down professional mystiques and to tie knowledge to weaker groups. Some critical perspectives developed by intellectuals, such as the views of Foucault and Habermas, only gain widespread currency by their translation into more understandable terms for students.

The possibilities for challenging staff domination over students are only of real significance if not all students are committed to promoting their own careers within the prevailing channels. If students simply want credentials in order to enter occupational clubs, then even the most radical challenges to conventional knowledge within the curriculum will come to naught.

There are two basic student levels: undergraduates and postgraduates (also called graduates). There are usually many more undergraduates, who are processed through courses more anonymously, especially in the lower years. Their large numbers can provide some protection for radicals and nonconformists. Higher degree students are treated more as apprentices. They get more personal attention but are also more vulnerable individually and may face more difficulties if they decide to challenge their teachers. The relative conditions of undergraduates and postgraduates varies a lot from country to country and from institution to institution.

Here I consider the main channels through which staff domination is maintained.


The awarding of credentials is a key to staff power. It provides the justification for control of curriculum and teaching methods and for the imposition of staff-controlled assessment. But credentials provide more than justification for staff control: they are basic to the control itself. Since credentials are virtually essential to career advancement in many occupations, the awarding or withdrawing of credentials is a powerful weapon against student challenges to staff power.

Academic staff and administrations control the detailed requirements for obtaining credentials: the number of years of study, the allowed sequences of courses and the required marks, as well as the performances required by teachers and departments in individual courses. Students who do not adapt to these requirements have little chance of obtaining the degree, no matter how much they know or how well they perform. Likewise, students in particular courses who choose to study what they want rather than what the teacher demands are simply failed unless they can satisfy the teacher's requirements as well.

Credentials are incredibly effective tools for staff to control student learning. Course requirements are set up, curricula are drawn up and assessment methods are chosen. Academics claim exclusive rights over knowledge in their areas of expertise. The existence of credentials allows these claims to be translated into day-to-day control over student learning.

Academic control over learning is far from arbitrary. Numerous pressures on the content of curricula exist. As described in chapters 8, 9 and 10, elites in the state, corporations and professions have an interest in the orientation of academic knowledge and in the numbers and types of graduates produced. Pressures also exist from administrators and other educational institutions to maintain broadly similar syllabus content, teaching styles and types of assessment. Peer pressure to conform to standard procedures is important. Student demands have some impact as well, especially in challenging egregious deviations from expected practices. It is within all these constraints and pressures - and indeed because of them - that staff domination over students is well entrenched.


From the point of view of students, the academic system is very competitive. The rewards are marks, grades and degrees. The process is one of satisfying the specified requirements and, if possible, doing better than other students.

The competition results from restricted access to a scarce resource: credentials. Students compete against each other because they each seek high marks as a means to the highest level of credentials. Staff run the competition, since they control the awarding of marks and credentials.

Student competition has similar effects to staff competition. The orientation is to external rewards. Learning is something done because there is a test covering material that must be learned. Anything outside the curriculum - anything not relevant to getting through the course - is an annoying diversion to many students.

An often-stated official goal of higher education is the promotion of understanding and scholarship. Marks and degrees are supposed to be measures and symbols of learning and performance, not the goals themselves. In practice, the pursuit of symbols has displaced the pursuit of the reality, namely learning. But this is a diagnosis in terms of the official rhetoric. The reality is that credentials are important almost irrespective of what learning accompanies them. Many students realistically pursue the more important reality, credentials.

As I said, competition between students serves to orient them to external rewards. This is nicely compatible with the reward system in the wider society. There are also nasty side-effects, including cheating, bootlicking (of teachers), unfriendliness between students, and a general unsupportive environment characterised by self-promotion and mutual put-downs.

There is another important difficulty with competition in learning: it is neither as efficient nor as enjoyable as cooperative learning. When students help each other in a non-competitive atmosphere, the results are often eye-opening. The greater effectiveness and satisfaction from cooperative learning provides a primary avenue for increasing student participation and autonomy in learning. This avenue sometimes can be used to undercut staff domination itself.

Selection and socialisation

Academics maintain power over students by giving support to students who conform to the academic culture. The marking and selection systems adopted by most staff give top rewards to those students who faithfully do what the teacher requires. The usual methods of combining the assessment of essays, lab work and exams - not to mention mere attendance - reward those students who work hard and perform consistently. Creative students who do not fall into the usual mould do not do so well.

There is a fair bit of rhetoric in academia about encouraging creativity. For the most part this remains rhetoric. While there are a few academics who encourage student creativity, most academics, through their attitudes and assessment procedures, strongly discourage any real challenge to orthodoxy. Academic 'creativity' means being slightly different within the established parameters. To be creative by exploring climatic effects on culture when the dominant paradigm in anthropology is based on cultural independence of the physical environment, or to be creative by investigating external conditioning of individual preferences when the dominant paradigm in economics is based on the autonomy of such preferences, is simply not the way to get ahead. It might be tolerated for an essay or two, but quickly becomes unacceptable because it is not what is on the syllabus. Creativity is potentially dangerous to academics since it can threaten their control over knowledge.

Basically, what is required to be a top student is to perform the way the academics prefer. Since the students who do not cooperate receive at best little encouragement, and at worst are penalised or failed outright, any student challenge to staff power is minimised. What this means is that students are selected in the image of the academics.

The academic culture in most Wester societies is predominantly white, middle-class, male culture. The selection of students by their conformity to the academic culture is an effective way of excluding most members of the working class, ethnic minorities and women. In this way the academic culture is reproduced and staff power - tied to a particular class, ethic and gender base - is maintained.

However, the credential system which is the key to staff power also provides opportunities for some members of groups which are discriminated against to rise within the academic system. Because the system is formally based on performance, it is possible for some students who are from working-class backgrounds, from ethnic minorities or who are women to succeed. Often such students must overcome lack of encouragement or overt discrimination; sometimes they are given full support by staff. But in any case they must adapt to the academic culture. This is the process of socialisation, which affects all students who proceed through the academic system.

The process of selection involves staff encouraging students who fit their ideas of proper students. Socialisation can be seen as a process by which students adapt themselves to fit staff ideas of proper students. Students learn a lot about how best to survive and progress. Being aggressive in discussions with the teacher or questioning the teacher's competence are seldom the way to proceed. Nor is it wise to write essays on 'non-academic' themes or to use any style other than the academic writing style. Certain issues, arguments and types of argument are welcome, others are not. Students succeed by adapting to the expected behaviours.

As described in chapter 3 on hierarchy, staff are also subject to socialisation. Generally teachers are not encouraged to be too popular with students, or to spend too much time with them. Teachers are expected to focus on the subject matter and not adjust it just because students are interested in something else. A teacher who identifies with students rather than staff essentially becomes a traitor to her peers. It is 'better' to be scholarly - in other words, reserved, unexciting and 'proper'. Others would call this being stuffy and pompous.

Exclusion of students from decision-making

Staff dominance over students is built on and maintained by the restriction of opportunities for students to participate in decision-making, and in particular to judge the competence of teachers.

Content of the syllabus. Institutions usually allow students some degree of choice in what courses they take, but within any given course there is less choice. Most teachers establish the basics of the syllabus, allowing students a choice of topics only in marginal areas.

Method of teaching. Most staff give students little or no power to influence how the courses are taught.

Methods of assessment. Staff usually decide on how assessment will be carried out. A modicum of student input in this area is not all that threatening to staff power, so long as staff do the assessing!

Awarding of credentials. Any student influence here is rigorously excluded.

Assessment of teaching. Teaching performance is seldom formally assessed by anyone: this would be a threat to the status and autonomy of academics as professionals. Student assessment of teaching is regularly denigrated by academics. The grounds offered for this are diverse, but often boil down to the assertion that students do not know what is good for them.

One area where student activists have made headway is in surveying student opinion about courses and teachers, and publishing the results. These efforts are valuable as far as they go, but that is not all that far. One difficulty is that teaching performance is not very important for the advancement of academics; therefore the impact of student surveys of teaching on appointments and promotions is minimal. Another difficulty is that most student surveys assess teaching purely in terms of performance within the parameters of staff control of content, methods and assessment. To concentrate on effective teaching is to assume the prevailing control by teachers over the conditions for learning.

Assessment of research. Students are excluded from any assessment of staff research performance on the grounds that they do not know enough about the subject, the same grounds that are used to try to exclude other people outside the discipline or speciality. In this case specialist knowledge is used to maintain staff power. Even in those rare departments where students have an input into decisions over staff appointments, the staff monopoly on esoteric knowledge gives them extensive power.

Participation on decision-making committees. Until the late 1960s, students had no representation at all on major decision-making bodies in most higher education institutions in Western countries. The rise of the student movement and demands for academic participation and democracy - especially when accompanied by direct action by students - led to major changes in many countries. Students now have representatives on many committees, from the departmental level to the governing body. In almost all cases the students are in a minority. The basic relationship between staff and students has not changed. The uncompromising refusal to allow any student participation has been eased in many quarters, but staff still hold most of the power to define the content and method of teaching and certainly still control the assessment and awarding of credentials.

Even so, student participation on decision-making committees remains a potent bone of contention. Many staff are bitterly opposed to any student role that is more than nominal, and would be pleased to 'roll back' the gains in student representation. But since these gains have been institutionalised in regulations and expectations, the usual procedure is to marginalise and neutralise student representatives by keeping as much of the real decision-making process out of student hands.

The hidden curriculum

The so-called hidden curriculum is all those things which are not part of the formal syllabus but which students are encouraged to learn through the structure of the learning process. There has been so much discussion in education journals of the hidden curriculum that it is not really 'hidden' any longer - at least to educational theorists. But for practical purposes most parts of the hidden curriculum remain unnoticed and unremarked. Many of these serve to maintain staff domination.

I have already discussed several facets of staff domination which can be considered part of the hidden curriculum. These include the division of knowledge into disciplines and specialities, the division of study into disparate courses, the control over course content by staff and the imposition of assessment and credentials. Here I focus on some of the more mundane aspects of student life.

Classroom structure. In most lectures, the academic stands at the front of the room and talks to the students, who are sitting in an ordered array of seats all facing forward. This familiar arrangement establishes the academic as the source of knowledge and the centre of attention. Anyone who has given a talk to an audience will realise the incredible degree of power in being the speaker. Even the most knowledgeable and confident opponents in the audience have a hard time overcoming the speaker's advantage. Combined with the academic's control over content and assessment, the advantage is seldom challenged in the first place.

Rearranging the classroom seating arrangements - for example by having everyone sit in a circle in a tutorial - is a contribution towards breaking down teacher domination. It is only one part of doing this, but an important symbolic step.

Class times. Classes are usually fixed according to a timetable to which students and staff must adjust. 9 am: history; 10 am: English; 11 am: biology. The message in this is that learning is something that is readily chopped into bite-size bits, and is something that happens in classrooms. Just before classes begin, students race to their own classrooms to hear another lecture - often boring. Few students are quite as concerned to race to hear a non-academic talk, or witness a public event, or to read a book or magazine. Activities that are not part of the formal learning process have lower priority. Most libraries and laboratories are not so avidly frequented during vacation periods. Many students come to believe that anything that is not part of a formal course is not really learning. Similarly, great insights presented in textbooks are worthy of note, whereas the same insights presented in newspapers or by neighbours are not.

Class times tie students to the staff, and more widely to the routine of the institution as a whole. If students cannot adapt - for example due to rearing children - that is just too bad.

Regulations. Registering for entry into an institution, enrolling for courses, paying fees, attending classes, taking formal examinations, submitting essays: all these routine activities are subject to various official regulations. The message in all this is that adjustment to bureaucratic regulations is essential to getting ahead. It is not what one has learned that is central, but rather whether one has satisfied a whole sequence of formal requirements. Regulations, like credentials, encourage a focus on the symbols of learning rather than the substance. They also provide a wonderful resource for staff who want to keep students from straying from the straight and narrow.

Classroom structure, course content, class times, regulations: Students must adjust to all of these. One of the most important lessons is that someone else organises the conditions for learning.

Reverence to scholars. One of the attitudes promoted by staff is reverence to scholars, living and dead. The process is most obvious in the usual attitudes towards epic figures, such as Einstein, Darwin, Freud, Marx, Weber and Shakespeare (all men). The 'geniuses' are typically treated as disembodied intellects. Their prejudices, blunders, and social inadequacies are seldom discussed, and even the hostilities they faced in their own time often are not studied.

The process continues in attitudes towards living 'greats', including the more luminous scholars on the local campus. These figures often are portrayed, at least to students, as so erudite that no undergraduate would dare to strike up a casual conversation with or to write to the prestigious author presenting her own views or asking advice. In practice, many of these ostensibly formidable figures are quite approachable. After all, they are humans like anyone else, with foibles, friendships and personal difficulties. But the impression often picked up when reading their books and articles is quite different. Students may treat them as authorities or, in later years, criticise their work. In neither case are these 'greats' responded to as real human beings.

The reverence given to great dead and living scholars rubs off on the ordinary academic. Many students treat any academic who has published a book or some articles, or who simply is higher up the ladder than they are, as someone akin to a holy figure. Some academics encourage such attitudes, while others promote more casual, egalitarian interactions. It is hard for academics not to be more favourably disposed towards students who look up to them and hang on every word. Even those academics who try to treat students as equals often have a hard time overcoming student awe of scholars. My point here is that the usual attitudes towards 'great' scholars, and the careful attention to the minutiae of their holy writs, adds to staff power. Students are greatly inhibited in challenging staff because they believe themselves intellectually less advanced or sophisticated. Even when students are quite capable of tearing an academic's views to shreds, they seldom have the courage to do so.

Banking education

Much of higher education is based on 'the banking concept of education': students are treated as empty recepticles, to be filled with knowledge provided by the teacher, the same way deposits are made to a bank. To use another familiar metaphor, students are expected to swallow without chewing bite-size bits of pre-digested syllabus material and to regurgitate the material for assessment purposes. This used to be called rote learning.

The banking concept of education is a parody of the officially stated aims of education, such as to encourage critical thinking and the ability and motivation for self-initiated learning. But the actual practice of many teachers, departments and institutions does follow the crude banking approach. It is damning comment on educational systems to find that after 12 or more years in school, students are still not capable of pursuing their own study. But this is only to be expected, since the driving forces behind schooling and higher education are not ones which foster critical thinking and self-motivated learning.

The banking approach to education gives power to teachers. It is the teachers who know what the students need to know. It is knowledge - of which the academics are the guardians - that defines what students must learn and about which they must demonstrate their competence.

Not all academics promote passive ingestion of the syllabus. Especially in advanced courses, original and critical thinking is necessary to make sense of academic knowledge. This is especially true in the humanities and social sciences, where conflicting interpretations and common theories are common. Many academics are truly excited by the intellectual work they do, and are less concerned to protect the academic guild than to communicate their excitement and to encourage others to join in. These academics are bored and disappointed by students who regurgitate the conventional viewpoints, or who try to please the teacher by parroting her views. They try to encourage critical thinking.

Even without encouragement, many students are challenged in their own views or begin questioning conventional wisdoms as a result of their studies. Many academic subjects contain quite subversive ideas, however dressed up in academic garb they may be. Some students develop critical orientations and, in spite of the disincentives towards unconventional thinking, begin examining all academic knowledge critically. Others have critical orientations which survived the years of primary and secondary schooling. The upshot is that academic study encourages some critical thinking, and sometimes this is used against academic power itself.


The power of staff over students is so accepted today that it is hard to imagine alternatives. Yet there are quite a number of different possibilities, many of which have prevailed in the past.

Staff-student control. In this model, staff and students work cooperatively to design the syllabus, choose learning-teaching methods and make decisions about entry to courses and appointments of staff. These decisions might be made at the level of courses, departments, faculties or institutions. Decision-making might operate by consensus, small-scale democracy or larger-scale representative democracy, or by various forms of rule by cliques such as by men or whites.

Within most present higher educational institutions, such a model would require a revolutionary change in the power structure. Nevertheless, it would not necessarily have wider ramifications. As long as state funding of higher education remained, it would benefit both staff and students. The influence of capital is compatible with continued male domination, and conceivably compatible with various forms of interpersonal hierarchy.

In this alternative, the staff and students would work together, realising their joint interest in monopolising job opportunities through credentials and esoteric knowledge. In practice, this model often applies at the higher levels of study, particularly advanced degree research which is basically an apprentice system.

Student control over teachers. In this model, the students hold most of the power, and the staff perform according to student requirements. For example, students would decide what subjects to study, when study would take place, the method of teaching, what teachers to hire, and the amount of payment.

Historically, students have held power over teachers when the students are members of a wealthy or politically powerful class and the teachers (often isolated as tutors) have been poor, unorganised and numerous. The teachers cannot dictate to the students, or even step very far out of line, for fear of losing their jobs.

This alternative would not be feasible today unless the academic guild and its control over credentials were smashed, for example by withdrawal of state licensing and financing of higher education. The result would probably be that the most prominent 'students' would be staff of large corporations that hired scholars as part of their normal recruitment policies to provide advice in technical skills.

Deschooling. In this model, the credential system would be abolished in favour of a market in skills. Learners and teachers would seek each other out and make arrangements that were mutually satisfactory. Teacher control would be hard to establish because there would be no licensing of teachers or courses and hence no barriers to the entry of new teachers where a heavy demand existed.

Deschooling is essentially the removal of the formal apparatus of schooling, with its forced attendance, fixed syllabus and credentials. Deschooling is pretty unlikely to make headway given the present vested interests in the credential market and in the control over students. But even if deschooling took place, by itself it would not challenge the power of the state, corporations or professions. These groups might well be able to hire teachers and to establish restraints on commerce in knowledge and skills which would undercut the radical potential of deschooling.


Christopher J. Wainwright, The degree merchants: inside the New Zealand university system (Albany, New Zealand: Stockton House, 1977). An exposé of higher education, focussing on the subordinate role of students.