Power, Representation and Academic Personas

Stuart Henley

My Yale MFA thesis project looked at how corporations used graphic design to camouflage – rather than articulate –power and influence to the purpose of deceiving the consumer and facilitating the shareholder. It included a case study of the Time Warner media corporation, at the time the worlds largest media conglomerate. It proposed an alternative visual communication strategy based on communication clarity rather than graphic fog. Since then over the last 20 years in the UK the Higher Education sector has moved from being funded by government to being funded by students. Students have now become full-fledged customers and ‘consumers’ of education, universities are now corporations with all the associated baggage; highly paid executive leaders, bright hopeful and cheerful marketing campaigns reminiscent of the financial sector and university academic staff have become marketing managers, quality control and customer liaison officers. The public – fuelled by media ‘shock’ – angered at the salaries of Universities leaders are concerned about the value of a university degree just as many – 10 years ago after the banking crisis – were worried about the security of their mortgages.

Monetisation of higher education has changed the dynamics and relationships between lecturer, subject and student. Assessments and feedback are now strategically located in the academic calendar to maximise the National Student Survey results – a mandatory survey of ‘quality’ for all under-graduate students in the UK. Students ‘empowered’ as consumers resist rather than embrace challenging feedback or trajectories that do not clearly show a heroic outcome  – the customer after all is always right and failure, mistakes and criticism are not ‘what they are paying for’.

My proposal is less a redo or rewrite but a continuation of my concerns in corporate power the methods of representation and effects of that power. I am interested in how the ‘corporate’ is changing and effecting Higher Education, specifically art and design education in the UK and am wanting to identify and articulate how this is changing the relationship between tutor, student and subject. Now the academic has more responsibilities than ever, but often less influence, and we have to adopt very many personas.

I’m interested in exploring these personas as fictional characters, organising my concerns into themes or ‘sketches’ and with the help of rewrite colleagues develop a set of resistance, survival strategies.