Flow of Ideas
The Compression of Critical Space in Education Today

Glenn Rikowski, Education Studies, School of Education, University College Northampton, 10th March 2003

Lecture notes for students on the EDU3004 module, ‘Education, Culture & Society’.

Preface: This paper is based on lecture notes written for students on the EDU3004 module, ‘Education, Culture & Society’, in the School of Education, at University College Northampton in the spring of 2003. This module was not designed by me; I was teaching it for someone else, who had also designed it. In the summer of 2003 I became module leader for EDU3004, and changed it completely – with only the title remaining the same. However, this lecture was an additional one I tagged on to the old EDU3004 module.

The concept of ‘critical space’ was worked out in The Great Spoon of Ilford pub in discussion with Patrick Ainley. In fact, Patrick worked out the main contours of the idea of critical space in those discussions (and the main credit goes to him), and I extended its application in the EDU3004 lecture notes. Here, I have built on the original lecture notes so that they read more as continuous prose, and not as simple lecture notes with bullet points and abbreviations. I decided to extend them in this form as I believe the ideas therein add something to my thinking regarding the development of higher education in England.

Glenn Rikowski, London, 5th May 2008

The Compression of Critical Space in Education Today

What is critique? What is critical space? Why is critical space being compressed in education in England today? How is it being compressed?

Forms of Critique

There are a number of forms of critique of society or aspects of it. These forms include:

(1) The difference between the Ideal (how things should be) according to government policy, or a mission statement, or various aims and objectives, and how they really Are. Critique here focuses on theory (ideal) / practice (real) differences and discrepancies. This is call Mode 1 critique.

(2) A second type of critique (Mode 2) focuses on questions of individual fairness and justice, and social justice (fairness as relative equality between social groups).

(3) Fundamental (Mode 3) critique focuses on how the core processes and phenomena of capitalist society (value, capital, labour, labour-power, value creation and capital accumulation and so on) generate contradictions and tension in ‘everyday life’ – for individuals, groups, classes and societies, and on an international scale.

Critical Space

Critical space consists of those social places and spaces where critique (especially Mode 3 – fundamental critique) is possible. Effective critical space is those social places and spaces where such critique actually occurs. Of course, these social spaces will vary as between the different modes of critique as outlined above: that is an empirical and historical matter. Some critical spaces may incorporate more than one mode. Critical space is about the potential and actuality for criticisms of existing society and the search for alternatives.

The Compression of Critical Space in Education Today

The argument here is that critical space is being compressed in education in England today. There are becoming fewer opportunities for engaging with critiques of society and education within formal education. Ironically, this is happening just at a time when education in England is clearly becoming capitalised: i.e., becoming part of the social machine of capital, involving commodification, marketisation, managerialism and the search for profit-making opportunities. How does this work? The following section gives some examples nurturing these developments, drawn mainly from education research and higher education in England.

The Forces of Compression

(a) Education Research

* The Tooley Report (Tooley, 1998): This was an outcome of criticisms from the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), especially from Chris Woodhead, the Ofsted chief, and David Blunkett (Minister for Education and Employment) regarding the utility of education research. Tooley (1998) criticised the lack of rigour in education research and the amount of studies focusing on forms of inequality in education. Tooley favoured large-scale quantitative studies which would give more power to research funders.

* The Hillage Report (Hillage et al, 1999): This was sponsored by New Labour’s Department for Education and Employment (DfEE). It was more responsive to research on educational inequalities than Tooley, but also promoted the importance of school effectiveness and school improvement (SESI) research.

* ESRC Teaching and Learning Programme (1999- ). This is a multi-million pound education research programme funded by the UK Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) that focuses on improving teaching and learning in schools, colleges and universities. With a few exceptions (in terms of the projects sponsored), it is very hard on any ‘critical’ research perspectives and agendas.

* The DfEE Agenda (Sebba, 2000): The Department for Education and Employment’s agenda is to tie the funding of education research more closely to SESI. The agenda also includes overseeing ‘more closely the efforts and priorities of education research’ (Rikowski, 2000, p.8).

* National Educational Research Forum (NERF) – set up in 2000: This organisation seeks to ‘monitor, control and instrumentalise all and every facet of educational experience’ (Ball, 2001, p.266). The NERF is ‘the agency of relevance’ (Ibid.).

* The White Paper on Higher Education (2003): For the White Paper, research (in all areas, not just education) is to be concentrated in a small number of research universities. Many departments in other universities are to become ‘teaching only’ outfits, with whole ‘teaching only’ institutions emerging over time. These lesser universities will be involved in merely distributing knowledge rather than also creating it.

* The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE): This functions to ensure that research funds are increasingly concentrated in a small number of research universities – making for conservatism, tedium and caution in research. Critical education research suffers under these conditions.

* Research Capitalism: Research is becoming a ‘business’. Education research is a money-spinner for the few big departments who receive most of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) research money. These same departments also get the lion’s share of ESRC education-related funding and also funding from charitable organisations.

Taking all this into account, it is clear that education research is being channelled into uncritical and technicist (an obsession with “what works”) research. Space for critical education studies is being squeezed. In my Messing with the Explosive Commodity paper (Rikowski, 2000) I explain why critical space in education research is being compressed. Basically, it is being reduced to supporting the enhancement of labour-power quality. That project gives education research its contemporary ‘relevance’.

(b) Higher Education

Vocationalism is becoming rife: key skills, work experience, the ubiquitous ‘placement’ and the grinding process of making ‘academic’ content of courses ever more career-oriented, gain ground. In this process, the role of the higher education lecturer as a critical ‘public intellectual’ is declining (Goodson, 1999). Careerism, where status, placement in the academic hierarchy and quests for research money and power over other higher education labourers (academic staff) become the main motivators; they prevail to the detriment of critical academic enquiry and open intellectual debate. The dead hand of careerism has become more entrenched today than in the 1960s and 1970s.

Modularisation functions to make the critical analysis of society and education more difficult. Notions of incremental knowledge-building providing students with the tools to critically analyse education and society have to be rescued by teaching staff out of the super-marketised, packaged and consumer-friendly bite-sized modules on offer. Modularisation fosters self-contained explorations of educational issues, policies and phenomena. In education departments, this is compounded by the downgrading of social science inputs into education courses.

Higher education is becoming a ‘business’. The higher education ‘market’ incorporates international competition, principally for overseas students but also for links with major corporations, and the underpinnings that these two factors entail: research prowess and teaching quality competitiveness. Increasingly, students are viewed as consumers (especially given the institution of student fees).

The General Agreement on trade in Services (GATS) of the World Trade Organisation views education as being liberalised so that it generates internationally tradable commodities. This process has gone further in higher education than in schools and colleges.


Through all of these ways and more, ‘critique’ is being squeezed out of the system. Education research is becoming increasingly tepid, technicist and boring. Its soul is being crushed, and voices of dissent are being marginalised, scorned and scoffed at. This makes thinking about alternatives to the sort of education and society we have today more difficult: critical voices have to make themselves heard through the fog of careerism and mainstream rejection and sidelining. This is not surprising, as ‘Education today exists within a particular social universe – the social universe of capital’ (Rikowski, 2001, p.1).

One response to this situation is to nurture radical and critical thinking on education and society outside of the academy, away from some of the constraints and strictures of capitalist state education. This struggle is not new, but it is more urgent today than ever before.


Ball, S. (2001) ‘You’ve been NERFed!’ Dumbing down the academy: National Educational Research Forum: ‘a national strategy – consultation paper’: a brief and bilious response, Journal of Education Policy, Vol.16 No.3, pp.265-268.

Goodson, I. (1999) The Educational Researcher as a Public Intellectual, British Educational Research Journal, Vol.25 No.3, pp.277-297.

Hillage, J., Pearson, R., Anderson, A. & Tamkin, P. (1999) Excellence in Research in Schools, London: Department for Education & Employment / Institute of Employment Studies.

Rikowski, G. (2000) Messing with the Explosive Commodity: School Improvement, Educational Research and Labour-Power in the Era of Global Capitalism, a paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Cardiff University, 7–10th September. At Education-line, University of Leeds:

Rikowski, G. (2001) Six Points on Education for Human Capital, Employers’ Needs and business in New Labour’s Green Paper, a paper prepared for an open meeting on ‘Promoting Comprehensive Education in the 21st Century’, Camden Town Hall, Judd Street, London, 24th March. Online at:

Sebba, J. (2000) Educational Research and the Role of Central Government, a paper presented to the Conference on ‘Diversity or Control in Educational Research?’ City University, London, 27th January.

Tooley, J. (1998) Educational Research: A Review, London: Ofsted/HMSO.

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