Contemporary discourse pertaining to Higher Education (HE) is littered with references to the apparent need to enhance the 'flexibility' of the system, to the extent that flexibility is charged with meeting "many if not all of the alleged shortcomings in and challenges facing higher education" (Barnett 2014: 32). In particular, Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) is frequently portrayed as a silver bullet for enabling flexible participation in HE (Selwyn 2011). Yet despite its depiction as unproblematic and self-evidently positive, the discourse of technology-enabled flexible learning is by no means concrete, uniform or inherently favourable (Harris 2011; Barnett 2014). Indeed, injudicious use has rendered flexibility an example of what Laclau (2004) refers to as an "empty signifier". Thus while they may have become ubiquitous in discourse surrounding HE, narratives such as 'flexibility', 'flexible learning', 'flexible progarmmes' and 'flexible participation' merit critical analysis.
Institutional strategies play a crucial role in framing local culture and guiding day-to-day activities in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) (Hinton 2012). The current paper draws on some of the findings of a Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) of the most recently available institutional strategies published by Universities and Institutes of Technology in the Republic of Ireland. The study employed thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2006) as a means to identify and refine recurring themes across a corpus of twenty-one strategy texts. A key narrative identified in this work was the emphasis across the strategies on TEL as a means to enable flexible participation in HE. In this paper, I subject this theme to "Ideology critique" (Held 1980). I first trace the discourse of flexibility in HE back to shifts from Fordist, towards more flexible Post-Fordist methods of production, and to conceptions of flexibility as a means of workforce “flexploitation” (Bourdieu 1998). I then discuss how these economic discourses have migrated to HE, and have contributed to the claimed 'demand' for flexible learning opportunities. I also explore how variances in perspectives on the nature and form of flexibility may result in a disconnect between the rhetoric of flexibility, and flexibility as experienced in practice (Selwyn 2011). I conclude the paper by reflecting on what policy-makers and practitioners working in the Irish HE sector might take from this work.
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Selwyn, N. 2011c. "'Finding an appropriate fit for me': examining the (in)flexibilities of international distance learning", International Journal of Lifelong Education, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 367-383.