Doing student voice properly is really hard work

Student representation means being prepared for inconvenience. Debbie McVitty thinks through what it takes to set student leaders up to succeed

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

If you’re supporting student representation you end up thinking a lot about the line between expertise and voice.

If you work in and around higher education for long enough you get to know quite a lot about policy issues, and the history and politics of the debates. You find out which opinions are considered controversial and which have been rehearsed so many times they have passed from the status of opinion to that of received wisdom. At some point you have enough experience – possibly helped by a recognised qualification and a fancy job title – to be considered someone with expertise.

The average student representative doesn’t have that knowhow. They are – by design – inexperienced in sector debates and politics. Many work hard to get up to speed, and learn enough to hold their own in conversations with people with thirty years more experience than them – not just in one specific area of higher education policy but over and over again across the whole gamut.

But in the challenge of mastering enough knowledge to hold their own, student representatives can often internalise the idea that “expertise” is the most important thing and so they struggle to see what it is that they are contributing. It takes courage for student representatives to set themselves against the dominant culture in higher education and insist that despite their relative inexperience and lack of knowledge, they do have something meaningful to say.

Change we can believe in

When student leaders argue that something needs to change, they’re doing some really complex emotional and cognitive work. They are situating their personal experience and that of their peers into an analytical framework that explains why things are the way they are and how they could be different.

They are often doing that in a language or using a framework that sector professionals don’t recognise or perceive as legitimate, and they can be a bit fuzzy on the “how”. They rarely take into account all the external political and financial pressures on organisations, or they consider these to be barriers to overcome rather than immovable obstacles.

And for experienced “expert” professionals who have worked hard over long years to accrue knowledge it’s comparatively easy to relax into a way of thinking that justifies the status quo, or points to all the reasons why change is impossible.

There are moments, I think, where the knowledge you have accumulated crystallises into received wisdom, and you forget what it felt like to know just enough to know that what’s happening doesn’t have to be this way. Or you quietly wish things were different but somehow over the years the idea that they could be has been squashed out of you, or you struggle to see a path to change. It becomes much easier to write off student voice as naive and inexperienced than it is to really listen.

But listening is only the first step. Effective student voice means actively developing the confidence and skills of student leaders to play a meaningful role in the conversation. In some places that might mean training in committee skills, or in others the creation of less rigidly structured spaces to allow student voices to be heard more easily. Another way is to agree some boundaries for discussion – being honest about the constraints on the institution and the challenges it faces can be empowering if it’s presented as the basis for a meaningful conversation about what can be changed. Making levers of change more visible is similarly helpful.

In my experience of working on student engagement, I’ve regularly encountered some who entertain a bit of a fetish for hearing the voices of “real students” – ie. those who had not been through the seasoning process of becoming a student representative. I’ve always felt that this thinking is a bit naive – if students are going to be influential they need to be powerful, and ignorance is not powerful.

It can be helpful to differentiate between the kinds of powerful knowledge students can have – lived experience is one form, opinions about their individual experience another. But the capability to situate their own experience and their opinions about it into a policy framework and articulate an agenda for change – that’s a powerful form of activism that often is overlooked as having merit.

Set up for success

It is objectively cruel to encourage student representatives to believe they have a substantial contribution to make, only to discover that they’re expected to comply with the illusion of student voice that their presence on the committee or in the room allows, without exercising any real or meaningful influence.

But I don’t think that those who work with students generally intend to be cruel – I think that sometimes it’s possible to be enthusiastic about student voice in the abstract while finding it a real struggle in the practical application – when conversations seem to be happening at cross-purposes, when it doesn’t feel like there is time to get to the bottom of what a student rep is getting at, or when what they are saying just doesn’t chime with your concerns and priorities.

It’s relatively easy to get some students in a room or to get a student representative on a committee – though sometimes just accomplishing that feels like the victory. The real work is much harder – calibrating your own expectations of the sort of input that will be valuable in that context, and then creating the support and space for the student to give that input, while also accepting that often it’ll be input that is inconvenient.

In a sector in which decision-making cultures are ostensibly transparent but simultaneously depend on the mystery of a complex set of hidden codes, embracing student voice requires both sides to have the courage and humility to struggle against the established hierarchy, and come to a meaningful shared understanding of what student representatives have to contribute, and what force that contribution should have.

2 responses to “Doing student voice properly is really hard work

  1. “It is objectively cruel to encourage student representatives to believe they have a substantial contribution to make, only to discover that they’re expected to comply with the illusion of student voice that their presence on the committee or in the room allows, without exercising any real or meaningful influence.” – Bang on analysis – without intending to do so a lot of institutions can be guilty of assuming that simply having a student rep on every committee satisfies their commitment to student voice and representation.

    As the article says, it can be quite difficult for reps to sit alongside HE professionals with 20-30 years experience and put forward suggestions for improving aspects of the learning experience, particularly if the response they receive is simply a long list of reasons why none of their ideas can be implemented. In most cases, I don’t think staff genuinely set out to disempower student representatives but they can sometimes be unaware of the power differential that exists and how their behaviour can inadvertently influence that.

  2. It always frustrates me that intelligence gathering from current students only misses the rich contextualisation and feedback that only alumni can offer. QAAs enterprise and entrepreneurship & learning and teaching recognise this – so why is it so rarely found?

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