It’s time to start seeing students as students

While governance structures and formal committees have important roles for student representatives, Alex Harden-Way asks if we are missing something by not listening to students as students

Alex Harden-Way is the Director of University College Birmingham Guild of Students

Across student voice activities, students are often labelled co-creators of knowledge, active pedagogy champions, course reps, or academic society presidents. But when did we last stop to consider the full perspective of students as … students?

Last year’s TEF panels appear to recognise providers that referred to structured approaches to student voice – albeit without substantive detail on process and the success or extent of such partnership.

Typical academic governance often relies on a subset of student representatives (and, in turn, the subgroup of reps for whom university fora are accessible) to consolidate feedback – placing several stages between students’ thoughts and action planning/oversight. So, who’s to say that the spirit of students’ feedback is correctly represented – and understood – by the time it reaches a committee that can respond?

While involving students throughout this structure might sound like a partnership, students’ roles in these processes are often prescribed and narrowed to the areas of importance at the time/place. Academic boards are for academic things, and student experience is for student experience things. Defining students’ roles and remits in this way reinforces an unequal balance of power in which the provider determines what is in or out of scope.

While I’m not seeking to question the importance of governance in student voice, a trade-off seems to exist here between accountability and evidence on the one hand, and the nuance and diversity of thought lost through committee-based approaches on the other.

The thing is, without widespread recognition, a sizable majority are doing student voice work every day outside of formal structures. They just aren’t always listened to.

A community approach

Governance arrangements provide one piece of a larger puzzle. For others, we might look to SUs who can talk with students and act across departmental boundaries or to small/specialists who necessarily adopt inclusive practices, not further to minoritise already-small target groups. In different ways, both lend themselves to community-focused approaches that recognise students beyond specific roles with the potential for more authentic, holistic dialogue between students and change-makers. This can be characterised by:

  • A culture of shared responsibility for a whole-institution approach
  • Receptiveness to informal feedback
  • Understanding students’ lives beyond the classroom
  • Context-sensitive student recognition

Just as students’ university experiences are all-encompassing, we should proactively anticipate the corresponding breadth of feedback. Unfortunately, committee-based working tends to rely on set terms of reference. Whilst academics in one departmental student liaison group probably can’t directly control the cost of chips in the canteen, for instance, there’s no guarantee that the actual colleagues who could are student-accessible. Addressing this structural issue requires an acknowledgement across a whole provider that all feedback has potential value and cannot be tackled effectively by isolated individuals.

In the spirit of inclusivity, a community approach to student voice should respond to the diversity of thought within the student body beyond exclusively students’ representatives. Catering for this requires a corresponding diversity in the modes of engagement, such as combining digital approaches, open-door policies, and – whisper it – even talking to students directly. Taking feedback-gathering to where students are, especially in unusual ways (think colour-coded stickers to complete polls), can be particularly valuable because this also offers wider opportunities to hear what’s on students’ minds verbatim.

In much the same way that students are more than just, for example, focus group participants, a community-minded approach should recognise the plurality of students’ intersecting identities. As Alice Young writes, not all students are ‘students-first’, even though student engagement methods tend to presuppose that they are. Students’ union officers must often convey the human story to gain buy-in for change. However, this points to a shared responsibility on all stakeholders to be cognisant of driving factors behind students’ feedback to respond compassionately.

In the same spirit, for a community approach to be successful, it should encourage students to celebrate their peers’ impact. For example, we often celebrate society leaders’ accomplishments in settings that gather together other society leaders rather than their group members. Can students be supported to celebrate their peers better in smaller or more timely ways? One practical approach I have used successfully, for example, asked students to share affirmations for others that were anonymously sent automatically, inviting the recipient to pay it forward to their friends.

Won’t someone please think of the students?

In practice, students always share their thoughts about providers through what they say and do, but without acknowledgement. Amongst the full breadth of higher education experiences, the student voice should be similarly multi-faceted.

Emphasising belonging, collaboration, and shared responsibility through community-minded approaches that broaden expectations of students’ roles/remit offers opportunities for truer partnerships and, ultimately, a system that responds to the students’ needs, not vice-versa.

One response to “It’s time to start seeing students as students

  1. A really important topic, and I agree with everything you have written here. As a degree course leader, I am often frustrated when trying to voice student feedback that hasn’t come through “official channels”. In my experience, it is often then students from groups with less power in our society who rely on feedback back directly to me based on the trust built up with me. Thank you for sharing, and taking the time to write this.

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