Scrutinising student involvement in digital governance

My HE interests range much further and wider than whether students are consumers, partners, or something else entirely.

But having been an NUS staffer during the tuition fee debate that followed the Browne review my inner Bisto kid always raises its nostrils when it detects a fresh contribution to that debate.

Given that much of this discussion by this point is decidedly stale, I was thrilled when a new working paper on student involvement in governance from the Centre for Global Higher Education came across the desk, authored by Rille Raaper and Janja Komljenovic.

The authors suggest that higher education is entering a new socio-political context that inevitably shifts the framing of student participation in governance – the age of “digital economy”, loosely dating from the global financial crisis of 2009.

The authors’ case rests on several arguments:

  • That the socio-political context shapes contemporary understanding of the purpose of HE, and thus frames and delineates the roles that students are expected to play through participation in HE governance
  • That the creation of the welfare state, and the post-Robbins HE settlement, along with student activism of the sixties resulted in a democratic/partnership model of student participation in governance, framing young people/students as “active agents who contribute to social progress”
  • That the economic and social crises of the seventies resulted in a new societal order: neoliberalism, in which freedom became defined as market choice. The aim of university governance became effective market competition – thus performance, reputation, efficiency, and so on. Within this framework, students are constructed as consumers, and co-opted into supporting quality management, with the aim being short-term satisfaction, making their participation in governance “instrumental and transactional” – albeit vocal, and high profile.

Lots to pick apart here if you are so inclined (I’d suggest these different models co-exist in frequently uncomfortable ways in universities rather than one dominating in practice), but all of this is preamble to the main point which is that there’s not been enough thought given to the role students can or should play in digital governance.

When so much of the university experience takes place on digital platforms, students may access education remotely, engage with various third-party platforms as users (whose contracts with the institution are typically private and commercially sensitive), and be required to share their data as a condition of being permitted access to education – and realistically, not always with much understanding of exactly what they are consenting to.

That data then gets picked up and used to inform university governance and decision-making. The data that emerges, the authors argue, may be perceived as a more reliable, and more legitimate, guide to what’s going on with students than traditional student voice and representation.

The authors argue:

[S]tudents do not participate in creating these tools nor have they influence over their usage, making their new role in HE governance rather invisible and potentially exploitative.

In other words, students are at risk of being downgraded once again from active democratic agents, to powerful(ish) consumers, to passive subjects of data harvesting.

It’s messy

The authors suggest that data interpretation in HE rests in the hands of trained data scientists, thus giving that group undue power in shaping the interpretation of data compared to others in the wider university community, perhaps bypassing formal governance mechanisms altogether or only appearing in “report” form.

And this, I think, is where the authors are both spot-on in the thrust of their argument and perhaps a bit less alive to the messiness of the student data landscape. There is a risk of universities being seduced by the power of Big Data to direct their actions without scrutiny, and of course the algorithms that govern the use of such data are as subject as anything else to human error and ill-intention.

But in my experience, the data that is produced through student interaction with platforms is only as valuable as the sense that can be made of it and the actions that arise from it – and these are still governed by humans, frequently with active student engagement – and often with a fair bit of trial and error and frustration that the picture isn’t as clear as people hoped it might be.

While third party platforms can do a lot of cool things, universities’ IT infrastructure isn’t always as great at joining up the dots as a VC aspiring to absolute data domination would need it to be.

And while data scientists can present surprising new information, and explain why what we thought we knew was wrong or incomplete, or tell us the extent to which one thing might explain another, they are rarely willing to state confidently what should be done as a result.

What I think this paper challenges the sector to do – and the work that Jisc has done on ethical use of student data is obviously a really important reference point here – is to look closely at the governance of their digital ecosystem, who is in the discussion about how data is collected, how it’s analysed, who uses it and who makes decisions off the back of it – and think about both the diversity of voices in the room and the competencies they might need to hold a university’s digital economy accountable.

At the very least students have a role to play here in the interpretation of data – as they do under the “consumer” model – in articulating a “user experience” of digital platforms that may be rather different from how a university has traditionally thought about “student experience”, and in explaining the cumulative impact on students of facing the brunt of automated systems that are not coordinated with each other, especially where these impact wellbeing, or engagement. My sense is this is already happening, though this may be more prevalent in institutions that are publicly implementing a defined digital strategy.

But in the best case scenario, students will play a full and democratic role in a live and ongoing debate about the governance of data, with students’ unions using their representative function both to shed light on the diversity of student experience with digital and data, and to advocate for ethical frameworks, accountability, and transparency in use of data. I have faith that if this isn’t already happening at scale, it won’t be too long before it does.

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