What is the student voice?

There’s some cracking lines in HEPI’s fun new collection of essays on the student voice.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Reflecting on what she calls the “knowledge gap” between what policy makers think is happening and the reality of the day to day student experience, former Bath SU President Eve Alcock suspects that might lead to poor decision making within government:

It perhaps explains why their stance around students’ rights to good quality teaching was to signpost students to an ombudsman that does not make judgements of academic quality. Or that it decided freedom of speech was the pressing issue on campuses despite many international students relying on foodbanks to eat. Or why the new Chair of the Regulator was deemed to be appropriate despite no prior experience in the sector whatsoever.

It’s a theme that’s built upon by Manchester’s Andy Westwood, who charts a drift from students as co-producers to students as market choosers – but who increasingly appear to be making the wrong choices and saying the wrong things:

Even if we put prejudice, ‘culture wars’ and ‘levelling up’ to one side, we still have government ministers that believe student satisfaction is too high, too many students are making the wrong decisions and that too many are doing full-time degrees in the wrong subjects and at the wrong institutions. Neither the National Student Survey nor the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) have confirmed the ‘right’ answers and so they must be reformed too.”

Former NUS President Aaron Porter reminds us of the tensions present in trying to hold together a single National Union of Students; LSE’s Dilly Fung has a good run at how we might better involve students in curriculum design; and various voices remind us of the need for booth SUs and universities to capture the voices of students who often aren’t heard – in this collection mature students, international students and Disabled students.

The section on the Office for Students’ student panel is fascinating – HEPI Policy Officer Michael Natzler interviews several of its members and inadvertently reveals that behind the scenes, it is just as confused about its role as it looks from the outside, in a chapter that is notable for its description of internal processes rather than impact and outcomes from its work:

A third panellist found it frustrating ‘always getting [given] a set agenda … [and] it would be a lot more empowering if we were asked what the topics should be’ …‘I don’t think we’re consulted enough on policy. I think we are consulted on projects … more like workstreams’

An underpinning thread throughout the collection appears to be the conflict between collective mind reading that policy makers control, and advocacy that students control. We seem to be comfortable with the idea that everything from surveys to SUs will reveal what students think – but we become more suspicious when they act together to prioritise the issues and advocate for change on their terms, in their language and on their timetable. And it’s a shame that the role that students have played in opening up agendas like mental health or race on campus long before it was comfortable to do so isn’t more clearly acknowledged.

If there’s anything missing from the collection, it’s meaningful critique. Portsmouth VC Graham Galbraith gets near, arguing that low SU election turnouts mean that whenever an issue comes up from a students’ union “one is always left asking how significant really is this issue for students”, although it’s not clear why a bigger popularity contest for student leaders would fix the problem. Being popular is not something we appear to demand from other actors in the policy ecosystem.

There are important questions for SUs to address – the shift into data driving the sector’s understanding of the student experience has left some confused, but many SUs have worked out that even if we know how many students think their marking was unfair, the sector still doesn’t know why. Vivid accounts of the lived experience of all students to generate understanding amongst decision makers is never going to stop being valuable.

Perhaps the weakest contribution comes from RCP and Spiked! stalwart Dennis Hayes, who takes decade-long obsessions with “therapeutic education” and “identity politics” and does that thing that Spiked! columns do, attaching a couple of scraps of eye-catching evidence (in this case the Queen in the Common Room story from June and tales of banned songs) to claim a contemporary crisis.

We have heard it all before – literally, if you read if his columns and books – although there is a bit that I’ll be submitting to @_DHOTYA that, like much of the rest of the collection, seems to tell us more about the author than it does about students:

I overheard a student in a corridor with a colleague who had just left a tutorial that focussed on subject content rather than student feelings. The student said, ‘That really affected my mental health!’ The language of mental health is being adopted in the latest twist in therapy culture.

What is the student voice? Thirteen essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say 

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