Student Voice

Exploring the concept of student voice through four theoretical lens

By Eve Bracken-Ingram

Despite the huge emphasis on student voice in higher education, the understanding of the concept of student voice is highly underdeveloped. Canning (2017) (Source) explores the concept of student voice through four theoretical lenses:

  1. Appropriating student voice, built upon research on student voice and power.
  2. Regulatory capture, derived from economic theory.
  3. Irretrievable student voice, considering a philosophical approach.
  4. Non-representational theory, developed in Human Geography.

The first approach to conceptualising student voice describes the underlying rules to the practice and the role of power in their perpetuation. Although student voice practices claim to promote empowerment, democracy and participation, there are several rules which are ingrained into the institutional structure of the higher education system. These rules are set by educational leadership and dictate who is permitted to speak and be listened to, and what they are allowed to say. Furthermore, student voice rarely goes directly from students to individuals who are empowered to enact change. It is filtered and altered as student voice information moves throughout the higher education institute. Therefore, what is heard and acted upon as a result of student voice is controlled by more powerful members of the institution. This may lead to a focus on voice which aligns with university policy or can be used as a marketing tool.

Regulatory capture describes the corruption of authority when a regulatory body is coerced by the industry it was established to regulate. This relationship inevitably leads to the interests of a party outside of this capture being ignored. In the context of higher education in a national context, this theory describes the revolving door between the high levels of higher education regulating bodies and university management. This partnership threatens the political independence of governing bodies and may lead to decisions makers acting on behalf of their own self-interests rather than defending those of students. Regulatory capture can also be problematic within higher education institutions. Student voice may be restricted as students attempt to maintain good relationships with academic staff who are responsibility for assessing their work and supplying references. This relates back to idea of power explored previously. Additionally, as student voice is a metric used to rank universities, students benefit from moderating their feedback and providing high ratings.

The previous theories view student voice through a structural lens. However, there is benefit to considering student voice out with higher educational frameworks. Student voice can be considered to encompass every perspective which comes from every student. Therefore, any method of collecting student voice provides an incomplete overview of student opinion. Some voices are completely unheard, some are misunderstood, and some are ignored as they do not align with the goals of the practice. Although formal student voice practices are essential to ensure students have a platform to express their views, collection and response bias cannot be ignored. Typically, student voice practices attempt to identify patterns in feedback which inevitability leads to minority voices being disregarded. Therefore, the most helpful and representative student voice may not be that which collected through formal channels but instead voice which is expressed through informal discussions.

Non-representational theory was developed by Thrift (2007) and is concerned with how things are done as well as what is produced. In the context of student voice, non-representational theory suggests that when, where, and how a student engages with voice is equally as important as what is said. By attempting to understand the full context of student voice, including the mindset, commitment, motivation, and location of the student partaking in the practice, one may be better positioned to understand different perspectives.

Student voice is a complex practice which is influenced and limited by a number of factors. By considering student voice through a variety of theoretical lenses, one may gain a deeper understanding of these influences and of the practice itself.


[Source] John Canning (2017) Conceptualising student voice in UK higher education: four theoretical lenses. Teaching in Higher Education, 22(5), 519-531, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2016.1273207

[1] Thrift, N. (2007). Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect (1st ed.). Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9780203946565

Related Entries