By Eve Bracken-Ingram
Within higher education, student voice is typically viewed as a means of quality assurance and professional development. However, we at Student Voice understand that it has the potential to empower and engage students and transform educational practices. The 2009 paper by Seale (Source) explores how student voice is defined in higher education, and potential methods for empowering students in student voice. A major challenge in the field of student voice in higher education is the assumption that student feedback will have a transformative impact. Although this has the potential to be true, there is limited understanding of how student voice can be effectively utilised to bring about change. The assumption that change is an assured consequence of student voice hinders transformation and may lead to tension between students and staff when expected action is not actualized. Another assumption relating to student voice in higher education is that student voice will increase engagement. However, the concept of engagement and participation are poorly defined. It is essential that the purpose of student voice, and how its results are reached and exemplified, are clearly defined to ensure its transformative potential is reached.
Papers exploring student voice often make limited reference to students themselves. Student voice is generally characterised by the following activities:
All the above criteria are framed from a teacher's point of view, not that of a student. This highlights the unequal power balance between students and staff, and the secondary role students take in student voice. The authoritative role of teachers in student voice practice may result in skewed information and understanding. For example, the act of teachers asking questions ensures that responses are aligned with the teachers preconceptions and may not truly represent student experience. The commonly cited definitions of student voice rarely refer to student empowerment or transformation. Meaningful student voice is not only giving students a platform to express their views, but also actively listening to, understanding, valuing, and acting upon student perspective. When students are treated merely as informants rather than a respected part of a collaborative relationship, the benefits of student voice are limited.
In order to develop meaningful change within higher education, it is essential that student voice methods allow for transformation, participation and empowerment. Seale suggests that participatory methods may provide a system through which this could be achieved. Participatory methods are characterised by the slogan ‘Nothing about me, without me’ (Nightingale, 2006). This method allows participants to engage in every aspect of the research process, from identifying research goals to analysing results. It aims to remove the power imbalance between the researcher and participant. In the context of student voice, participatory methods would empower students to be co-researchers in issues that affect them. Participatory methods in higher education student voice can be explored through two projects at a UK university.
Both of these studies included a diverse range of students at each stage of research. Students were given freedom to talk about whatever experiences they felt were important, and also how they wished to express their views. In the PAIRS study, may students opted to communicate their perspective via a written letter ‘to an imaginary friend’. This method enriched the students’ views and provided teachers with context and understanding. The powerful personal narratives ensured that students’ experiences were not only heard but actively listened to. There is a risk in student voice that students’ views will be boxed into generalised, familiar categories rather than understood from an empathetic and unbiased reference point. The opportunity for students to accurately express their experiences and opinions adds power to their words and inspires transformation. In the LEXDIS study, students were also empowered via choice of expression. This resulted in a study that focused on the strengths of disabled students, rather than what they cannot do. Additionally, a majority of participants identified themselves as students first, rather than under the label of disabled. Freedom of expression encouraged students to accurately and authentically describe their experiences and challenge the way they are perceived in higher education.
Empowerment through choice in student voice enables students to influence change. Authentic expression creates a powerful narrative which accurately represents students’ views and promotes action, and students' active involvement throughout all stages of research ensures that student perspectives are not warped to fit assumptions or expected opinions. The goal of student voice should not be to confirm what is already known, but to challenge assumptions and power dynamics within the higher education framework and promote meaningful transformation.
[Source] : Jane Seale (2009) Doing student voice work in higher education: an exploration of the value of participatory methods, British Educational Research Journal, 36(6), 995-1015 DOI: 10.1080/01411920903342038
 Nightingale, C. (2006) Nothing about me, without me: involving learners with learning difficulties or disabilities (London, Learning Skills Development Agency).