Student Voice

How to enhance student voice in university governance through student representation

By Eve Bracken-Ingram

Student voice in university governance has a range of benefits for students, the university and society. By participating in student voice, students are able to develop skills and enhance academic performance. Students’ involvement in university governance encourages accountability and transparency in policy and decisions. It also ensures universities consider a range of perspectives in their decision-making processes. Additionally, student civic responsibility and citizenship can be promoted through student voice. Students are often requested to participate in student voice in university governance through evaluation surveys. However, in order to actively engage students in voice, build sense of community, and support problem solving and collaboration, student representatives on departmental committees is suggested to be an incredibly effective form of student voice. Lizzio and Wilson (2009) (Source) explore the factors which hinder and help the effectiveness of student representatives on departmental committees.

It has been suggested that in order to assess the sustained success of student voice practices, one must consider not only the immediate outcomes of the practice but also the attitudes and experiences of those involved. To understand the full student experience of representing the student body in university governance and identify methods for enhancing the effectiveness of student representatives, Lizzio and Wilson addressed the following questions:

  • What motivates students to volunteer for representative roles?
  • How well do students understand their role and what is expected of them?
  • How effective do students feel in their role?
  • How do student representatives manage their relationships with the student body?
  • What value do students believe the contribute through the role?
  • What personal development do students report from undertaking the role of student representative?

It was found that there are a wide range of motivations for undertaking a student representative role, and often students report having a number of reasons for participating. These motivations range from the desire to develop new skills, to advocacy, to compliance. Understanding these motivations will allow universities to enhance recruitment processes and support students in their role. Additionally, motivations provide insight into how a student will approach their role and what their priorities may be.

Students describe their role as having two main functions:

  • Representing student opinion and presenting issues to university governmental committees
  • Responding to universities proposals while advocating for the student body

Both of these functions involve successful communication with all parties and providing feedback to students. Student representatives highlight that effectiveness in the role is influenced by their personal attributes such as objectivity, honesty, and approachability. They are required to build positive relationships with both the student body they are representing and the staff that they are expected to collaborate with. The relationship between student representatives and staff is closely linked to staff attitudes towards their role. While some staff members view students as equal partners and valuable contributors, some may view student contributions as unimportant and immature. In order to enhance the effectiveness of student representation, it is essential that a culture is created where students are empowered and considered a valuable member of a collaborative relationship.

Students report several challenges they experience throughout their role. The most commonly cited difficulty is role ambiguity, where students are uncertain of their job description and their authority in the role. This limits students’ performance as student representatives but may be overcome by providing written job descriptions and formal handover meetings. Another challenge that students face in this role is conflict between staff and student body expectations. They are required to both advocate for students whilst maintaining a working relationship with staff. Additionally, student representatives may not agree with the opinion of the student body. It is essential that the representative process is transparent, and representatives are provided with training in areas such as conflict resolution and ethics.

Student representatives aim to increase the quality and fairness of learning and teaching processes. By bringing attention to major student issues, student representatives increase accountability of universities to respond to feedback in a timely manner. They may also facilitate early intervention and perhaps prevent issues by reporting dissatisfaction at the outset. In order to strengthen student voice processes, a shared language between student representative and staff must be established to facilitate constructive discussions.

Student representatives report substantiable levels of personal development through their undertaking of their role. They increase confidence, develop skills, and make contacts with their fellow students and staff. There is a strong correlation between personal development through their role and satisfaction. Therefore, by supporting the personal development of student representatives, their engagement, and as such their performance, in the role will be enhanced.

In summary, in order to enhance the effectiveness of student representation in university governance, several support systems must be implemented. Students should be provided with a clear description of role responsibilities and expectations. Additionally, universities should provide student representatives with sufficient training in the wide range of skills required to effectively carry out their role. Finally, the performance of student representatives is strongly dependant on their relationship with other students and staff. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the department to legitimise and empower students in their role, and facilitate trusting collaborative relationships between student representatives and staff.


[Source] Alf Lizzio & Keithia Wilson (2009) Student participation in university governance: the role conceptions and sense of efficacy of student representatives on departmental committees. Studies in Higher Education, 34(1), 69-84 DOI: 10.1080/03075070802602000

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