Student Voice

Is the increased focus on student voice in higher education harming participation?

By Eve Bracken-Ingram

At Student Voice, we understand the clear benefits of including student perspective in the development of higher educational practices. However, Mendes and Hammett (2023) (Source) question the motivations behind the increased focus on student voice and whether it has led to a ‘tyranny of participation’. This argument stems from a failed attempted at encouraging student participation in curriculum design at a UK university.

As universities have been increasingly run as businesses, there has been a growing emphasise on student voice within higher education as a quality assurance method. Student voice is used as a metric within the Teaching Excellence Framework, an award which is frequently used by universities to market to prospective students. The National Student Survey, a scheme which gathers student opinion on their higher education experience, also measures student engagement and voice. This application of student voice, along with increased student fees, places students in the role of consumer. As a consumer, students view their education as an individual investment through which they strive to gain the greatest return with minimal cost and /or effort. This challenges the expectation that students should wish to actively engage with education development processes which provide little individual benefit.

In response to this shift in the role of student voice within the higher education framework, universities have drastically increased the number of evaluations which students are encouraged to engage with. A student completing a 3-year degree at a UK university could be asked to complete upwards of 60 surveys throughout their time in higher education. As a result, students report to experience ‘survey fatigue’ and therefore resist engaging. Additionally, the routinisation of surveys contributes to the idea that student voice mechanisms are performative, leading to resentment and decreased participation. There is little acknowledgement of the effort required by students to engage with large numbers of feedback requests. These requests offer little benefit to the participating students but require great time and effort. This is viewed as unreasonable by students under their current role as consumers.

In order to tackle this problem, one must consider why we assume students want to participate in student voice. The accepted understanding is that students wish to be partners in their education. However, the typical methods of student voice allow for little active student engagement in the development of teaching and learning practices. Students are treated as consumers and consultants, rather than active partners. As such, they have limited power in the decisions made in response to their feedback. Additionally, methods which do empower students to be active partners typically have great time demands with no direct benefit to students’ degree outcomes.

Encouraging student voice requires a change in how students are positioned within the higher education framework. The current methods for gaining student perspective assumes that students view themselves as active citizens of the university that wish to commit time and energy to the development of higher educational practices which will likely not benefit them directly as individuals. This assumption contrasts with the prevailing role of students as consumers who prioritise their individual degree outcomes. These conflicting roles result in student resentment and frustration. Additioanlly, the frequency, intensity, and mode of student voice requests must be examined. The excessive volume of student voice requests, in addition to their seemingly performative naturue, leads to students feeling bombarded and ultimately disengaging.


[Source] Ana Barbosa Mendes and Daniel Hammett (2023). The new tyranny of student participation? Student voice and the paradox of strategic-active student-citizens. Teaching in Higher Education, 28(1), 164-179 DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2020.178322

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