Student Voice

Student voice and the role of listening to improve equity within higher education

By Eve Bracken-Ingram

At Student Voice we believe that equity in higher education is a cornerstone of educational research. Often student equity is focused on access to higher education but, while this is important, the entire student experience must be considered to increase equity within higher education. It is accepted that giving voice to marginalised groups is key to social movements and as such essential to universities committed to increasing student equity. The 2011 paper by McLeod (Source) considers the concept of student voice, reflects upon the use of voice and discusses the potential limitations of utilising voice as a tool to increase equity in higher education.

Voice is an incredibly ambiguous term with many definitions, covering the values, experiences, and opinions of people. Therefore, it is easier to define voice by its aim, which can be identified as four main categories within education:

  1. Voice-as-strategy
  2. Voice-as-participation
  3. Voice-as-difference
  4. Voice-as-right

Simply, these definitions highlight the ability of voice to allow students to achieve empowerment and equality, participate in democratic processes and learning, respect diversity and to be heard. Although these benefits are substantial, there is limited research on the link between voice in higher education and equity. In order to address this gap, McLeod explores three related areas (social and participatory research, critical pedagogy, and feminist and postcolonial interventions) to determine the limitations of voice and identify lessons which could potentially be integrated into transformation of student voice within higher education equity initiatives. Several issues were identified throughout this investigation:

  • It is very difficult to prevent power differences from affecting social research. Researcher’s opinions often influence or overshadow the voice of the research participant.
  • It is possible that speaking on behalf of a marginalised person may in fact increase oppression of the group spoken for.
  • When calling for diverse voices, care must be taken to not create further divide, enforce stereotypes or ignore social differences within marginalised groups.

The impact of student voice is not determined by the speaker, but by the listener. Social, cultural, and institutional differences dictate what is heard, recognised, and understood. As such, voice should be considered as a mutual act of speaking and listening. In the context of higher education, this draws attention to the responsibility of universities to actively listen to student perspectives, recognise diversity within education and act upon the views of students to increase equity within higher education institutions.

In summary, student voice is essential to ensure equity in higher education. Although care must be taken to ensure student voice is accessible to all students, it should certainly not be treated as a problem only for marginalised groups. It is essential that the voice of all constituents are considered and generalisations are not made based on groups such as race, ethnicity, gender etc. Students will not have the same perspective and as such it is imperative that universities can listen to, recognise, and engage with all student differences. The challenge regarding student voice and equity is the ability for universities to understand and act upon student perspectives in a meaningful and practical way.


[Source Paper] Julie McLeod (2011) Student voice and the politics of listening in higher education, Critical Studies in Education,
DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2011.572830

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