Student Voice

Student voice in curriculum design in the context of a marketized higher education system

By Eve Bracken-Ingram

Student voice is key for quality assurance and enhancement in higher education institutions. However, due to the marketized higher education system, the relationship between students and universities provides distinct challenges for student engagement in voice. A 2013 paper by Carey (Source) explores student participation in curriculum development in the context of this marketized system.

The introduction of student tuition fees has dramatically changed the role of students within higher education. Students are now viewed as customers rather than learners, and as such are assumed to make choices based on traditional consumer principles. Despite lack of evidence to support this assumption, the treatment of students as customers forces them into this role. In response to this shift in roles, universities have placed a large focus on student satisfaction which is used to market the university to prospective students. Guidance suggests that student satisfaction is closely linked to student engagement. As a result, universities expect students to engage with a wide range of quality enhancement and assurance activities. This high expectation contrasts with the role of students as consumers.

Casey suggests that student involvement in curriculum development is essential for student engagement. It allows students to engage not only with their learning and teaching, but also university governance and enables them to shape their student identify. Traditionally, student involvement in curriculum development is limited to feedback surveys. In this case, students are encouraged to put forth their complaints but not offer solutions, further consolidating the idea that students are customers in the higher education environment. Additionally, lack of action in response to student voice may lead to disengagement and frustration. Even if this feedback-action loop is closed, students may still be disempowered by their lack of control in this practice.

It is possible to enhance students’ experiences by exploring other methods of student voice in curriculum design. The most radial of these is student-led curriculum design where students have full responsibility for curriculum content and delivery design. This is likely an unrealistic option as universities are organised upon the idea of expert input and assessment. The medium between these two ideas is student co-creation of curriculum, where students, lecturers, and the university collaborate to combine their unique perspectives and expertise in each area of curriculum. It encourages students to not only express their grievances but also suggest potential solutions. Students’ perception of curriculum are shown to improve when they are provided with reasoning behind decisions. This method exposes students to the governmental processes and standards which regulate curriculum development at every level, giving students’ an understanding of how and why decisions are made. However, the current unequal power dynamic between stakeholders limits the success of this practice as students may feel unable to express their true opinions.

Co-creation of curriculum challenges university governance and structure and requires the dismantling of accepted power dynamics. In order for co-creation of curriculum to be effective, there must be room within decision-making processes to dynamically respond to insights offered through student voice. Additionally, students should be involved in not only identifying areas for improvement but also determining appropriate solutions. Finally, partnership cannot be a one-off exchange. Student voice must be a continuous process that is present throughout the entire student experience. All of these factors must be addressed to successfully engage students in curriculum development and as such their learning and teaching experience, student identity, and the university as a whole.


[Source] Philip Carey (2013) Student as co-producer in a marketised higher education system: a case study of students’ experience of participation in curriculum design. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 50(3), 250-260 DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2013.796714

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