Student Voice

Student voice is underpinned by student rights and respect

By Eve Bracken-Ingram

It is generally accepted in educational research that student voice is a crucial component of decision making in higher education institutions. However, the term student voice is not clearly defined. Research regarding student voice frequently use vocabulary such as capable, communication, participate, listen, involve, and matter. From this vocabulary, one can identify that the concept of student voice relates to listening to and valuing student opinion in higher education. Cook-Sather (2006) (Source) explores the meaning of student voice and fundamental beliefs which this ideology is built upon. Student voice can be characterized by three principal ideas:

  • Students have a unique perspective on teaching and learning.
  • These insights deserve attention and response.
  • Students should have the opportunity to actively develop the educational practices that affect them.

Difficulties arise when these convictions have different meanings to different people and are actualized in different ways. Student voice is sensitive to context and therefore a clear understanding of how student voice should be facilitated and responded to is difficult to obtain. How student voice is both expressed and understood is highly dependent on the preexisting relationships between student, listener, and higher education institute. Longstanding power dynamics, social prejudice, and preconceptions lead to warped relationship between what is said and what is heard. For student voice to be genuinely heard, understood, and meaningfully responded to, it is essential that a supportive and empowering environment is created. Due to the diverse range of needs and experiences of students, it is difficult to identify what an encouraging environment for student voice might look like. It is then that one must consider student voice not by its definition but instead by its key underlying principles: student rights and respect.

Simply, students have the right to be heard. Although this right is traditionally related to children it is true of all students. It is important to note that this is a right to be heard, not a right to speak. Therefore, student voice practices should not only supply students with a platform to voice their views but also ensure these views are acknowledged, understood, and acted upon. Considering student voice in the context of this right provides clear guidance on how student voice should empower students. This highlights the failure of many student voice practices which focus only on the improvement of academic outcomes and institutional rankings.

Respect can be defined as having empathy, understanding and moral connection with others. In the context of student voice, respect calls higher education institutes to consider students as people with important experiences, opinions, and desires. It underlines the importance of not only asking students' opinions but also valuing them. This act of respect will not only allow educational practices to improve, but also foster a positive relationship between student and teacher. These relationships serve to further learning and engagement.

Rights and respect are cornerstones of student voice. Although there are many benefits and purposes to student voice, all methods must be underpinned by the primary goal of empowering and respecting students. It is important to acknowledge that rights and respect must be continuously performed and supported. Evoking change requires sustained hard work, consideration, understanding, and awareness. There is great value in listening to students and building understanding, respectful relationships within the higher education context. By empowering students to uphold their right to be heard and respected through student voice, significant individual, institutional and cultural developments can be achieved.


[Source] Alison Cook-Sather (2006) Sound, Presence, and Power: “Student Voice” in Educational Research and Reform. Curriculum Inquiry, 36(4), 359-390 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-873X.2006.00363.x

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