Student Voice

The importance of distinguishing student voice practices in higher education

By Eve Bracken-Ingram

At Student Voice, we believe that students have a unique and valuable voice in decisions that impact their learning. This voice be expressed through many practices, each with its own benefits and challenges. Matthews and Dollinger (2022) (Source) explore the difference between student representation and student partnership and highlight why this distinction essential for the successful implementation of student voice within higher education.

Student representation is defined as when students speak on behalf of the student body to voice their collective opinions. It typically relates to the governance of higher education institutions and is facilitated by the democratic selection of student representatives by students. Student representation have multiple benefits:

  • The practice of democracy promotes active citizenship of students.
  • Education quality is enhanced through the inclusion of student voice.
  • Students are able to develop their capabilities and skills through participating in student representation.

However, there are also several challenges associated with student representation in higher education institutions. The first is that although students are provided the opportunity to express their collective voice, they are not granted the means to enact change. Additionally, there is a perceived hollowness associated with student representation. Unless there is a shift in the power dynamic between students and staff, student perspectives will not be given appropriate weight and may potentially be ignored or selectively taken into consideration. Finally, student representation treats the student body as a collective, as with the same views and needs. This may lead to marginalised voices being left out of the discussion and hinder inclusivity.

Student partnership refers to the active collaboration of students and teachers in the development of learning and teaching practices. It describes the process of engagement where students are equal contributors. Student partnership has benefits for both students and staff:

  • Increased student motivation
  • Improved student-teacher relationships
  • Enhanced student perceptions of learning
  • A greater sense of belonging and community for all participants

It is important to note that these benefits are only true for those who take part in the student voice practice. As student partnership in learning and teaching is typically facilitated through small group practices, the question of who is involved is of high importance. Participating students are often selected by staff through a formal application processes or informal requests. Therefore, it is often academically high-achieving and engaged students that are selected. Additionally, these practices usually extra-curricular and as such only privileged students who have time to participate can engage. This limits the inclusivity and equity of student voice.

The key differences between student representation and student partnership can be discussed by considering:

  • The responsibility of students
  • Access to student voice practices

The responsibility of students varies greatly between student voice practices. In student partnership, students are responsible for providing their unique perspectives. They are viewed as equals and have a shared responsibility to improve learning and teaching practices within higher education. In student representation, students are responsible for representing and defending the views of the collective student body. Students often act as activists within the higher education framework, whose primary role is to ensure that student opinion is heard but not to bring about change. Access to student voice practices can be managed by either students or staff. In student representation, students are typically democratically elected by the student body. Conversely, student partnership relies on staff selection of students.

It is important to identify the differences between student voice practices to ensure that each practice is being utilised in a way which maximises their value. Student partnership allows students to be actively engaged and bring about change in their learning. If this practice was to be viewed as representation, the empowerment and value of students within collaborative relationships would be reduced. Student representation also holds an important role in student voice. By treating student partnership as more valuable, the importance of democracy and student selected representatives is diminished. Both student representation and student partnership are valuable in shaping learning, teaching, and student life. Only with the careful application of each practice, ensuring equity of access and power of voice, will the benefits of student voice in higher education be achieved.


[Source] Matthews, K.E., Dollinger, M. (2022) Student voice in higher education: the importance of distinguishing student representation and student partnership. Higher Education, 85, 555–570
DOI: 10.1007/s10734-022-00851-7

Related Entries