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New HEPI report considers when and how universities and policymakers should listen to students

  • 5 August 2021
  • By Michael Natzler

A new collection of essays from the Higher Education Policy Institute and with support from EvaSys, What is the student voice? Thirteen essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say (HEPI Report 140), features contributions from student representatives, academics, a vice-chancellor, a former NUS President and survey experts as well as interviews with the Office for Students’ Student Panel. 

Michael Natzler, HEPI’s Policy Officer and the editor of the collection, said: 

There is huge potential for higher education institutions to listen to and engage students more effectively. This collection shows authentic engagement delivers value to students, to universities and to taxpayers. This happens when universities invest the time and resources to listen to students and to act upon what they say.

Bruce Johnson, Managing Director of EvaSys, said:

The way a university approaches and acts upon the student voice can make a tangible difference to future outcomes for the institution – we see this time and time again across our customer base.  Those who consistently close the student feedback loop by offering reflection and proposed action to issues raised evidence positive pull through in sector-wide results such as the NSS. Student surveys are a valuable tool for capturing the student voice, but a critical element is in the response to that voice. This is what facilitates true partnership working with students to enhance their learning experiences.

Nick Hillman, HEPI Director, writes in his Foreword to the report: 

[T]here is in fact no such thing as a singular “student voice”. Students come from a wide range of different backgrounds, have very different experiences during their time in higher education, like to express themselves in different ways and move on after study to hugely different lives. … [A] university that treats its students primarily as customers is merely an institution; one that listens to its students is a community.

Eve Alcock, former Student Union President at the University of Bath, writes: 

[M]any of the decisions student governors have to make can directly contradict the priorities and mandate they have as elected representatives – hiking rent prices, restructuring out whole departments that serve students, lifting student number caps, to name but a few. … The very reason that student governors have a seat at the Board table – for their knowledge of the student experience and representation of a key stakeholder – is the same reason why their voices are often ignored.

Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Portsmouth, writes:

Students pay more for their education, there are more full-time undergraduates than ever before, (happily) the student body is also more diverse than it ever has been and (rightly) students are more confident in demanding what they need from universities and their lecturers. They do not merely accept what a university or individual academic wants to offer: they challenge us and make us innovate and change.

Rensa Gaunt, Students’ Disabled Officer 2020/21 at the University of Cambridge, writes: 

I had been involved in disabled people’s organising at the University of Cambridge for several years before becoming a sabbatical officer at Cambridge’s Students’ Union. Lobbying always felt very antagonistic: although students on the ground had a good understanding of what was and was not working, by the time an issue filtered up to senior management through various committee structures and representatives, any solutions had either been watered down beyond relevance or, more commonly, abandoned.

Jonathan Neves, Head of Business Intelligence and Surveys, Advance HE, writes:

Student surveys and polling represent some of the most powerful tools available to represent students’ views on their experience, providing a statistically valid complement to other more direct or in-depth approaches to gathering feedback from students. In our sector in particular, survey findings generate headlines, and crucially, can influence policy. … [T]he finding that less than half of students actively feel their voice is heard is perhaps lower than we might have hoped.

Helena Lim, Head of Opportunities at EvaSys, writes: 

The whole point of gathering student feedback is to directly impact on and improve learning and teaching. Further, closing the student feedback loop to students is a highly effective way to facilitate two-way communication between students and institutions and provide a constructive framework to enable lecturers to reflect on and enhance their practice.

Andy Westwood, Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester, writes: 

The existing higher education model has always had a clear vision of how students should act … This does create demand and interest in student voice but only in the way that its architects and regulators think it should – that is making rational economic choices, exerting consumer rights on value and making complaints accordingly.

Michael Natzler, author of the chapter on the OfS Student Panel: 

The Office for Students’ Student Panel drew lots of attention when it was set up in 2018 as a way for the regulator to listen to students. The panellists are clearly passionate about their work and would like even more opportunities to feed into policymaking at the Office for Students.

Aaron Porter, former President of the National Union of Students (NUS) from 2010-11, writes: 

I witnessed and was able to participate in debates right across the political spectrum, from Tories to Trotskyites, and the NUS was all the stronger because of it. During my time as President, the “No Platform” policy was reinforced and I still support a democratic body deciding that a handful of groups who offer nothing but hate and promote violence should be excluded. But this should not extend to those we simply disagree with or find disagreeable. No platforming Conservative politicians or campaigners like Peter Tatchell does not make sense to me. We can disagree with them – they are not advocating violence and we should be able to debate with them.

Dennis Hayes, Professor of Education at the University of Derby, writes:

Often people argue that the university should be a safe space for discussion. But that is not what “safe space” means today. It means a place where ideas that are deemed unacceptable by the emotionally offended can be excluded. But that is not a university. … Students should leave their safe spaces, managerial committees and destressing programmes and get back to raising their traditional voice. This may seem nothing like a return to the student radicalism of the 1960s but in contemporary therapy culture it would be equally radical.

Professor Dilly Fung, Pro-Director Education at the London School of Economics, writes: 

Students are increasingly being drawn into programme design, review and enhancement but many still feel that their voices, values and creativity are excluded from this key area of activity. … Students may have a seat at the table, but the table may be long and the students may sit at the very far end. … Students should be involved in local, incremental curriculum developments. … But most promising of all is the possibility of co-creating structures and policies in such a way that students’ voices are at the heart of things: the institution’s values, its strategic intentions and its articulation of goals.

Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director at Unite Students and Paul Humphreys, Founder of StudentCrowd, write: 

The student voice – both collectively and individually – is highly valued within the student accommodation sector because it drives value. Value for students who are better able to have their needs met and value for accommodation teams and providers who only remain viable if students want to book with them.

Cath Brown, Former President of the Open University Students Association, writes: 

The mature student who already feels somewhat “othered” is unlikely to want to be crowded into a hall with their younger peers to do what feels like a tick-box exercise in return for free pizza. … This does not mean staff being patronising or making “there-there” noises, but it does entail openness and treating students with respect, as fellow adults. … Moving student voice past the simple ‘feedback’ model’ towards real partnership and valuing experience and insight could pay dividends. And be prepared to pay students for their labour – not with pizza, but on a financial basis, as consultants. For mature students in particular, time is money.

Roy Kiruri, Former International Students’ Officer 2020/21 at the University of Bristol, writes: 

[I]t appears quite clear to me that a serious rethinking of the current model of funding higher education needs to take place – otherwise international students’ fees will continue to rise to deal with universities’ increasing running costs, inevitably resulting in both students and institutions being placed in a precarious position.

1 comment

  1. Laura says:

    I agree with all of the points made on listening to the student voice, aside from Dennis Hayes’ point about “safe spaces”. In my view, it is a hugely misinformed perspective, and I’m a little bit disappointed HEPI included this in their post about ‘promoting the student voice’, as it’s advocating for frankly, the exact opposite.

    While the term “safe space” gives some the impression of wrapping a fuzzy blanket around students, providing them no challenges and spoon feeding them soft deserts and pleasing ideas, in reality that is far from what students are advocating for here.

    Students are not adverse to challenges. What they are adverse to is having their fundamental humanity questioned, and when it comes to the discussion of “safe spaces” and “no platforming”, they are advocating for not bringing in speakers whose goal is to tell you that you don’t and shouldn’t exist, that your sexuality is a mental illness, or that the reason for the BAME educational gap is not cultural, but biological.

    When I go to work, I am in a challenging environment, and I expect to be challenged on the work I produce, whether the ideas I contribute are robust, and my work ethic. I should not be challenged at my place of work on whether or not my personal characteristics are “real” or whether my IQ is due to the shape of my skull.

    To paint the very reasonable request by students to not be actively exposed to bigots at their place of work (and therefore giving those bigots a larger platform) as being “mollycoddled” and “delicate snowflakes” is in my view, completely ridiculous, and frankly reactionary. To be so defensive of the idea that the current system may have problems that need to be addressed, that you in turn attack and dismiss those asking for reasonable change and accommodations as “too sensitive”, seems to me in most cases to be a severe form of projection.

    If academics want to have these discussions in academia, between other academics, then absolutely go wild. That is (hopefully) a setting of debate and discussion where all involved are interested and invested in finding “the truth”, and people have to substantiate their claims with academic evidence. Truly, in an academic setting, “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

    Students however do not want (or more importantly, NEED) to be exposed to the personal bigotry of any given unqualified guest speaker, who turns up at their workplace – much like most of us. Advocating for a workplace which doesn’t bring in bigots who personally attack them, is an incredibly reasonable request.

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