Finding the student voice

It has become a common argument that, as tuition fees return or at least are being discussed, students will become more demanding; if they are paying, they expect to see some service. As a theoretical perspective that sounds reasonable enough, but the experience of higher education systems with fees doesn’t necessarily bear this out. On the whole, the student voice has not become louder or more demanding.

And actually, that’s a pity. These days students are generally so focused on navigating their courses and coming out with a good grade that they don’t spend much time arguing about university policies – not even catering, for heaven’s sake. Even where they have representation on decision-making bodies, they often do not use this very actively. There are of course exceptions to the rule, as for example in the attempts here and there to stop Bertie Ahern speaking on a campus, but frankly these little outbursts are of no great significance in the scheme of things.

Over my time as President of DCU I spent some time thinking about why this might be so. One possibility is that we – meaning the universities and their students – have arranged student representation on a kind of ‘social partnership’ model, which in the end simply parachutes student representatives into what are essentially staff discussions, which may not always be of direct significance to them. It’s not that I think we should discontinue this – I don’t, emphatically – but rather we should become more skilled at making the students’ narratives a more recognisable part of the university communications.

One interesting experiment in this context is being conducted in Arizona State University, which now runs a student blog page on its website, where new students are given an opportunity to write about their experiences, and thereby perhaps highlight what is good and not so good about the university and their programmes of study. There are no doubt also other ways of giving space to student voices and encouraging them to engage in constructive critique. It can and should all be part of the earning experience, and perhaps will encourage students to take an active part in charting the direction of their university.

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6 Comments on “Finding the student voice”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Hmm, I take your point, but I also think that in this respect as in many others, universities are part of their wider societies. I’m struck by the extent to which student campaigns/protests etc are only ever focussed on issues which affect them personally and immediately. This is perhaps hardly surprising, since in contemporary Ireland (and elsewhere) that’s how most campaigns/protests seem to work too.

  2. Vincent Says:

    I suppose had you, the Uni’ (A), been a rabid right wing, claret swilling and tub thumping imperialist with real nasty racist leanings. Or had you been (B) a rabid right wing, Port swilling and crozier thumping imperialist with real nasty racist leanings. Then for certain you would have some reason to stir up the student cohort. And a combo of students from both might in a fug derived from a cocktail of unknown pharmaceuticals and Guevara manuals blow the bejasus out of offensive statuary. As it is what have we but a bunch of people running the Systems that are a bit pappy if I’m honest. It is very difficult to get all hot and bothered when you are dealing with monetarists. And given that most of you have farmed out the Kaff, to whom the heck do you protest. It’s a Mary Harney and the HSE scenario.

  3. Kat Says:

    Did you somehow miss the boycott that happened in DCU about 3 years ago towards trispace and spar? 🙂 It was organized by the SU, they sat on the “decision-making bodies and didn’t feel as if they where being heard at all.

    Nothing came from the boycott, it just seemed to Annoy the vice president at the time. I now work on campus and can say 3 years later, there is Still no change, it is still more expensive to eat on campus then off.

    It would be nice to have the student vice listened to more. I would hope that if fees come in, the students in DCU will complain more! 🙂


    • Hm, Kat – I could comment on that particular ‘campaign’… :). Actually, catering protests are not what I am talking about. I am talking about participation in broader educational issues and programme design. In DCU we did have some good participation on some issues, including the very welcome campaign for anonymous marking, and the development of clubs and societies. But even in DCU, apart from one year, the SU input into Executive discussions was very patchy…

  4. kevin denny Says:

    When I was a post-grad in a small college, there were bitter battles amongst the students on whether The Chocolate Cupboard [literally a cupboard where refreshments were available on an honour system] would stock Kitkats. Something to do with capitalism I think.
    Incidentally, a lot of what you say about students could equally be said about staff in universities. And if we are only working 6 hours per week we would have plenty of time to say stuff… 😉

  5. John Says:

    I work in the UK system where undergraduates pay (borrow) £3,200 p.a. for the pleasure of our company.

    The university specifically courts student satisfaction for the purposes of raising its performance in the National Student Survey. Student reps regularly meet programme tutors and programmes are amended to respond to student needs/concerns.

    Internally, students satisfaction is surveyed on completion of every module. Individual “performance” reports are given to faculty and heads, while department aggregates are published across the university.


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