This autumn the Student Engagement Partnership Unit was launched, bringing together various UK higher-education bodies with the aim to ‘involve students more fully as partners in their own higher education’. Led by the National Union of Students (NUS), with substantial funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the new unit wants students to be ‘partners in the development, management and governance of their institution, its academic programmes and their enhancement, and in their own learning’.
Universities, keen to show they listen to ‘the student voice’, already put a great deal of effort into encouraging students to ‘engage’ through soliciting feedback on everything from the teaching style of lecturers, assessment deadlines and library provision. Institutions recruit students to complete a host of national student surveys; to meet with external examiners; and to become course representatives providing feedback to staff-student liaison committees. At many universities, the students’ union offers training for course reps so they can get their voices heard more effectively, while students are also asked to vote for lecturers worthy of teaching awards and participate in yet more surveys on teaching and assessment.
Students are not just being asked to voice opinions on the price of a cup of coffee or the opening hours of the library; increasingly they are being asked to pass judgement on the content of the curriculum and the teaching methods employed by lecturers. Course reps are often invited to attend meetings with specific agenda items allowing them to tell their lecturers where they are going wrong.
The lengths universities go to to encourage student engagement - and, indeed, the establishment of the new Student Engagement Partnership Unit - are actually recognition of the fact that, in general, students do not rush to participate in such initiatives. Often bribery is needed to ensure participation. Students will be given Amazon vouchers or printing credits for completing the National Student Survey (NSS). The provision of catering will be the key selling point for recruiting students to attend committee meetings. Perhaps students simply have better things to do with their time than worrying about the management of their institution. Or maybe students recognise that, despite the rhetoric, they are not equal partners with their lecturers.
It would be easy to dismiss the attempts by universities to get students to engage as a cynical ploy to bolster their own reputation and student-satisfaction ratings through being seen to listen and act upon student feedback. But there is more to it than this. In the absence of an intellectual project where students are led by teaching staff through a process of assimilating, interpreting and contributing to the development of disciplinary knowledge, the importance of the lecturer in determining course content and teaching methods is challenged. If knowledge does not dictate the content of the curriculum then there is no need for the lecturer’s input to be more valuable than anyone else’s.