Education

Should we silence the Student Voice?

Constantly asking students about what should be taught corrodes the authority of lecturers - and knowledge.

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.

This is made clear by Liam Jarnecki, director of the new Student Engagement Partnership Unit: ‘My ambition is that future students will know about their curriculum before they start their course and will be full partners in influencing its make-up.’ His aim is ‘to increase momentum towards students being full partners in the creation of their education’. Jarnecki wants to see students influencing what and how they are taught. In other words, students should have an input on the selection of topics, the emphasis given to some topics over others, the order in which topics are approached, and how particular topics are taught.

So, for example, if a group of students studying sociology decide they have no interest in learning about Emile Durkheim or Max Weber and are not particularly keen on lectures or writing essays, then they, as partners, could argue for more sessions on Marxism taught through group discussion and assessed by poster presentations. Any lecturer conscious of her evaluation ratings or the institution’s NSS performance will be under pressure to make changes accordingly.

But this is problematic. It suggests that all topics – in fact, all knowledge - is equally relevant and that students are in just as good a position as their lecturers to determine what the course content should be. Lecturers make decisions on what content to cover, in what order, how to go about teaching it and how to assess whether or not students have learnt it, based upon their deep understanding of a particular subject. It is the discipline-specific body of knowledge that primarily dictates pedagogical approaches. It’s only when you have that knowledge that you can begin to pass judgement on what and how to teach.

Such frequent soliciting of the student voice and the institutional determination to meet its every whim seriously undermines the authority of academics. Perhaps more disturbingly, it also undermines the authority of subject knowledge. There is an assumption behind calls for students to be partners in the educational process that knowledge is something to be co-constructed in the context of the seminar room. Sometimes it is: when students are working at higher stages of their academic careers, the aspiration to be the intellectual equal of their lecturer and critically engaged in the search for new knowledge or the re-interpretation of existing knowledge is entirely laudable. But sometimes not all knowledge is up for grabs, contestable and in need of co-constructing. Sometimes knowledge is worth being mastered by a new generation of students – whether they like it or not.

Lecturers need to be sufficiently confident in their subject knowledge, and their ability to teach and assess that subject, so that they do not need to seek advice from the very people who, by definition of being students, still have much to learn. Students can pass comment on what they think of who is teaching them and how they are being taught, but in the absence of a deep understanding of the subject, such comments are likely to be based upon serendipitous personal preferences such as the looks and personality of the lecturer, or a desire to get good grades in return for minimal effort. Institutional subservience to the student voice serves only to undermine further the confidence of lecturers in asserting what is important about their subject.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is speaking at the Battle of Ideas satellite event ‘Should we silence the Student Voice?’ in Faversham, Kent, on Thursday 26 September. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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