The Importance of the Learner Voice


What comes into your mind when I use the words ‘student representation’?

Aaron Porter

When we think about student representation and the way it has changed over time, the tendency is to think structurally, to consider all the tools that we use every day in our institutions. The union councils, the student governors, student officers on university committees, the student-written submission, focus groups, the national student survey, local surveys of satisfaction, student participation in internal review processes, and most recently at a national level, the establishment by government of student juries and a national student forum. All of these are very important aspects of our work and important signifiers of a sector that is open to student involvement. They demonstrate a commitment by policy makers to listen and respond to students. They exhibit change as well as consistency.

But structures don’t have voices – people do. We need a way to think about student representation in a way that is centred on people, on their perspectives, on the contribution they each make to the whole. This is what we mean when we talk about the learner voice. In practice, it can be many different things, at many different levels:

  • It’s me, on this platform, right now, advocating for a greater emphasis on the voice of learners in our work.
  • It’s the union president, working with the head of student services to ensure the right support is offered to her members.
  • It’s the education sabbatical officer, writing the student-written submission for institutional audit.
  • It’s the course rep giving feedback to their head of department on the structure of their fellow students’ programmes.
  • It’s the active student, engaged in their learning, and ready and prepared to discuss it with their tutor.

And as you get down to the programme level, it is where the listening and responding to the needs of learners is most broad and diverse, where the challenge is greatest. Here, the voice of learners breaks down into a chorus of different voices, with age, gender, mode of study, ethnicity, nationality, social class, sexuality, educational history, and many other factors all changing their tone and complexion.

It means all the individual learners have an individual relationship with their learning. That sounds so simple when you say it, but of course in reality it’s not simple at all. We must be honest that listening and responding to this enormous range of voices, many of which have not been heard loudly before, is likely to be difficult, time consuming and expensive. But I strongly believe it’s an investment worth making, and I’ll explain why.

First, there are clear benefits to those individuals involved in learning. By becoming engaged in the way that their curriculum is designed and their programme is delivered, they become more aware of their own learning needs and the potential areas where they might need to concentrate their efforts, undertake complementary learning activity, or seek extra help and support. It’s about making them capable of understanding and articulating the things that would make their learning better, which in turn, empowers them.

Second, there are clear benefits to the institutions that provide opportunities for learning. Some people utilise a customer service analogy to think about this; considering that the needs and perspectives of your customers is paramount, and if students are analogous to customers, then the higher education institution has an unparalleled opportunity to do this. I don’t think the analogy quite stands up, precisely because the relationship in learning between students and academics transcends the customer-provider contract; the opportunities to make the institution and its provision better are so much greater, through the active participation of learners, than anything a business can gain from its customers.

Third, there are clear benefits to cultivating a learning HE sector. If the sector can respond comprehensively and rapidly to learners, it will improve its success in pedagogy, its capacity for innovation, and its international competitiveness. If practitioners across the sector are able to listen and respond to learners, and to do it well, then higher learning itself will become more relevant and more exciting for all of us.

The benefits are clear, and the only way to obtain them is to increase the priority we give to strengthening these voices, to focus on people not structures, and do it convincingly and urgently. So NUS has decided that one of our key strategic aims for the next three years will be to support, facilitate and deliver methods by which students can shape all areas of their learning experience. And, in practice, taking on this aim means NUS will do a number of things across that period.

We will develop a programme of research into the student learning experience, eventually carrying out an annual research exercise that we expect to add significant value to the National Student Survey and other research. This is because it’s important to go beyond measures of student satisfaction when we make judgments about the quality of the learning experience – and we need more sources of objective data to consider, enabling us to make better judgments about how to make improvements.

We will continue to work with QAA to overhaul the ways that students participate in the quality assurance processes. We will extend and improve the training and development support offered to students’ unions on how to participate in these processes, in particular the student-written submission, and explore ways that students can be directly involved in quality in new ways.

We will undertake a mapping exercise, ensuring we understand the strength and diversity of student representative systems across institutions, identifying common themes, areas for improvement and those places where extra support is needed to support renewal where the learner voice is weaker.

We will seek to embed support for the voice of learners into the self-audit of students’ unions, by incorporating new criteria within the students’ union evaluation initiative. This programme, which has now been provided with over a quarter of million pounds in central government support, enables students’ unions to objectively evaluate themselves and make improvements, and the support they give for the voice of learners should certainly be a part of that improvement.

We will develop a central web-based system to support all course reps across England and Wales, allowing us to go much deeper than before in providing training and assistance, and allowing them to network more effectively and learn from each other. And to support this, we will also establish a national database of student representatives down to the programme level, ensuring that our support and advice can be effectively disseminated and targeted.

By taking action over the next three years, NUS will take the lead in putting in place the foundations of a coherent programme to develop and enhance the learner voice. In doing this, we will seek to establish a broad partnership with other organisations and agencies in the sector; we will involve institutions in both the strategy and the detail; we will ensure that our work is led by students’ unions and built from the ground up, not implemented from the top down. And by the end of the next period, we will have made enormous progress and founded a crucial series of tools and initiatives to meet our aims. But there are limits to what we can achieve if we do this only as a complementary programme of activity. To truly embed the learner voice within the planning and management of higher education provision – which I believe must be our ambition – we must go further than this. We must also have a long-term vision, a vision in which the voice of learners is placed right at the heart of our national strategy.

Ten years ago, widening participation agenda was established through a host of initiatives, sitting on top of the sector’s main business. And through this model, good work has been done, and participation has indeed increased. But in the next period, widening participation will become widely embedded within the strategies of institutions, establishing an irreversible centrality to the effort of making higher education open to all who have the talent to benefit from participating.

So my vision is that over the next 10 years, the sector will embark on a similar journey in listening and responding to the voice of learners. We must begin with projects and initiatives that demonstrate the value of the learner voice, and which explore and define good practice in listening and responding to learners. We must ensure that these initiatives are focused on the areas of real impact, and that they link together coherently, and over time develop into a crucial resource for institutions in improving their provision. And once this has happened, we will be in a position to make it national strategic priority for the whole sector to put in place effective systems for learner engagement.

That’s a bold aim, and a long-term aim, and I am perfectly prepared for it to take 10 years to achieve, because I believe that the student experience simply won’t be as good as it could be unless we can develop a deep culture of learner centeredness, which eventually becomes essential to the provision of higher education.

If we are to meet that challenge, we must begin now, and make a serious commitment to the programme of work ahead. I have outlined what NUS intends to do in the next three years, but I also believe we all have a role to play in laying the foundations.

If you represent one of our partners in the sector, I ask you to join us in building a coherent long-term strategy for listening and responding to learners. Doing this right, and doing it effectively, will require leadership across all stakeholders, and that means working together to identify and implement programmes that work well and add value, and I hope we can do that.

If you represent a students’ union, I ask you to consider whether your own strategy is focused on these areas, and whether your organisation is equipped to do the work necessary to make a difference on the ground. Too many students’ unions remain overly focused on commercial activities, entertainment, and extra-curricular opportunities. Although these things are important, they are not as important in my view as supporting the learner voice, and I hope many students’ unions will give this new importance in their next major strategic review.

If you represent an institution, I ask you to begin to explore, within your own context, new ways to engage students in their learning, to involve students in your internal quality assurance systems, and in the design and planning of courses. We will only be able to take this work forward if we have a wide resource of innovative ideas and solutions to draw upon, and the only place that those can be developed is by practitioners, in real situations. I hope that in only a short time, a majority of institutions will be doing just that, trying out new ideas and reporting their progress to colleagues so that we can all do better.

I hope that whatever role you play in higher education, you will agree with me that this is an exciting agenda, driven by an exciting ambition. The prospect is that by 2020, we have a higher education system with wide participation and fair access, which helps individuals to meet their aspirations and contributes more than ever before to Britain’s economic success. But not only that – if we begin this work today, we might eventually foster a profound culture of responsiveness to the ever-changing learners at every level of our sector. That will be a system truly equipped to adapt rapidly to the pace of change we must expect in the global economy and global society of the future.

I ask you to join us in making it happen.

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