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Blog post

‘Student voice’ in lockdown

Helen Young, London South Bank University Lee Jerome, Middlesex University

In an article published in the British Educational Research Journal just before lockdown, ‘Student voice in higher education: Opening the loop’ (Young & Jerome, 2020), we explored some narrow understandings of student voice in eigher Education (HE) related to its construction as a ‘feedback loop’. Lockdown and the concurrent dependence on technology for communication raises the danger of a further narrowing of student voice. A key principle of online pedagogy is that educators should be led by their educational aims, not by the technology. This also needs to be applied by institutions, departments and lecturers in thinking about student voice. Here we argue that we need to consider ways to enable collective, dialogic approaches to student voice in this new context.

‘Student voice’ tends to operate as a ‘hooray word’ (Whyte, 2003), and to be seen as ‘a good thing’ even though people may have different ideas about what it means. There is a dominant discourse of consumer satisfaction, constructed through the student fees system and mechanisms such as the National Student Survey (NSS) which construct students as consumers (Young & Jerome, 2020). Online, it is easy for universities to continue to promote this narrow ‘consumer’ version of student voice through customer satisfaction questionnaires and ‘you said, we did’ messaging. However, our pre-lockdown research also found traces of other discourses of collectivity and solidarity motivating the work of course representatives. We found that students worked in a variety of ways to support each other and future cohorts (Young & Jerome, 2020). A few months later, we have seen the emergence of greater collectivity and solidarity in wider society, with local mutual aid societies forming to look out for neighbours. In this new context, we all need to explore how we might create an enabling environment for collective support and action for students in HE.

Physical distancing can make the construction of a sense of community more challenging. Furthermore, the current situation has exacerbated existing inequalities (including disability and ‘race’) and created new ones (around job sectors and living conditions). Yet, without dialogue, it is difficult for any student or member of staff to fully appreciate what others are experiencing and what might support them. Dialogue is very different to individual feedback. A feedback survey provides some useful information about respondents’ situations, such as their caring responsibilities and limited access to technology (although either of these may make them less likely to participate in a survey or in dialogue). However, an aggregated collection of needs and desires from a survey is less helpful for considering what should be done by lecturers, management or student unions. Through dialogue, people can respond to and build on each other’s’ views and experiences on addressing collective issues.

Ideas of deliberative democracy (Dryzek, 2002; Young, 2002) are helpful here. When people engage in dialogue and reflect on their own and others’ reasons, this can lead to the transformation of their preferences. It is important that students and staff engage in such dialogue. This does not have to mean compromise in a win-lose paradigm. In response to seemingly intractable problems, where one group want one thing and one group want something apparently opposite, deliberation can ‘multiply dimensions and options’ (Dryzek, 2002, p. 41) leading to a creative resolution. Furthermore, deliberative democracy can have ‘educative power’ and ‘community-generating power’ (Cooke, 2000). We need to ensure that we create the time and space, and use appropriate technology, to enable such dialogue among students and among students and staff in responding to the challenges (and possible opportunities) that we currently face.

To paraphrase Foucault, maybe we are freer than we think ‘not to be governed in that way’ (cited in Ball, 2013, pp. 146–146). A crisis is a crossroad where many things are possible. Rather than having our actions determined by technology (and a consumer discourse), it takes imagination for us all to reflect on what might enable collective, dialogic approaches to student voice in our institutions.


This blog post is based on the article ‘Student voice in higher education: Opening the loop’ by Helen Young and Lee Jerome, published in the British Educational Research Journal


References

Ball, S. J. (2013). Foucault, power, and education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Cooke, M. (2000). Five arguments for deliberative democracy. Political Studies, 48(5), 947–969.

Dryzek, J. (2002). Deliberative democracy and beyond: Liberals, critics, contestations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whyte, J. (2003). Bad thoughts. London: Corvo Books.

Young, H., & Jerome, L. (2020). Student voice in higher education: Opening the loop. British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3603

Young, I. (2002). Inclusion and Democracy. London: Oxford University Press.