The Importance of Learner Voice in the 21st Century

This speech was delivered in my capacity as a member of NUS’ National Executive Council at the University of Portsmouth’s Learning and Teaching Conference in December 2009.

Good morning everyone,

I’m John Peart, a member of the National Executive Council for the National Union of Students.

Today, I’ll be looking at the importance of the learner voice in 21st century higher education. What shape it should take, what are the challenges to effective learner voice, the attitudes of stake holders towards learner voice and finally how we react to the changing landscape we are dealing with in this debate.

This is a crucial time for higher education. The recent publication of the BIS Higher Ambitions framework document, the Adrian Smith-led review into Postgraduate provision and the announcement of the long-awaited review into Student Fees & Finance, with broad terms of reference will ensure that searching questions will be asked of our higher education system over the next 12 to 18months. Indeed this builds on the increasing scrutiny the sector has started to come under, following the ongoing debate into quality & standards and the increasing role students are playing in quality assurance.

Of course the National Student Survey has also transformed the way in which students views are taken into account too. I can’t believe it’s only been over the last 5 years, that some of these issues have been flagged up. Issues like assessment & feedback and organisation and management were known as ‘problem areas’ for institutions, but the NSS has now emphasised this by the way it is flagged up in the survey results – and forced institutions to respond. We now need to ensure that this information is appropriately placed into the hands of prospective students to aid informed decision making.

However, I want to start by looking at what the learner voice is and where it comes from. There are many differing definitions of what learner voice can mean and that’s because it is a very fluid thing. Learner voice can be about asking questions and listening to feedback, but more so than that, learner voice is about, and stems from, student engagement. If I had to pin it down, I’d choose this definition:

“Learner voice is about involving students as active participants in the development, delivery, management, and improvement of their educational and student experience.”

So we know what it is, but why is learner voice and student engagement important?

It’s important because universities are communities of learning. That community is achieved through a partnership between staff and students and that committed partnership between students, as active participants, and the staff at an institution will open up possibilities for authentic and constructive dialogue, offering the opportunity for more holistic and reflective feedback and enhancement of learning.

But not only this; research undertaken by NUS with HSBC showed that 48% of students don’t feel involved in shaping their educational experience, where as 85% of students want to be at least somewhat involved in shaping their learning. Learner engagement is important because learners want to be engaged.

It’s really important we don’t lose sight of the essence of what learner voice is about and why it’s important, particularly at the moment when there is an ever increasing pace of change within the higher education sector.

Last weeks pre-budget report revealed what could be the start of a 16% real-terms cut in funding to the HE sector, with a £600million drop in the next academic year, at a time when more and more people are trying to get into HE to escape the recessionary jobs market. There’s going to be a monumental squeeze on universities resources, and that in turn is going to mean a squeeze on the resources of students’ unions which are a key part of ensuring the learner voice is broadcast and listened to.

The future of quality assurance looks to be a sea-change from frameworks gone by. The HEFCE, DEL, UUK and GuildHE joint publication, “Future arrangements for Quality Assurance in England and Northern Ireland”, sets out strong arguments for changes to our quality assurance processes to create and sustain high-levels of teaching, learning and attainment, guided by simple principles of accountability, transparency, flexibility and responsiveness. The QAA is proposing an extension of the scheme that will see student members on Institutional Audit teams, whilst other stakeholders in the consultation are proposing a more flexible system that runs along side this and allows examination of specific themes and concerns based on the institutions and student written submissions.

The idea of student engagement is now starting to be taken seriously by the sector, not least since the introduction of a quasi-market in higher education, brought about by tuition fees. Students are sitting on audit teams, students unions are increasingly being listened to and recognised for their vital role in representation, the National Student Survey is making institutions sit up and listen to student concerns. The landscape of the student voice is changing.

And then of course, these changes are amidst a background of policy change within Parliament. The independent review of Higher Education tuition fees is underway – in fact the advisory panel is in session as we speak. The outcome of that review will have a significant impact on not only the way in which the sector is funded, but also on the ways in which student’s attitude’s will change towards higher education. Depending on the outcome, which many believe is a forgone conclusion, we are likely to see a rise in a consumer-like attitude from future students. Along side the fees debate is a second review specifically looking at issues within post-graduate education.

Regardless of your views on the composition of the review groups and thoughts about whether there is a stitch-up in the offing, one huge achievement for students has been the broad terms of reference for both of these review groups so that they really take into consideration the student voice and in the case of the fees review, the chance to look at plausible alternatives, like NUS’ Blueprint, rather than just posing the question of ‘fees cap, how high?’.

Of course, many of these issues will trigger political and vested arguments about the shape, size and freedom of the HE sector. I’ve heard already from some vice-chancellors that we should be massively expanding HE, no matter the cost, for the sake of our economy going forward. Equally I’ve heard Nick Clegg in the House of Commons budget debate this year arguing that universities are too big and we need to cut back on student numbers. And then we get arguments about what types of courses should exist or get preferential funding and so it goes on. We could be here for days looking at those issues, but whatever the outcome, we need to ensure that the ways in which the learner is involved in shaping the outcome is at the centre of the debate so that the benefits are clearly visible and the student experience is not diminished as a result of hasty cut-backs, fees increases or policy changes.

Amongst this complex backdrop of change and cuts, it’s a wonder how universities are still moving on with their bread-and-butter teaching and research, let alone engaging with the learner voice, but things have and continue to develop in this area.

Probably the game changer in the dialogue about student engagement and learner voice has been the NSS. It’s a bit like Marmite for institutions, but regardless of whether you love it or you hate it, you can’t ignore the student voice here, and you certainly can’t ignore the sway it carries with prospective students at various institutions. In fact, looking more broadly, the vast amount of data that is thrown into the public domain now on quality of experience in HE really stacks the pressure on institutions to consult and listen and engage with students.

There’s also been a refocussing of students’ unions and NUS. Over the last 2 and half years, NUS has undergone a significant refocus and re-orientation. Seeking to place student engagement and the learner voice, representation and support to SUs at the heart of our mission. NUS’ reform process has seen it catapult itself into the centre of the debate around student finance and the student experience, given it credibility where before it was seen as attacking from the sidelines, and it like its constituent member unions are being taken more seriously now as a key player than it ever has before.

At the same time, students’ unions are reforming themselves to be more representative of the increasingly diverse student population at large to ensure that they can effectively translate student concerns to institutional management. Students are becoming more savvy of the issues within higher education and their involvement with students’ unions is on the increase. You only need to look at NUS’ massively successful Town Takeover program, which has seen literally hundreds of students – not just union officers – out on their campuses and in their communities campaigning about issues they really care about.

Then there is the government’s listening agenda. There are more panels and bodies with student representation on them at the moment than I can shake a stick at across the entire education sector. From schools, through colleges and up to universities, the government is taking learner voice seriously for the first time. The FE sector and the new Ofsted framework is probably the best example of this new agenda. Colleges now cannot get an ‘outstanding’ rating if they do not effectively engage and resource learner voice within institutions. The idea of learner as partner in their education is coming across loud and clear in many areas – though perhaps not in as many as we might like.

Certainly there have been a number of drivers to this increase in student engagement and representation. Not least, the Labour governments interest (perhaps bordering on obsession) with listening to users/consumers right throughout their public policy from the NHS to transport, this same interest in wanting to listen to users have filtered through to higher education.

But the HE sector itself has also made the case for student involvement – not least because of the additional perspective it brings, but also its unique perspective on supporting enhancement. The cynic in me, might also add that in order to legitimise the financial contribution made by students over the last decade, it will become increasingly difficult for institutions to ignore the requests of students – there is power in the line, ‘I’m paying for this degree’ however narrow a perspective it may be, it has undoubtedly changed the HE landscape.

And then, as I’ve mentioned there are student’s involved in quality. Student written submissions, whilst just four or five years ago were concocted in a room by one or two sabbatical officers with little evidence or thought are now open and transparent to the membership of institutions, well-researched and taken as seriously by auditors and institutions as any other report from stakeholders. Then there are students as auditors, which is a scheme being rolled out this year, with the first wave in training now since they were recruited earlier in 2009, 25 – 30 universities have students on periodic review panels, and more and more institutions are placing importance on course and class reps. The feedback from institutions doing this has been positive.

I quote: ‘The more we involve students, the more they will feel part of what we do.’

Another: ‘The centrality of students as partners in the strategic development and improvement of the university is very important to us, and so their participation on internal review panels is essential.’

And another: ‘Students are part of the wider academic community and having them on review teams reinforces that message. We want them to contribute to development of the whole university, not just their own course, and this is one way for them to do that.’

Students are really rising to the challenge of broadcasting their voice within the sector and many institutions are equally rising to the challenge of listening.

There needs to be a continuous and self-assessing cycle of engagement across higher education. Institutions and students’ unions must select the mechanisms with which they wish to engage their students. This might be through questionnaires, through focus groups, online campaigning, student representation or something completely different that’s been adapted to meet the needs of the students’ at that institution. And when that is done there needs to be a monitoring phase; a stage by which the effectiveness of that engagement is reviewed and improved. This will ensure that quality of experience is continuously built upon for all students.

This is a great idea, yet in practice more needs to be done to react to a new wave of student engagement, not least as the motivations and attitudes of students change, but also as the sector’s view of the relationship between student and institution changes as well.

NUS has found through further research that over 60% of students have either career progression or earnings enhancement as their driving motivation for entering higher education. The traditionalist view of academia and learning for learning’s sake is no longer the populous opinion and consumerism has crept into the mind-set of our student generations, for better or for worse.

It’s no wonder this has happened though. When you look at the language coming out of Whitehall, BIS or from the opposition benches, it’s clear that the Government, or in these cases Lord Mandelson and David Willetts see students as consumers of education. The new Higher Education framework references students as consumers virtually all the way through the document, looks at competition between universities nationally and internationally in some sort of knowledge market, looks at how business should be the driving force behind education and that skills and certification are the be-all-and-end-all. Don’t get me wrong, the document had some positive ideas, but it further evidences politicians view that education is a tradable resource and that students consumes it, rather than co-produced it as partners in their learning.

Equally student attitudes are changing to align themselves with this philosophy. When you attach a price to your education, like the tuition fees system does with degrees, you immediately indoctrinate that student in a consumer like mentality. As a fee paying customer, you expect your needs and wants and demands to be catered for. If you pay for something you expect a good return on your money. There is a problem here though, and I’ll illustrate it.

When I pay for a cup of coffee, I expect a good quality product as return on my investment. If I’m dissatisfied with it, because of my rights as a consumer, I can return the product for a refund or an exchange of some sort. When I’ve paid my £3,200 in tuition fees per year, I am not guaranteed a good service, nor am I guaranteed a qualification. I am not refunded for any dissatisfaction or able to be compensated in any way. And because of that, education cannot be a product and students cannot be consumers because we don’t automatically see return on investment, we have to make that investment work for us, and as such we are partners in our education, not consumers of it.

That said, consumerism in higher education is not going away because the fees system and guaranteed debt still exists. We are paying for a service and so whilst many don’t like the relationship, we are still consumers thanks to fees placing the emphasis on the ‘all important’ 2:1 rather than on the importance of an academic community and a rounded educational experience.

It’s also little wonder that those 60% of students want career progression when the graduate employment market looks so dire at the moment and increasingly higher level and higher quality qualifications are needed to secure an income.

So yes, there is a problem in so much as the student is seen sometimes as a consumer, sometimes as a producer, sometimes partner. But regardless of the relationship, the student voice must be prioritised if we are to ensure quality in the sector. Students should be treated as experts in their field – they are experts at being students and experts at knowing how they best learn, we should be using that expertise, perhaps utilising that consumer mentality in the short term. At the same time however, we need to re-balance the playing field. The emphasis needs to be shifted away from supplier and consumer and more towards student and institution in partnership. NUS will, as always, help to facilitate that dialogue and to promote the student voice, but institutions now need to do their part in treating their students as their equals, to ensure that the proper structures are in place to listen, and that feedback is not only acted upon, but that the action is also fed-back so that students know that their opinions are listened to, are valid and valued.