Authentic student engagement in university decision-making

True partnership with students in decision-making takes time and effort and that is undoubtedly a challenge at a time when universities seek to improve their bottom line. However, evidence abroad shows that investing in creating true partnership with students will enhance a university’s success.  Student partnership is not just a feel-good exercise but one that makes good sense in a competitive environment. This week I want to focus on what authentic engagement looks like before exploring how it can be implemented and why iut is beneficial for universities.

One of the best tools I have seen for explaining what authentic engagement looks like is Arnstein’s ladder.  The ladder comes from a 1969 paper by Sherry R.  Arnstein entitled “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”.  The citation is JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224 and while the paper relates to government rather than education it is well worth reading.  The ladder was introduced to me by Professor Gwen van der Velden (Warwick University) and Eve Lewis (sparqs).  It looks like this:

The target in university decision making, as in other activities needs to be partnership.  Not relinquishing control but empowering those affected by decisions to actively participate in making them.  The ladder is also informative for what it reveals about “consultation”.  Universities like other institutions may pride themselves on consulting with their constituents but the reality is that often consultation is a tokenistic form of engagement at best.  Key problems with consultation relate to who is consulted, when are they consulted, how are they briefed and what is done with their input?  True consultation is when affected parties are brought in at the very beginning of the process, or even are asked for their views when ideas for change or innovation are being considered.

Consultation often fails to embrace diverse views, asks for input late in the decision-making process, fails to adequately brief those consulted and disregards views that conflict with the decision that, in reality, has already been made.  Not surprisingly this approach actually does more harm than good.  Students see this type of engagement for what it is- senseless window-dressing.  From a business perspective it makes no sense- it is expensive, time consuming and damages the relationship between institution and constituents.

True partnership is time consuming.  It requires investment in ensuring that diverse student voice is captured and listened to.  Student voice needs to be part of formulating the brief rather than responding to what the institution has decided.  During the OLT project a university shared a great story with us of investing heavily in the development of a student space that nobody used- they hadn’t thought to ask the students what they needed.  Ultimately an opportunity arose to redress this situation and students were actively engaged in creating the design brief.   They didn’t demand crazy things, they listened to why some things couldn’t be achieved and they vetoed elements that were impractical or a poor use of available funds.  The result was a state of the art space that is well used and has become a benchmark that other institutions are striving to emulate.


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