Working with student voice

A recent news report covered the story of a high school student who had taken to a fairly extreme form of protest (pooping around the school) over what she perceived as a failure by her school to address inadequacies in the teaching being provided.
The protest was meant to be symbolic of her view of the education being provided. According to the report there was some contention around the veracity of the student’s claims.

Another example is the student at Columbia university who carried a mattress around on campus at all times (including to her graduation) to demonstrate protest at her sexual assault allegation not being taken seriously by the university. While these are cases of desperate and extreme actions, they do highlight an important issue with regard to student voice and partnership – that of disempowerment.

A recurring theme during my Fellowship collaboration and dissemination is a feeling of disconnection and that the institution ‘knows best’ and isn’t really interested in students’ views. Underpinning student partnership in comparative sectors abroad is pro-action rather than reaction – the place student input can play in enhancement of quality and the student experience generally. What has been typified as student apathy is often born out of the feeling of ‘why bother getting involved, the university will do what it wants anyway’. We need to view this differently.

The messages students deliver may not always be ones that institutions want to hear and may even challenge some fundamental aspects of the way institutions operate. Listening to these messages may be challenging. Institutions may become defensive or seek to limit student opportunity to comment in response to challenges. But the better response is to listen carefully, make sure the message is correctly understood and provide a clear commitment to address the concerns raised.

Students for their part need to recognise their responsibilities in this exchange. Firstly, criticisms and complaints need to be delivered respectfully, realising that pro-action works better than reaction. Clear, concise, well-constructed synopses of the matters of concern and ideas as to how things could be done better, presented to the right forum in the right way, are far more likely to be heard than attacking the institution whether through words or acts of protest. While there is a place for protest in some instances it is important to realise that ‘decisions are made by people who show up’.

Sometimes for good reason students’ suggestions will meet a negative response. This may be because their perception of the issue is distorted or lacks critical information or else action on the demands might disadvantage others in an untenable way. Rather than being a case of students versus institutions sometimes the challenge is what is going to create the greatest good.

The jointly-led ‘Respect, Now, Always’ campaign, and the recently released survey of sexual assault and harassment in Australian institutions provides a clear example of institutions and students working in partnership for common benefit. It is now vital that institutions build on this great model to work with their diverse student cohorts to develop cultures of responsibility and respect to ensure safety for all.

Institutions face a complex landscape where issues of funding and competition challenge their identity and how they operate. But if we are truly committed to students being at the heart of the system then their needs must be paramount and students and institutions need to work together to ensure the best possible outcomes.

Sally Varnham

Leave a Reply