Student engagement – Between policy-making and scholarship

Student engagement has become a buzzword in higher education policy and scholarship. It has become part of the higher education reform agenda in many countries around the world where it is linked to modernisation of teaching and learning, quality of student services or quality of the entire student experience while in higher education.

It is such a loose concept that both those who advocate neoliberal reforms in higher education and those who oppose them tend to agree that is a good thing. The devil is, of course, in the detail – and the details can be agonising.

Neoliberal proponents claim that giving students more choice and more opportunities for engagement ultimately empowers them: they have more control and also gain more responsibility over their learning and experience.

Critics point out that engagement policies are part of governments’ ‘window dressing’ to disguise rising social inequalities within higher education.

The neoliberal conception of student engagement is premised on depicting students as consumers of higher educational services who hold a contractual relationship with their institutions as providers of these services.

Student engagement in internal quality assurance procedures, including student feedback, is expected to secure ‘customer satisfaction’. Students are also not precluded from participating in governance, but their role tends to be more advisory than about co-decision-making.

The critics do not oppose student engagement as such, but ask for it to be reconceptualised and for a careful study of the implications of current reforms on students. This is particularly called for in the context of large-scale student surveys that include questions on how satisfied and engaged students are with their higher education.

In the United Kingdom especially, both the policy ‘Students at the heart of the system’ and the National Student Survey have invited heated academic debate about the consumerist connotations and methodological soundness underpinning large-scale data collection.

There are ample concerns about using aggregate data collected without sufficient sensitivity to: a) differences in student profiles as displayed through their values and the ‘cultural capital’ that shapes their choices, expectations and experience in and of higher education; b) differences in the purposes and orientation of the institutions in which these students are enrolled; and c) broader socio-economic developments in society.

These concerns are amplified when data is used in ‘performance indicator’ benchmarking or ranking higher education institutions against each other.

There is ample excellent basic research on different forms of student engagement out there that can aid applied investigations of students which aim to improve institutional practice.

Admittedly, the literature is rather multifaceted (not to say often eclectic), research questions invite highly diverse responses (or these can also be missing altogether), and policy-makers and practitioners are often the drivers.

The literature spans three major areas: research on student learning within formal and extracurricular activities; research on academic governing structures and processes, including quality assurance and institutional research; and finally, research on student civic involvement and political participation in democracy.


What this research has in common is its intrinsic interest in exploring how the state of being a student – studentship, or student habitus if we take it from Bourdieu – relates to student agency and students’ capacity to make choices and act individually and-or collectively.

This body of research is slowly integrating into its theoretical apparatus three major characteristics – or at least I hope so.

First, the state of being a student – studentship – as a life stage is unique in that it is transient, developmental and liminal (as an expected rite of passage to a different social status). Being in the locus of ‘higher learning’ in formal education, it is also associated with higher levels of cognitive, practical (taking care of oneself independently from one's parents) and emotional maturity.

For most students formally enrolled in higher education, being a student is an important – if not the predominant – aspect of their identity at that particular life stage. If it is not, if they do not feel they belong and are disengaged from their institution, then it is highly likely students will fail or drop out from formal education.

Second, the scholarship on student engagement is beginning to acknowledge and account for the fact that the student body is profoundly heterogeneous. Researchers are becoming sensitive to the constraints and opportunities that socio-economic background, gender, religion, race and ethnicity pose – by way of ‘cultural capital’ – to student choices of, engagement with and experiences of higher education.

There is also an increasing interest in student values and attitudes that seeks to profile students in a more nuanced way than the popular concern over ‘careerists’ versus ‘intellectuals’ would have it.

Third, the research is beginning to capture the historical and temporal dimensions in student life relating to their choices of engagement and experience, placing studentship within the perspective of entire life trajectories.

The research is becoming more sensitive not only to the way it describes and measures the influence of the immediate institutional setting on student engagement, but to broader socio-cultural and socio-economic trends.

A discursive platform

While certainly ambivalent about the theoretical applicability of the concept of student engagement, I am somewhat more convinced that using it as a ‘discursive’ platform is not a bad thing.

As such it will hopefully stimulate a cross-disciplinary conversation on studentship and student agency, thus leading to further development of theoretical resources, the consolidation of methodological pluralism in this area of research and the promotion of innovation in methods of data collection.

The value of interpretative analysis in research on student engagement cannot be overstated – and such analysis is becoming more possible with the advancement of information and communication technology.

Nor can we overstate the value of engaging students as researchers – as active co-producers of knowledge – in research on student engagement.

* Manja Klemencic is a postdoctoral fellow in sociology in the department of sociology at Harvard University and editor of the European Journal of Higher Education. This commentary is an abbreviated version of her keynote speech at the Annual Research Conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education, held from 11-13 December 2013 at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales, United Kingdom.