Mobilising students to add value to higher education

In an article posted a few months ago, I mentioned that students in the United States are consumers. Some of my European quality assurance colleagues messaged me after reading it, noting they could not agree with that characterisation.

Upon reflection, their critique makes sense – students should be treated as partners, not receivers of information or products and services. While Europe serves as a role model for student partnerships, especially as articulated in the 1999 Bologna agreement, it serves as a stimulus for others to address key issues in higher education. There is a record of student engagement that documents the value of students as partners.

Learners, as evident across Europe and New Zealand, are mobilising to increase the overall quality of their educational experiences and to introduce student-centric policies. This mobilisation is possible through partnerships based on the recognition by faculty, administrators and policy officials of the value of student contributions.

Providing opportunities for students to work alongside faculty, administrators, quality assurance experts and policy-makers has proven potential to increase learner participation and, ultimately, a learner’s ownership of (and responsibility for) his or her education.

Increased communication between students and administrators reduces the need for protests and enhances better understanding between all stakeholders.

Advocates and partners

Mobilising students – and forging a productive path for students to add value with their voices and ideas – starts with two actions.

The first action is a call to students to continue promoting an equity agenda around cost and quality. Many students across the globe, from the United States to South Africa to the United Kingdom, have called for cost reductions to higher education in various forms, especially in response to a rising global middle-class demand for access. Yet student leaders and advocates must also educate and promote quality conversations paired with an equity agenda.

The second action aims to encourage university leaders and administrators to realise the value of partnering with students. A partnership’s potential may not be met if only one party – students – persist and try to force partnership upon an institution. Institutional leaders will benefit greatly from taking the initiative in listening to and engaging with students through sustained forms of student participation.

Quality and equity

Student partnerships can address issues such as equity, access, cost and quality through a unique perspective. Higher education is a powerful tool in the fight for equity and the ability for someone to complete their education with a meaningful credential, documenting the skills necessary to be successful in their chosen endeavours.

Student leaders have a responsibility to share with other learners and stakeholders the implications and importance of ensuring that the door of opportunity not only remains open to all students but also includes support to ensure completion. Too many students, saddled with debt and lacking credentials, are invisible and have few cheerleaders.

As fundamental as it is to attend a higher learning programme, it is even more important to complete it. Evidence of an institution’s success in graduating well-prepared students will in turn motivate students to get involved and encourage partnerships at all levels of their education journey.

National student organisations, along with university-level student governments or other student advocacy groups, should promote quality of education alongside other important issues as a key means to ensure sustainability of student participation.

If colleges and universities themselves can recognise the added value of student participation, they will gain a valuable resource. Scotland provides a convincing example of universities realising and coming together to engage with students and the creation of sparqs – Student Partnerships in Quality Scotland – is one of world’s most robust student engagement organisations focused on quality matters.

Adding value

Embracing student voices in decision-making may be unsettling for some administrators. However, massive demographic changes occurring on college campuses, especially as older and more experienced students enter and return to post-secondary education, should reassure university leaders that students have a role to play in determining how best to meet the needs of learners.

Moreover, student agency can add value in the classroom setting, both online and in-person. Rather than emphasising feedback mechanisms, which are important, student partnerships can become elements of curricular co-design and co-teaching.

Little doubt should remain that the student voice could provide post-secondary education in traditional and emerging forms with a path forward for ensuring equity and enhancing quality. The first major step forward may be the hardest, but in time it is surely the most enduring: accepting students as partners.

From campus to transnational levels of advocacy, students will better serve the goals of education from inside the academy as partners rather than from the outside as protesters.

Simon Boehme is the director of student engagement at the Quality Assurance Commons for Higher and Postsecondary Education. He also serves on the United States Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee for Institutional Quality and Integrity. Boehme is a Mitchell Scholar and a Truman Scholar. He may be reached at simon@theqacommons.org.