Do students have a say in university governance?

One of the principles of good governance in higher education is the concept of shared governance or distributed leadership. This requires the representation of various stakeholders, including students, in the decision-making processes of universities. Compared with the representation of faculty and administrators, student representation still fails to receive the required attention in higher education governance, both in theory and practice.

It can be argued that student participation in university governance has a variety of advantages that can extend to the individual student, the institution and society at large.

Involving students in university governance is considered to be instrumental in the creation of improved trust and understanding in the university community. Conversely, its lack could result in student unrest and apathy.

Those who consider universities ‘sites of democratic citizenship’ and platforms for developing the individual student argue in favour of encouraging students’ participation in the decision-making process in order to develop democratic values and the sense of democratic citizenship.

Students’ personal growth is also considered to be a result of this engagement and the practical learning that comes with it. For those who view students as consumers or clients, it follows that students should be given some place in the administration as they can be affected by what goes on in the institution.

From the point of view of students themselves, their motivation for engaging in university decision-making may be dictated by such factors as the chance to improve university governance, to gain experience, and the desire to serve other students.

Universities’ conception of and adherence to any of the above principles can eventually determine the type of student participation that might be encouraged within their governance systems.

Resistance and lip-service

Student participation in university governance has already become a universal trend. However, the demand for student participation continues to be met with various forms of resistance ranging from ambivalence to outright rejection. While there are genuine efforts by many institutions to promote student participation, levels of resistance and lip service paid to the concept also abound in many others.

Those who wish to discourage student participation usually put forward arguments such as students’ lack of sufficient knowledge (student incompetence), inexperience, apathy, transience or the need to exclude students from sensitive decision-making and the need for confidentiality.

Some institutions permit student participation not out of a genuine acceptance of the need for student involvement but out of a concern to remain politically correct. In this case, student participation may be limited to advisory roles rather than decision-making functions. Students are thus involved in consultation rather than partnership.

The way in which students exercise their rights is critical and revolves around questions about what kind of representation they have, what type of decisions they are made a part of, how meaningful their participation is, and whether their rights are legislated in the law.

Legislative frameworks

Ethiopia’s Higher Education Proclamation (HEP 2009) offers no provisions for students to participate at the level of university boards. In terms of composition, the board is constituted by seven members, excluding students.

Below the board level, the president of a university is expected to ensure that the institution’s academic community (including students) is appropriately represented. With regard to current forms of involvement, the Higher Education Proclamation (2009) dictates that student representation should be exercised through student unions established to promote and protect students’ common interests.

As can be gleaned from information obtained from university legislation and a variety of quality audit reports generated by Ethiopia’s Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency, Ethiopian university students are currently represented at the level of the senate, faculty academic commissions, and at ad hoc and standing committees such as the academic standards and curriculum review committee, food committee, discipline committee and other committees – although the precise focus of the committee and student representation on it may differ from university to university.

While participation at senate level is achieved through two representatives, student involvement at the level of the faculty academic commission is in most cases restricted to a single representative. Surprisingly, student representation at the department level, where students would be expected to make contributions and where there is a corresponding high level of expectation on the part of the students themselves, is literally non-existent.

A significant number of students in the universities feel that the governance and administrative system of Ethiopian universities is not sufficiently democratic and participatory. They contend that existing systems are mostly dictated by the interests of the administration and the faculty – to the detriment of students.

Where representation is granted, students are numerically outnumbered. Students complain that even where they are fairly represented they are not always able to table their own agendas, which indicates to them that student affairs are of relatively low importance. Students find it particularly challenging that matters of direct concern to them are rarely discussed in appropriate fora.

The reports of the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency also suggests that, with very few exceptions, student participation – where it exists – is predominantly passive. While student representation can theoretically provide students with a say in many matters that concern them, students report that committee membership does not necessarily ensure them an opportunity to influence decision-making. Students feel that in addition to being a minority on committees, there is no guarantee that even reasonable requests by students will be decided in their favour.

Understandably, this implies that current participatory arrangements may not always be sufficient for genuine student participation unless there are efforts to ensure their relevance to student interests.

The way forward

Currently, genuine student participation in university governance is still a long way from receiving the attention it deserves in the Ethiopian higher education sector.

I would suggest that changes should focus on creating the necessary alignment between legislation and policies, and actual practices; promoting more student representation in governance structures; improving existing attitudes towards student representation; improving the quality of student participation; and stepping up the assistance provided to students to realise their ambitions.

Since the type and quality of participation are important components of the improvement scheme, the overall emphasis should shift from a consultative version of student participation to more active participation that accords enough space for student concerns and issues to be freely aired and properly addressed.