Has the student voice been tamed?

Universities’ zeal for student feedback centres on NSS surveys and best-practice audits; those expressing critical views are increasingly unwelcome

May 8, 2014

Source: Miles Cole

Selective hearing

Universities are increasingly keen to solicit students’ feedback. But when it is critical of administrative decisions or government policy and involves public protest, it’s a different story, observes Martin McQuillan

Dissenting voices are not considered co-creators of an academic community but are frequently dismissed as part of a minority of troublemakers

In recent months universities up and down the country have been engaged in a frenzy of activity in an effort to ensure a favourable report from their students in the National Student Survey. Slides are presented to students and articles written for campus newspapers detailing improvements to teaching and services made in response to student feedback; survey responses are solicited via emails and phone calls; course reps, societies and clubs are asked to encourage undergraduates to take part; and participants are offered the chance to win book tokens, printer credit, graduation ball tickets, iPads and Kindles. But the institutions and courses that will have received the most positive feedback are the ones that listen to their students all year round and not just during the three-month window in which Ipsos Mori polls final-year undergraduates. Indeed, the phrase “the student experience” has become a mantra, while the coalition government’s 2011 White Paper on higher education promised to place “students at the heart of system”. And with next year bringing unregulated undergraduate places, allowing institutions to expand if they can attract the numbers, universities will be required more than ever to listen to students’ opinions.

Yet this is a curious kind of attention; it is a simulacrum of reception. When it comes to the student voice it seems as if universities listen only to what they want to hear. They are happy to accept unalloyed praise in the NSS and are open to receiving information on how courses can be improved. Such results, after all, inform league table positions, brand reputation and, in turn, an institution’s future ability to recruit. Recorded student opinion is also increasingly important in a regime of risk-based quality assurance; good results can keep intrusive external inspection at bay. However, universities are not as good at listening to the student body when it questions management decisions or criticises government policy.

On such occasions, dissenting voices are not considered co-creators of an academic community, but are instead frequently dismissed as part of a minority of troublemakers. In the rare event of student criticism that is accompanied by open displays of dissent, such as occupations and demonstrations, it is usually met with the full rigour of institutional procedure and more often than not criminal law. In recent months some universities have pursued their own students with remarkable zeal.

Last December, after two days of protest over the proposed closure of the University of London students’ union in Bloomsbury, 41 students were arrested with allegations of violence on both sides (widely circulated video footage appeared to show a protester falling to the ground after being pushed or punched in the face by a police officer). ULU is the symbolic heart of student activism in the UK, where national demos gather before marching down Whitehall. The collegiate council of the University of London would like to close the union and replace it with a management-run services hub, suggesting that, with the increased disaggregation of the University of London, the central student union on Malet Street has been made obsolete by local facilities in London colleges.

The university subsequently took out an injunction banning “occupational protest” on campus until June 2014. This was a response to the “persistent disruption” of three occupations since February 2013. The president of the students’ union, Michael Chessum, was restricted by bail conditions that banned him from engaging in protest on any university campus or within half a mile of a university (the bail conditions were subsequently lifted and all charges against him dropped). The students were protesting against the closure of the union but they have also been involved in action to support the 3 Cosas Campaign, an independent and non-recognised workers’ union striking for sickness, holiday and pension rights for outsourced staff at the University of London.

In February 2014, ULU ran a referendum of its members asking “should ULU buildings, activities and campaigns continue to be run democratically by students?” Eighty-six per cent of respondents (3,915 of 4,545 votes cast) said yes. The university rejected the vote, claiming it represented only 3.7 per cent of possible voters, and it plans to push ahead with its scheme for a student centre incorporating a cafe, shops, swimming pool and sports centre.

At the University of Sussex, five students were suspended, initially indefinitely, last December after a series of tolerated occupations of Bramber House, a conference building on the Falmer campus. The impetuses for the occupations have been multiple, including solidarity with outsourced workers, the marketisation of higher education, support for the UCU industrial action over pay, and protest against the university’s own response to protest, which has included police with riot vans and dogs. A disciplinary hearing at the university in January, at which human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC represented the students, ended when the deputy vice-chancellor Michael Davies was obliged to step down from the panel: he had previously criticised the actions of the students on radio and was therefore judged unable to act impartially with respect to their case. In March, the university’s Student Disciplinary Committee reassessed the cases and they were heard under a different, lesser regulation. The students, who say this resulted in their being given a “caution”, are continuing to seek legal advice. Meanwhile, three other students (Kristina Ilieva, Sarah Becca and Caradog Jones) appeared in court in February this year charged with obstructing police during an eviction of Bramber House in 2013. All three were cleared when the case collapsed.

The Sussex sit-ins attracted students, messages of support and speakers from across the country, including journalist and film-maker Tariq Ali, actor Peter Capaldi and me. At the invitation of the students I screened the documentary I made with the director Joanna Callaghan, “I melt the glass with my forehead”: a film about £9,000 tuition fees, how we got them and what to do about them. At Sussex I encountered an engaged and concerned group of young people trying to make sense of the tsunami of reform that has been sweeping across universities in England: they were naive, perhaps, but in search of guidance to work through their passionate desire for understanding. In other words, it was a pedagogical scene. When my Q&A session finished, the students moved on to a poetry competition followed by a quiz night.

Miles Cole illustration (8 May 2014)

A demonstration in January by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts at the University of Birmingham (the home of Russell Group chairman David Eastwood) ended with 13 arrests after students temporarily occupied buildings and wrote in chalk and spray paint on walls. The majority of arrests followed the refusal of students to give their names and addresses to police in order to be allowed to leave a prolonged kettle. (In June last year the High Court ruled in the case of a human rights barrister, Susannah Mengesha, who was held during a public sector cuts rally in 2011, that the police have no powers to ask protesters for personal details before being allowed to leave a kettle.) As with the fees protests of 2010, police chose to arraign students on the heightened charge of violent disorder that carries a potential five-year jail sentence, while the university suspended the students. In March, all charges were dropped against the students and they were reinstated at the university. This followed an Early Day Motion signed by 17 MPs that recorded “concern [at] the extremely repressive measures Birmingham University has taken in recent years against students engaging in peaceful political protest”, highlighting “the impact that suspension will have on the education of those final year students” and calling on the vice-chancellor “to review the university authorities’ attitude to the freedom of speech of students”. Open letters signed by Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach and 228 members of university staff also criticised the university’s actions.

In recent months, protests and occupations have also taken place at the universities of Exeter, Edinburgh, Warwick, Sheffield and Ulster, and at Royal Holloway, University of London and Goldsmiths, University of London.

Occupation of a university building or lecture hall, the traditional tool of student protest, presents something of a dilemma for university managers. On the one hand, some managers wish to appear sympathetic to student concerns while hoping for a swift resolution. Most student occupations end when, the point having been made, discomfort overtakes principle. On the other hand, present administrative culture dictates that a university’s facilities have to be managed regardless, and this imperative often leads to heavy-handed clearances and injunctions.

Occupation is not a weapon of revolutionary intent; it is a tool of the powerless. For those who perceive themselves to have no agency it is the use of their only resource: their physical bodies, which they place in a location irritant to those thought not to be listening. The cry in the 1960s might have been “we shall not be moved” but occupation is always temporary. Education, however, is transformative. Occupation is often accompanied by a carnival of learning with impromptu debates, lectures, reading groups and film screenings – activities that would otherwise make it into the university prospectus as benefits of a “lively extracurricular programme”. This is protest in the tradition of those at the Hornsey School of Art and the London School of Economics in 1967-68, mass occupations that challenged the educative and political status quo, involving the likes of a young Kim Howells (later minister for higher education) and Jack Straw (later home and foreign secretary). Some current members of Universities UK might even have been involved in similar action. Hornsey’s long occupation ended with a commission led by Lord Longford, and the LSE’s involved hunger strikes and a three-month closure of the school. In contrast, the recent occupations are relatively small beer.

Nonetheless, when students are in occupation, voluntarily distracting themselves from their primary purpose of study, something has gone badly wrong. If, since 2010, there has been a marked increase in occupation and protest this is because something is very wrong indeed in our universities. We live in a moment of crisis in higher education in which, under the guise of austerity measures, pedagogical interaction between students and their teachers is being redesigned as a consumer relationship and the student experience is giving way to graduate indenture. At the sharp end of the reform of higher education in England, critical student voices are aware of this and are astute enough to recognise it as the active disinvestment by the state in higher education, facilitating the intrusion of private finance into the post-Robbins dispensation of access-for-all within a public university system.

Theirs is not a minority opinion. It is one shared by the vast majority of academic staff (including senior managers, if my mailbag is anything to judge by) and the general public, who remain sympathetic to universities as a public good despite the convulsions of this parliamentary period. It is not the groups of students occupying classrooms who are part of an unrepresentative and extreme vanguard. That label belongs to those who, in the face of collegiate and public concern, insist on pressing ahead with reforms that are truly destructive of the student experience and the educational purpose of higher education.

Universities would seem to have made the decision to accept the funding that comes with higher fees regardless of its source or consequence. With the exception of the need to harvest excellent results in the NSS, the financial business of the university carries on as usual. It is the students whose experience is profoundly transformed. They are now encouraged to self-identify as a consumer in receipt of a service en route to an “employability outcome”. When, as a result of the very university education they are privileged to undertake, they have the chutzpah to question this horizon they are met with intolerance.

I have no doubt that this present generation of occupations will give rise to their own Kim Howellses and Jack Straws, who in their middle years may be less idealistic and more given to political pragmatism but who nonetheless will be the decision-makers of tomorrow. Occupation is a very different student experience from membership of the Bullingdon Club. The onus is on students to not forget the educative experience of this moment, and to work to bring about a future different from the one offered to them. The onus on university managers is to balance the needs of “facilities management” with the necessity of a uniquely active and critical customer base. Vice-chancellors do not just manage resources on behalf of a board of governors but are the stewards of the nation’s potential, hungry young minds given into their care and institutions of learning that will outlast them by centuries. Without this remarkable critical base of idealistic, fledgling thinkers, universities as universities will go out of business.

Martin McQuillan is the dean of arts and social sciences at Kingston University.

Boiling kettles: when students cross the thin blue line

The relationship between protesting students and police is vexed.

As the cases of the Birmingham 13 and the three students arrested at Sussex show, police are continuing to make an enhanced response to student protest.

This follows on from the wrongful prosecution of University of Middlesex philosophy student Alfie Meadows and others as a result of the 2010 tuition fees protests.

In January this year, two students who took part in a protest during a June 2011 visit to Soas, University of London by David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, faced prosecution over charges of assault, obstruction and resisting arrest. The judge threw the case out after video evidence showed “shocking” inconsistencies in the statements of some of the police officers.

One of those arrested, Ashok Kumar, then a student at the London School of Economics, had been invited to interview the minister. But when he intervened in a dispute between another student filming the event and an officer, he was arrested, strip-searched, fingerprinted and charged.

The Metropolitan Police Service has subsequently offered him and Simon Behrman, at the time a student at Birkbeck, University of London, £20,000 in compensation after the students launched legal action for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and wrongful prosecution.

In February two Metropolitan Police Service officers, PC Calvin Lindsay and PC Andrew Ott, were summonsed to appear in court facing criminal charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice by illegally arresting an unnamed student at the 2010 tuition fees protests in Westminster. The student was arrested on suspicion of criminal damage but no further action was taken. Ott, who allegedly assaulted the student, faces an additional charge of assault causing actual bodily harm.

Martin McQuillan

Miles Cole illustration (8 May 2014)

The students are no longer revolting

In the 1960s, students demanded that their voices be heard. But today, argue Joanna Williams and Jennie Bristow, they have largely been tamed, domesticated and institutionalised

Unlike in the 1960s, today’s students tend to conform with the assumptions of ‘best practice’ that they have been socialised into accepting

It is no longer enough to attend lectures, read books and write essays: today’s students are also expected to help with the “development, management and governance of their institution, its academic programmes and their enhancement”. At least this is the aim of the UK’s Student Engagement Partnership unit, an umbrella group of various UK higher education bodies, led by the National Union of Students and funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

When the government names its higher education White Paper Students at the Heart of the System, and the Quality Assurance Agency decides to “include students as members of institutional audit and review teams…imbuing them with the authority and responsibility that come with the role”, we can be fairly certain that students pose no threat to the management of universities. Instead, the student voice, solicited at every turn, has been tamed, domesticated and institutionalised. It speaks in a language of agendas, committees and minutes. How has it come to this?

Back in the 1960s, students demanded that their voice be heard, both within the structure of the university and in society at large. While most academic accounts of the student protests during this era rightly emphasise their limited character, they reflected a significant wider moment. In the latter half of the 1960s, as Graeme Moodie and Rowland Eustace note in their book Power and Authority in British Universities (1974), “established decision-makers were challenged to justify themselves, especially to the younger generation”, and universities became a focal point for this challenge, both to traditional institutional authority and to adult authority in general.

Prior to the lowering of the legal age of majority from 21 to 18 in 1970, universities acted in loco parentis, with what seems now to be a peculiarly paternalistic approach to student welfare. Disputes erupted in controversies around issues such as lodgings and discipline. Given the university’s role, it was deemed unnecessary to include students in disciplinary committees, and so they were, as historian Nick Thomas puts it, “tried and convicted by their prosecutors”. Such disciplinary procedures became a recurring prompt for sit-ins at universities throughout the UK.

Nearly 50 years on, however, the balance between the authority of academic staff and that of students seems to have completely reversed. In the first half of the 20th century, the story was one of academic staff gradually relinquishing some of their authority to students. Today, the student voice has become a powerful management tool, with academics barely permitted a whisper.

The student voice is no longer personified by the rebellious student who challenges institutional conventions. Indeed, when it does take this form, dissent is suppressed. Rather, it is encapsulated in the image of the good student who gives feedback when asked, contributes to staff-student liaison committees and makes only realistic suggestions that confirm a consensus. Regardless of the type of institution attended or the diversity of the student body within an institution, the student voice proves itself remarkable in its homogeneity. Demands for assessed work to be returned more quickly and with better feedback echo around every university in the country.

Perhaps this is not surprising. After all, today’s students have been trained from an early age, through serving on school councils and responding to Ofsted inspectors, in how to pass “appropriate” judgement on their teachers. At university, students elected as course representatives are inducted into their role by their institution and given training from their students’ union in how best to get their points across. Potential radicalism, even differences of approach, is coached out of the majority of students from the start of their educational careers.

As the student voice has been socialised and co-opted into institutional norms, so its status has been elevated: today, students’ opinions are treated with the utmost seriousness. Lecturers who do not take heed of the student voice risk a poor departmental performance in the National Student Survey, and a low ranking for their university in institutional league tables. The following year, “customers” may not be so forthcoming.

This can make it difficult for academics to challenge the student voice, resulting in what Duna Sabri, visiting research fellow at King’s College London, has termed “the sacralisation of the discourse of ‘the student experience’”. Many universities feature “You Said, We Did”-style publicity, to demonstrate to students the extent to which their opinions have been acted upon by obedient academics. Staff are increasingly relegated to the role of service provider, there to respond to students’ demands.

While the co-opting of students on to committees and the solicitation of feedback, which emerged in the early 1990s, are now everyday practices, the pressure on academics is to go a step further and involve students, as partners, in the creation of their education: determining learning outcomes, devising assessment methods and dictating teaching methods. The 2010 QAA publication Rethinking the Values of Higher Education – Students as Change Agents argues that the status of students as “partners, co-creators and experts” means they should be involved with “training staff in new skills…designing curricular and resources, negotiating examination questions…setting assignments, redesigning module provision and delivery”.

For students, the aspiration to be the intellectual equals of their lecturers and critically engaged in the search for new knowledge or the reinterpretation of existing knowledge is entirely laudable. But this should be a privilege students earn after having engaged in an intellectual struggle to master the foundations of a discipline.

And the challenge to the intellectual authority of the academic that is posed by calls to have students co-creating their education does not originate from students themselves. More often than not, students behave in a way that is expected of them. While the student protesters of the 1960s challenged the authority of the established university elite because it seemed to stand in the way of their own independence and self-expression, today’s students tend to conform with the assumptions of “best practice” that they have been socialised into accepting.

Rigorous critical engagement with a body of scholarship could give students an intellectual basis for questioning the nature of today’s universities and the nature of society more broadly. But formal institutional involvement mechanisms and the promotion of the idea of students as “co-constructors” of their education deny students access to such knowledge.

Joanna Williams is a senior lecturer in higher education and academic practice at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Kent. Jennie Bristow is studying for a PhD at Kent on the construction of the baby boomer generation as a social problem in Britain.

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Reader's comments (4)

Knowledge, informed debate, freedom of research and expression are all conditions that need to be fostered, they do not necessarily arise naturally wherever humans coalesce. Especially when the wrong incentives have been installed for a new elite to become filthy rich at the cost of the nation’s potential. Hungry young minds are consequently given junk food or 'jail' for those youngsters brave and competent enough to revolt. The balances and checks that used to exist in a publicly supported system (collegiality and the pursuit of a common purpose in delivering a service to knowledge and society) currently disappear under the market's boot. Many asked what went wrong with the banks and why did no employees from within the sector give any warnings of the pending crisis. Yet now that there are plenty of warnings from academics that their system has gone astray (many also published in this venue), not only are we seemingly speaking to deaf ears, but further those of us who hold to our views are being physically expelled under a variety of constructed reasons (the true one - never acknowledged openly - being that we are seen as a problem for the profits of the new class of money makers now ruling the sector). While many colleagues live in terror or develop psychosis (see gu.com/p/3p2a2/tw) or cancer or insomnia or depression or back pain or skin rashes or ulcers, others give their best effort in research for as long as they can secure the funding (another area that requires investigation, a shake-up, clean-up and rethinking) and teaching (as long as they can secure their post), but some are being converted into the long arm of management further down. One would think Universities should fare better than this.
It's right to warn of the managerialist co-option of the student voice, where obedient and co-operative students are encouraged to speak (but not necessarily listened to). But I can't agree with Williams and Bristow' when they say that "For students, the aspiration to be the intellectual equals of their lecturers and critically engaged in the search for new knowledge or the reinterpretation of existing knowledge is entirely laudable. But *this should be a privilege students earn* after having engaged in an intellectual struggle to master the foundations of a discipline." [my emphasis] No, it's a right that they have: the right to be agents of their own development, not objects to be taught, the right to be “partners, co-creators and experts” ... involved with “training staff in new skills…designing curricular and resources, negotiating examination questions…setting assignments, redesigning module provision and delivery”, to adopt the QAA's language. The latter may well be said in managerialist bad faith, but that doesn't make it wrong per se.
Martin McQuillan states the choices for Unis clearly. They can either develop as consumer organisations which must eventually recognise student concerns (at least to some extent) to survive. Or they can develop as authoritarian regimes which will massage student opinion in order to retain their privileges. Neither path is delightful. But at present, as they are not resolving this dilemma, they will be caught on its horns. Blogged at http://learninglevel.blogspot.co.uk/
"But the institutions and courses that will have received the most positive feedback are the ones that listen to their students all year round and not just during the three-month window in which Ipsos Mori polls final-year undergraduates." Ha ha, wishful thinking? HEFCE itself admits this is not true. Hidden in HEFCE’s website http://www.hefce.ac.uk/news/newsarchive/2012/name,75522,en.html Is the statement (note 9): “...This follows research showing that NSS results cannot be meaningfully compared across institutions without taking account of the mix of students and subjects. Certain groups of students consistently report lower levels of satisfaction – such as certain ethnic groups (although there has been some improvement over time) and older students.”