OXFORD: Walking through corridors of many UK universities today, one thing is commonplace: sights of gigantic banners with messages asking students to have their say; to express their voice; to take part in a survey and, most of the times, get a £10 amazon voucher in return.

Such a mechanism is but only an example of tools and tactics employed by UK universities that point to one thing: a market.

Indeed, the higher education in the UK is operating as a market where there is a clear demand and supply of student education. The list of consequences of such a market is nearly endless. For example, today, there is an unmissable increase in fierce competition of resources among universities; £9,000 tuition fees for home undergraduate students was introduced in 2017 and potentially, there will be further increases from 2017-18 depending on performance of universities (there is no particular cap for fees for international students which can range from £12,000 to £20,000).

Additionally, there has been a clear emphasis on student choice which has resulted in a surge in university rankings; and universities employing various marketing tools and strategies to increase their brand and subsequently, attract more students.

From the universities’ perspective, it has become so clear that for the above to be effective, engaging students and approaching the ‘student voice’ more seriously is no longer an option. Hence, universities have had to come up with various mechanisms to measure student feedback, while further engaging the students and initiating opportunities for them to express their voice on issues of concern to them.

Little wonder, the ‘student voice’ or, at times, student engagement, has become a catch word in UK higher education landscape and continues to take an increasingly prominent role in higher education documentation.

Today, phrases like ‘students as partners’; ‘students as co-creators’; ‘students as co-producers’; and ‘students as co-researchers’, among others, are a more than familiar in the set-up, signifying initiatives several universities have put in place to work hand in hand with their students to enhance their learning and student experience.

However, as universities have taken the path of engaging students, there have been some glaring disconnects about such discussions and practices.

Clearly, studies have not explored what shapes the student voice. In particular, in the face of the rise of student voice in UK higher education and universities claiming that they are engaging with students like never before, there has been little investigations, if any, on how the wider student body understands student voice; what motivates students to express their voice through various mechanisms like surveys; what makes them respond to various student voice mechanisms in the way they do; if students consider various feedback mechanisms to be a representation of their voice, including the famous National Student Survey - a national wide survey that asks final year students if they have been satisfied or not with their learning and student experience and informs university league tables.

I, therefore, purposefully designed my doctoral research project to provide answers to such gaps. To help universities become aware of such gaps and understand what student voice means to the rest of the student body other than the students’ union and student representatives who undergo training on student engagement; to help universities understand if students feel they have a voice, if they feel heard and if they believe universities are indeed committed to partner with students, listen to them and act on their suggestions.

From the universities, my interest was to find out how much interest and commitment they place on student voice mechanisms like nationwide surveys and the changes they instigate in response to suggestions made by students.

I have gathered from four of the targeted five universities through 15 focus group discussions with students, interviews with university managers and academic staff as well as a critical analysis of institutional and national documentation relating to the famous student voice concept.

My initial findings indicate that student voice means different things to different students, with the majority pointing to ‘being able to freely express issues of concern to them and seeing universities responding to such’.

However, crucially, my data are suggesting glaring disjoints between universities and students regarding the role of student voice. Despite university managers insisting that they take the student voice very seriously and act on it, majority of the students believe that they have a voice but it is not heard by the universities which, claim the students, simply patronise them.

Said one student during the focus group discussions when asked if she feels heard at her institution:

“Universities make time to listen; pretend they listen; and they have put structures to show that they listen but they do not take any feedback seriously. Universities are simply covering their backs and only using our feedback to rise in league tables and attract more prospective students. Student voice is a white elephant here if you ask me”.

She got a resounding applause and approval from her cohorts.

Even more interestingly, students, suggest the data, are pointing to vouchers and other incentives associated with surveys and other student voice mechanisms as only motivation for their participation because they hardly hope that that universities will engage their voice seriously.

So after all the noise about student voice in UK higher education, could it be a mere white elephant? Perhaps.

(The author is a Malawian scholar completing his doctoral studies in England, UK)