Student Voice in higher education: A new world28 July 2023
Myself and my colleague, Charis Francis recently had a pleasure to represent Cardiff University at the Student Voices in Higher Education Conference in Birmingham. It was great to get the chance after a long break to come together with colleagues from other higher education institutions to discuss student experience in the backdrop of constantly changing environment.
The conference scope this year included three broad themes related to student voice:
- student expectations
- student wellbeing
- student engagement
Our presentation focused on:
- the Cardiff University journey over the past few years
- new approaches to enhance student experience we are trialing
- lessons we have learnt so far
We have put spotlight on the recent investment into student success, adapting to rapid change caused by the pandemic and redesigning approaches to Student Voice at Cardiff University with new governance structure.
One of the success stories we proudly presented was the journey of the unique Student Champions Scheme which has been an integral part of the Student Voice at Cardiff University over the last few years.
The scheme has grown exponentially thanks to our engaged students and staff members and dedicated colleagues that run the scheme. Although similar schemes exist in the UK, Cardiff University students have a unique and flexible opportunity as paid Student Champions to gain and further develop hard and soft skills like data analysis or event planning whilst boost their future employability and shape Student Voice whilst they study here.
We have included changes to the way we formally gather feedback from postgraduate taught students in a new survey: Cardiff University Postgraduate Taught Survey (CUPTS). We have listened to feedback from staff and students and re-designed the main survey that runs every May to enable partnership, discussion and enhancement.
We have also introduced a separate, short dissertation stage focused questionnaire that launches every August. We received a lot of interest from other higher education institutes on how we implemented this new survey with shorter, more focused questions and how we managed to achieve a higher response rate than the average for equivalent PTES survey run by
We have also discussed trialing new approach to surveys via Cardiff Pulse that ran between 2020 and 2021, that lead to introduction of the new Module Enhancement system as part of larger change to Student Voice at Cardiff University. This includes expectations and responsibilities set out in Student Voice Framework.
Our experience at the conference
Although there were many interesting insights presented by colleagues from other higher education institutes, we wanted to highlight one we found most thought provoking. The session titled ‘Humanising the Student Experience’ was delivered by Dr Joanna Thurston from Bournemouth University, Student Voice Workstream Lead in Office of the Vice Chancellor. Joanna focused on how we can humanise the way we talk about student experience and thus manage student expectations based on research that has been conducted on the humanisation of healthcare. The presentation included:
- the analysis of the free text comments from the NSS
- the forms of humanisation and dehumanisation that emerge from these
- values or principles should we embed to tackle the issues students mention, but also how we discuss it with students and what language should we use whilst doing so
In the post-presentation discussion, we touched upon the complex concept of ‘belonging’ that is very prominent in current conversations around student experience. It might be helpful if institutions do not necessarily focus on ensuring students feel ‘belonging’ as this is very hard to achieve in University spaces in relatively short period of time and it can take years from psychological point of view for individuals to build the sense of belonging to the surrounding environment. Instead, what is proposed is to focus on students feeling ‘connected’ to the University, school, subject, course, or their cohort which seems like much lighter version of feeling ‘belonging’ and might be easier to achieve.
In the discussion about managing students’ expectations, it has been agreed that students should presented with more accurate representation of the reality of student experience throughout their journey at the University. Currently, in many ways students are overwhelmed with the images of happy, smiling individuals that are presented on university websites, prospectuses etc. They present the ideal world that does not exist and when faced with barriers or issues, students might feel the pressure towards performative and toxic ‘positivity’ asking questions like ‘why I am not feeling/looking like these students on the pictures or in the videos, what is wrong with me’. In tackling this, institutions should include more accurate picture of student experience, examples from current students explaining what has been very good throughout their journey but also what issues they might encounter whilst studying, what support is available and how to deal with it.
It is fair to say that the approach Student Voice in higher education is less static than a few years ago. In the rapidly changing environment, institutions need to adapt and respond much quicker, but also be prepared to trial new ways of engaging with students and sometimes be able shift approaches on annual basis, whilst maintaining the core principles that are student-lead.
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