FULL HOUSE! ‘Student as …?’ hits saturation point

The ubiquity of student engagement as a topic in the higher education sector is reflected in a growing number of initiatives linked to the redefining of the role of students in universities. Whether this is a reaction to the funding changes in the sector or for ideological reasons is open to question.

A significant number of these initiatives, projects and ideologies are configured ‘Student as …’ . I’ll highlight the main straplines in this piece; please feel free to add your own in the comments box below.

An abstract from researchers at King’s College London (Weller and Kandiko, 2013)[i] characterises these as ‘relational metaphors’ with many representing attempts to ‘counter … the rhetoric of “student as consumer”’ by characterising “alternative relationships between students and academic staff at university.”

1 Student as Consumer / Customer

The gradual marketisation of higher education is well documented. One predicted effect is the change to the relationship between student and university and how this has guided policy, ushering in a new language around ‘providers’ responding to ‘consumer choice’. The Government’s White Paper acknowledged their positioning of students as consumers with HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council of England) “taking on a new role as consumer champion for students and promoter of a competitive system”.[ii]

Paul Greatrix argues in a Guardian article from March 2011[iii] that although higher education is unlike other commercial businesses, student behaviour is changing and there is evidence of students becoming more demanding.

The introduction of higher fees has undoubtedly led to an increased focus on contact hours as part of the drive to provide students with better information; there has been a continual, year-on-year increase in the number of complaints made by students, perhaps due to increased expectations (the OIA annual report[iv] showed a 25% increase from the previous year; the seventh annual increase in a row); and organisations such as Which? and the Office of Fair Trading have taken an active interest in the sector. One of the key developments has been the concept of ‘employability’ over-riding all else as the primary purpose for degree-level study. For an analysis of the negative impact of this development see Michael Tomlinson’s article ‘End games? Consumer-based learning in higher education and its implications for lifelong learning’, published in Volume 17, Number 4 (2013) of the AUA’s Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education.[v]

2Student as Partner

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) (http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/students-as-partners) and National Union of Students (NUS) (http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/news/article/highereducation/Rachel-Wenstone-launches-a-Manifesto-for-Partnership/) promote partnership-working with a transformative purpose rather than as an outcome in itself.

It is likely that most institutions are at some level seeking to develop or improve, with their Students’ Union, their level of engagement with students. Over time this may make the NUS manifesto a reality but, as found in a QAA-funded research project conducted by the University of Bath,[vi] “the perception of the students’ role held most strongly by both institutions and students’ unions, is that of stakeholders.” This view is seen in the report as representing a midpoint between partnership and consumerist values.

3Student as Producer

“The task is to win over the intellectuals to the working class by making them aware of the identify of their enterprises and of their conditions as producers.”[vii]

This quote heads a key text cited in the development of the Student as Producer project, based at the University of Lincoln (http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk/). The flagship project follows the concept that supported undergraduates working alongside staff in the design and delivery of their programmes can renew the focus on research-engaged teaching. There is certainly an ideological position taken here: rather than students being recipients of learning in a transactional sense, a challenge is made to the notion that students do not possess the required understanding and experience to help inform academic development.

4Student as Researcher

A 2009 HEA publication ‘Developing undergraduate research and inquiry’ (Healey and Jenkins, 2009) suggests a ‘fundamental conceptual shift from the notion of students as a passive audience for the research output of individual academics, to the idea of students as active stakeholders (‘Students as Stakeholders’? – Ed.) in a research community in which their experience of research within the core curriculum mirrors that of their lecturers’.[viii]

An example of this in practice: Warwick University (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/staff/teaching/student-as-researcher/) run a programme that appears to combine ‘research methods’ content within the undergraduate curriculum with the ‘opportunity to work on an extended project or piece of research’.

5Student as Co-developer

King’s College London’s innovative project (https://www.kcl.ac.uk/study/learningteaching/kli/research/sl-partnership/students-as-co-developers.aspx) involves undergraduate student interns supporting the professional learning of new academics.

6Student as Co-producer

A ‘teaching innovation’ project from Keele University, which argues for a model of ‘co-production’ between student and University: http://www.keele.ac.uk/lpdc/learningteaching/teachinginnovationprojectsscheme/getanimatedstudentasco-producerinthedevelopmentofaudio-visualstudysupportresources/.

7Student as Change Agent

The scheme[ix] run at the University of Exeter is broad-based, encouraging students to identify improvements to any aspect of the student experience, not just those solely related to teaching and learning activities. The difference perhaps with standard feedback mechanisms in place at other universities is that students are expected to be proactive in making the changes themselves through the running of small-scale projects that research the issue before making evidence-based recommendations.

Jisc also use this strapline to describe some case studies involving engaging students as ‘agents of change’: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/students-as-agents-of-change.


And finally, some ‘Student as…’ honourable mentions:

Collaborator – Evaluator – Mentor – Participant – Scholar – Teaching and Learning Consultants – Learners


[i] Weller, S., Kandiko, C. (2013) Students as co-developers of learning and teaching: Conceptualising ‘student voice’ in professional development [online]. Available at: http://www.srhe.ac.uk/conference2013/abstracts/0093.pdf [Accessed 27 April 2014]

[ii] Department of Business, Skills and Innovation (2011) Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, p.6 [online]. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/32409/11-944-higher-education-students-at-heart-of-system.pdf [Accessed 27 April 2014]

[iii] Greatrix, P. (2011) University isn’t just a business – and the student isn’t always right [online]. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/higher-education-network-blog/2011/mar/14/students-as-consumers [Accessed 27 April 2014]

[iv] Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) (2013) Annual report for 2012 [online]. Available at: http://www.oiahe.org.uk/media/88444/press-notice-annual-report-2012.pdf [Accessed 27 April 2014].

[v] Via http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13603108.2013.832710#.U1zMQFfQ9Ws (accessible for AUA members only)

[vi] Van der Velden, G.M. et al (2013) Student Engagement in Learning and Teaching Quality Management, p.7 [online]. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/learningandteaching/pdf/student_engagement/Project_Report_11.9.2013.pdf . [Accessed 27 April 2014]. – This report comments in paragraph 99 on page 28 on some of the ‘student as’ categories, including ‘student as co-creator’ in learning and teaching enhancement activities.

[vii] Fernandez, R. (1928) cited Benjamin, W. (1934) The Author as Producer. Available at: http://www.boconnell.org/LINKS/CLASSES_PDFs/Sculpture3.2/WB-Producer.pdf [Accessed 27 April 2014]

[viii] Segal, R. (2009). Preface in: Healey, M., Jenkins, A. (2009) Developing undergraduate research and inquiry, p.2 [online]. Available at: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/resources/publications/developingundergraduate_final.pdf [Accessed 27 April 2014]

[ix] University of Exeter, Students as Change Agents. Available at: http://as.exeter.ac.uk/support/educationqualityandenhancementprojects/current_projects/change/about/ [Accessed 27 April 2014]

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3 thoughts on “FULL HOUSE! ‘Student as …?’ hits saturation point

  1. We’ve just completed a “Students as Producers” theme year at the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, partially inspired by Mike Neary’s “Student as Producer” initiative at Lincoln. Thanks for this summary of similar initiatives (and metaphors) in the UK. I’ll be sure to follow some of these links to read more about these programs.

    Your section on students as consumers focuses on “consumer” as an economic or transactional term. At Vanderbilt, we’ve used “consumer” in the context of consuming knowledge or information, which is a different use of the term. We certainly hear things like “I’m paying for this education, so give me what I want” from some of our students, but the bigger challenge here seems to be pedagogical in nature. We have a lot of students (and faculty) who assume learning works by taking notes on a lecture, memorizing those notes, then repeating the information on an exam. In using the phrase “Students as Producers,” I wanted to challenge that notion by providing insight into a different model, one in which students take on open-ended questions, create works for authentic audiences, and have greater autonomy in the learning process.

    I think this more pedagogically inflected use of the term “consumer” is an important piece of the landscape.

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  2. Thank you for your comments Derek and for the link to your own blog on ‘Student as Producers’ (also ‘Scholars’, ‘Performers’, ‘Creators’). There’s clearly a lot of innovative work happening at yours and other universities, as you’ve reported (http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/2014/03/students-as-producers-initiatives-at-other-universities/).

    Re the term “consumer”: an interesting review by Tim Black of ‘Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning can’t be bought’ by Joanna Williams (http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/13206#.U2QVxlf57Pu) asks key questions about the “near consensus” regarding the purpose of higher education and goes much further than I have into its consumerisation and how, in fact, recent tuition fee rises were “as much as symptom as a cause of the political transformation of HE and what it means to be a student”. There is some promise perhaps that alternative ideologies, such as those found in the various initiatives discussed, may take hold and find a wider audience and influence in the sector.

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  3. Pingback: Conference report: ‘Developing Student Engagement and Partnership’ (15 May 2014) | Exit Velocity

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