The introduction of voluntary student membership has proved a difficult transition for many students’ associations, and too difficult for some (particularly at institutes of technology and polytechnics (ITPs)). Yet the desire to ensure that a student voice is able to contribute to questions of quality, the responsiveness of the institution that students study at, and policy and implementation issues that are considered on a national basis remains paramount.
Within this context the current government introduced legislation to regulate the setting of compulsory student services fees (the CSSF regulatory environment) that requires institutions to consult with students or, preferably, with student representatives.
Further, current moves to remove students from the governing bodies of universities and wānanga are also likely to result in requirements to build systems to ensure that the student voice is still able to inform institution’s governing bodies’ decision-making. This should be extended to ITPs where students have already been removed from their institution’s Councils.
A Voice for Students vs A Voice of Students
NZUSA worked with Ako Aotearoa, the national centre for teaching excellence, on a project to investigate good practices with respect to utilising the student voice for enhancing quality, and contributing to quality enhancement systems. This identified that perhaps the single key feature of good practice is based on identifying the difference between the ”voice for students” where a student representative is resourced and supported to speak on behalf of other students, and the “voice of students” where each student is only able to speak of their own experience.
A classic example of this is the difference between a student who sits on a Council and speaks for themselves, and one who is there, enabled and supported by an infrastructure and resources which enable them to speak on behalf of students. For us, the latter is valuable and the other adds very little to the body they are on, regardless of the individual’s personal capacity.
While the research identified a number of aspects that contribute to enhancing the student voice through enabling the voice for students to exist, not least of which is an institutional culture of hearing and heeding that voice, at its core is the existence of a system of student representation.
Gaps and Proposals
We are conscious that there are three gaps: first, there are institutions where there is nothing; second, there is a lack of resource to enable good practices to be implemented, even where there is a will; and third, that there is need for capacity building in this area (and joint activity to build the culture necessary for the student voice to thrive).
- We believe that an institution charging the CSSF should also have a requirement to have a representative body of students that it can make joint decisions with over the use of CSSF monies. This is the same as the situation governing Australia’s Student Services and Activities Fee (SSAF). The governance changes at ITPs and the proposals for these to be mirrored at universities and wānanga also mandate a requirement that there should be something to contribute to high-level decision-making.
- We believe that there needs to be some form of independent monitoring and audit to ensure that the representative body of students is sufficiently resourced to be effective and sufficiently independent to be able to be a voice for students given a necessary financial arrangement that it has with the institution.
- We believe that there needs to be a central project to expand capacity with respect to student voice along the lines of the Student Participation for Quality Scotland (www.sparqs.ac.uk) or QUEST for Quality for Students (http://www.esu-online.org/projects/current/quest/). Sparqs is a national development agency that assists universities, colleges and students' associations to define, share, improve and create practices and cultures that successfully embed partnerships between students and their institutions that will enhance the quality of the learning experience. Mirroring the arrangements governing those projects, this should be a joint venture between Ako Aotearoa and the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations and funded through the Tertiary Education Commission.