What is a ‘student’? To many outside higher education, such a question would seem absurd. A student is “a person who is studying at a university or other place of higher education”. But what this means has undergone profound change in recent years, such that ‘the student’ as a category, as well as a material factor within the university, encompasses a whole range of mutually exclusive roles. This is how Clive Barnett describes them in an incredibly insightful blog post:
And it’s worth noting, in the middle of all this, just how variable the subject of ‘The Student’ has become. It’s easy to bemoan the idea that students are increasingly treated as consumers, but it in fact students are figured in various ways in contemporary higher education policy and strategy: as future recruits, they serve as security against which Universities can secure loans; they are quite publicly presented, amazingly, as superficial air-heads who are easily dazzled by ‘shiny buildings’ when making life-changing decisions; they are expected to be only ever motivated as utility-maximisers by the promise of future earnings in their choices and expectations and satisfactions (giving rise to a weird sense of what ‘vocational‘ means in education, which is reduced to quite instrumental ideas about value for money; which doesn’t leave much space for the idea of a calling, a passion, a life’s worth of mission); and, rather importantly given the debt-leveraged nature of all this building work, as reliable rent-payers. And this disaggregation of ‘The Student’ into a dispersed range of abstract singularities facilitates in turn the re-aggregation of “student voice” and “student experience”, always and only ever spoken-for by University managers.
Some of these are purely cultural, identifying the category in certain ways unlikely to have effects upon the person occupying the role, beyond leaving them exposed to all manner of management guff. Others are purely structural, such that each fee-paying student registers as a “reliable rent-payer” regardless of their awareness or understanding of this mechanism. However many exists unevenly between the two, disrupting the student experience just as “student experience” becomes an object of managerial intervention.
Caught between these powerful forces, disaggregated and re-aggregated through rapidly evolving cultural and structural mechanisms, we find the real people who are the students. If we understand the social ontology of the student adequately, would it be possible to conceive of a ‘student experience’ agenda which addresses them as people? Can we use the discursive room which the prominence of ‘student experience’ opens up to find ways of encouraging and facilitating student voice which represent students in their totality?