Pawns or partners? – a sustainable approach to student involvement

The Higher Education (HE) sector has recognised the value of student voice input for over two decades now, with an increasing focus on gathering data from underrepresented student groups (Lygo-Baker, 2019). There is, however, controversy surrounding the term ‘student voice’, with some arguing it has become a popular buzzword across the sector (Mendes & Hammet, 2023).

The current need for student involvement aligns with key institutional aims such as meeting targets shaped by Office for Students objectives, and ensuring that universities are attractive to students as consumers (Sewell, Kennett & South, 2020; Office for Students, 2018). This has caused concerns regarding the true desire for gathering student voice data, leaving room for students to perceive their involvement as a ‘tick box’ exercise, rather than being truly acknowledged and valued for their insights.  

It is one thing to understand why we need student voice to meet our institutional targets and ensure the economic security of our universities, but another to understand why we want it, how we can get it without compromising its authenticity, how we treat it, and what we do with it when we do get it.

The University of Leeds approach  

The Student Involvement Project (SIP) has been co-created with our students at Leeds to create sustained collaborative work with underrepresented student groups, in order to enhance their student experience and ultimately, their academic outcomes. We set out to ensure that the relationships we were building were genuine partnerships, to prevent our students feeling their voices were being used for tokenism, or solely with a strategic agenda in mind.  

Why do we want it?  

Students who come from underrepresented backgrounds achieve lower indicators in all academic outcomes. Significant gaps can be seen across access, continuation, attainment and progression (Whitty, Hayton & Tang, 2015). There is a need to understand why their experience is different and who better to help us to understand the unique and intricate nuances that go into forming a student journey, than those who have directly experienced it.  

 How can we get it without compromising its authenticity?  

The Student Involvement Project adopts a public involvement approach, which has been adapted from work in the health sector, and seen to have been effective in educational settings (Gapp & Fisher, 2006). This has enabled us to create job opportunities for our underrepresented students. These jobs are known as ‘Access and Success Advisors’. They will work alongside Educational Engagement staff to operationalize and develop the SIP.  

A project structure has been co-created to ensure that this project is aligned with the principles of public involvement, whilst being sustainable and effective in an HE institutional environment: 

  • Recruitment  
  • Training  
  • Listening campaign  
  • Student led theme groups  
  • Steering group  
  • Review session   

How do we treat it?  

It can be easy to collate student voice information and, with all the best intentions, look at it as data. Data, that can help us to inform strategies and interventions that will theoretically help to improve their student experience. Notwithstanding, in that moment, with that student, it is their life, potentially their trauma, their personal reflections of unjust social barriers and disadvantages, and it is imperative that we treat it as such. The Student Involvement Project team have worked with mental wellbeing professionals to develop a wellbeing resource, embed psychological safety features in the training, and formulate a step by step risk management plan, should any strands of the project trigger psychological distress.  

What do we do with it when we get it?  

During focus groups, Leeds University students advised that using their voices previously has felt like a wasted effort, due to being faced with the same issues the following year and, worse still, no explanation as to why. They highlighted that hearing nothing back as a result of their contribution left them feeling ‘devalued’ and reluctant to speak out again. The Student Involvement project’s structure allows for a continuous feedback loop via the theme groups and steering group committee. There is also a prominent focus on tying the years progress together with an end of year review.  


Libby Johnstone, Student Involvement Senior Officer, University of Leeds 



Gapp, R., & Fisher, R. (2006). Achieving excellence through innovative approaches to student involvement in course evaluation within the tertiary education sector. Quality Assurance in Education, 14(2), 156-166.

Lygo-Baker, S., Kinchin, I. M., & Winstone, N. E. (Eds.). (2019). Engaging student voices in higher education: Diverse perspectives and expectations in partnership. Springer.

McLeod, J. (2011). Student voice and the politics of listening in higher education. Critical studies in education, 52(2), 179-189.

Office for Students (2018) Our strategy, Office for Students. Available at

Sewell, A., Kennett, A., & South, H. (2020). Applying Solution Focused Approaches as a participatory method to amplify student voice in a Higher Education context. Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal, 3(1), 74-94.

Whitty, G., Hayton, A., & Tang, S. (2015). Who you know, what you know and knowing the ropes: A review of evidence about access to higher education institutions in England. Review of Education, 3(1), 27-67.