A paper entitled “Learner voice in VET: Who speaks? Who listens?” goes back a way – to 2012 in fact. It’s as topical now as it was then, and maybe even more so right now? It was authored by Lawrence Angus, Barry Golding, Annette Foley and Peter Lavender from the then University of Ballarat, now Federation University.

Its purpose was to report on a wide-ranging review and analysis of effective models and the underpinning principles for gathering and responding to feedback from learners, particularly those who are disadvantaged. Indeed, the report notes that:

“The majority of VET students in Australia fall into at least one disadvantaged group category, and the most disadvantaged are in several.”

As the paper also points out, however, “the ‘voice’ of business and industry that has, for at least the last 20 years, unashamedly dominated the policy discourse in VET in Australia.” It argues that there is a case for a stronger student voice.

More recently Guthrie and Waters looked at the factors affecting the quality of delivery and how effectively it was measured. (You can access their report here). They reached the conclusion that student voice was very important at RTO level but, perhaps, did not have the impact beyond provider level it should have. In addition, they, like this paper note that “the compliance burden of government policies and regulations resulted in what they described as ‘unnecessary overload’ in terms of the data required, but very few regarded the procedures as robust or effective.”

The paper also argues that there has been, perhaps, a loss of focus in moving from Kangan’s 70’s notion of a student-centred ‘culture of access’ to the more recent one of an “industry- and employer-centred culture of the ‘new vocationalism’ [and] “the almost total dominance of neoliberal themes of competition, market and managerialism.”

So, what does this mean for notions of a student voice?

‘Voice’, the paper suggests, “implies much more than just allowing learners to speak.” It’s “associated with notions of educational reform in the interests of students, and with concepts of student empowerment and agency.”

As it notes:

“learner voice advocates regard students as knowing participants in the educational process who should have a say in what and how they learn, and also in shaping the kind of institution in which they learn. The onus is then on teachers/trainers and institutional staff, including managers, to recognize and respect the diversity of student backgrounds and cultures, and the great variety of knowledge that different students bring with them to educational contexts.”

Unfortunately, often, in fact usually, the level of student diversity is reduced to averages on survey responses and called ‘learner feedback’. But this should not really be the picture. Indeed, some of the most effective mechanisms for providing feedback include the use of student representatives, student committees, student liaison groups, student parliaments, student councils and student forums. However, in fact:

“Stronger forms of engagement are required, such as the direct involvement of students in negotiating with their teachers and instructors to shape the curriculum, and an inquiring, relational disposition on the part of teachers who are prepared to engage with student on their (i.e. students’) terms.”

This is what Guthrie and Waters found too; the student voice and ‘the vibe’ of the institution and its individual teaching units are really important. Regretfully, though, the older paper reports that informants pointed out that:

“We get a lot of feedback from students but it’s not made use of in any shape or form, to my knowledge … No one analyses it. No one reports on it. It sits in those files never to be seen again.”

Drawing on the student voice is also about evaluating the quality of what goes on. It’s evidence based and outcomes focused. And, as the paper notes:

“Evaluation does not only require you to gather and act on feedback. Rather, a critical part of the evaluation cycle is acknowledging the value of that feedback to students, so they can clearly see its significance as a means of improving teaching and learning outcomes. If students cannot see that their feedback is of value, what they contribute is more likely to be superficial, rushed or ill conceived. Closing the feedback loop in this way is essential to building the credibility of the evaluation process. This in turn is likely to improve the engagement of students in subsequent evaluation processes.”

However, the message from this paper and more recent research is that we do not make enough use of the student voice or value it as much as we, perhaps, should.