How can we meaningfully engage students in institutional strategy? It's a question that has been on the minds of educators for years, and one that is more pressing than ever in today's climate of stakeholder empowerment and enfranchisement.
The answer, of course, is not to ask them to read the minutes of board meetings or sit through PowerPoint presentations on analytics. Nor is it to create ad hoc "town hall" meetings where they are asked to provide input on issues that have already been decided. This gives the illusion of engagement, but the inauthenticity is pretty transparent.
So what do we need to do instead, to create opportunities for students to contribute their unique perspectives and experiences at every stage of the strategic planning process? Can we really ensure that our institutions are truly responsive to the needs of all stakeholders? How can we in marketing and recruitment play a part?
We are a long way from the "sit down and pay attention" mode of education, but we have not come as far as we would like to see. While education has generally moved to focus on skills over simple memorization of facts, and has generally centered learners more in the process, the true enfranchisement and empowerment of learners is still not the reality we see before us.
Learners might have a student council, might be invited to meetings of the institutional leadership team, and get some reasonably token decision-making powers, but is this the best we can do? True stakeholder engagement means really letting go of some control, and we can appreciate that this is a little scary for those at the top.
This is not about just "making students happy" or "letting students run the institution"; both of which show a real lack of understanding of what stakeholder empowerment can bring, and how strong an institution can be when all voices are not only heard, but carry substance and weight.
The 19th century planners of industrial-era education would be horrified, but if we really want our learners to leave as empowered individuals with a true sense of agency, and we really believe that this is essential in the very turbulent world ahead of them, then the choice is pretty clear.
Getting learners to give the thumbs up to something that has already been decided, is something that happens all too often. Equally, when learners are actually involved in improvement strategies right from the inception stage, the "project" is often siloed apart from the core institutional strategy.
The message coming from both these approaches is that we are ok with some contributions from the back seat, but we do not really trust learners with the keys. The ultimate goal is for the learners we serve to be the ones initiating the ideas and decisions, which can then be guided, developed and validated by the leadership team as true partners. Not tokenism, and not written off as "projects" to show on social media.
In Maryland, USA, a nominated student sits on the state board of education. The responsibilities of this position are "extensive" and carry real weight, rather than just tokenistic inclusion for the glossy brochure. It's time to give students voting rights on an education board. Some may say that students are too young and immature to make meaningful decisions about education policy. But the fact is, students are the ones who are most affected by the decisions made by the education board.
They're the ones who have to suffer through overcrowded classrooms, outdated content, learning approaches that do not spark passion or prepare them for an uncertain future. If anyone deserves a say in how their education is run, it's them. Giving students voting rights on an education board allows them to have a say in decisions that affect their lives and supports a more inclusive and representative education system.
Our colleagues in the world of education marketing love to communicate examples of student-led decision-making or activity in the institution. The sad thing is that we are often not part of it. These projects, decisions, strategies etc. are communicated to us so that we might tell the world of what is going on inside. But what happens when someone from the marketing department participates in these groups alongside student council members, parents, local councillors and all the rest of it? Oxford Said business school is a great example of a diverse group of stakeholders driving the major decisions of the institutional strategy, right down to partnerships, projects, community activities and on-campus campaigns.
The School board itself at OS is a closer knit group, but includes students, and representatives from marketing and innovation. The wider Global Leadership Council includes key figures from the surrounding business community, in addition to the school board. Students are there throughout with a vote and voice, but marketing is also there, not just to report but to be part of the decisions and the discussions. Too often there is a disconnect between "departments" or between academic, admissions and marketing, when in fact they are all part of the living institution. We often talk about de-compartmentalizing education, but our institutions themselves can become far more fluid and horizontal, and this is a good thing.
Manchester University in the UK has completely overhauled their M&R structures to become more transversal, alongside a wider plan to break down boundaries between departments and involve students more closely in each area of institutional life which was previously "behind the scenes". Marketing teams can now help students develop their own campaigns, and help train them on how to engage interest in new ideas and spread awareness, for example. Academics are opening up their research activities more to students who may be interested.
When students have more open access to different areas of an institution and a vote and voice in how it is governed and where it is going, things really begin to change. Accountability and transparency are much starker, there is a fresh influx of ideas, and the institution is far more closely connected to those it serves. Marketing can be right in the midst of this, working more directly with students and witnessing the process and results of co-created strategy. We look for an authentic tone in external communications, but that means authentically creating open channels of communication, and leaving our offices to get involved with the workings of everyday institutional life.
At geNEOus (formerly NEO Academy) we are education marketing and recruitment consultants, but we are also students, passionate lifelong learners, activists and networkers. We never wanted to be stuck away apart from the heart of the institution, and perhaps that is why we seek to work with more open, progressive and student-centred schools and universities. We all serve the same purpose, and the fewer boundaries the better. Let students in, open the doors between departments, and when we all sit around that table we may just find something new and exciting ahead.