The Credibility of Dialogue: Understanding Student Experiences

Written by Prof. Neil Fowler, Dean of Students at the University of Salford.

An important message that came out of the recent report published by Explorance, ‘Engaging the student voice in our ‘new normal…’, is the language around dialogue.

If we are going to talk about student voice, we have got to think about not just how we listen to it, but how we respond and speak back. The input aspect is really important; there isn’t one way of doing this, and at Salford University we have multiple channels and multiple audiences with whom we need to connect.

How we connect and have a genuine conversation with our students matters.

Grasping How We Make Contact, Identity, and Timeliness

There is a three-dimensional matrix we are looking at in relation to student voice.  We have the ‘who’ we are talking/listening to – is it an individual, module group, programme group, a particular sub-set of student community/demographic/age groups?

What is the nature of that contact – formal, informal or ad hoc? This matter, and we need to know what is happening in each of those spaces.

Also, the timeliness of student engagement is crucial. I suspect a lot of us have been focusing a lot of time on the ‘now’ over the last 12 months, but there are also the medium and long-term strategies, and how we empower the student voice into dimensions.

In addition, we need to consider the purpose of the conversations; do these seek to inform, instigate, enquire or inspire, as we might want different mechanisms for each of those things. The overall approach is about trying to make sure we have something in each of those boxes, and that students know how to speak to us and how to hear us.

We have brought forward quite a lot of change in our student voice activity this year. Some of this was pre-planned (prior to the emergence of Covid-19), but the pandemic has helped us, as it forced us to behave differently.

The biggest change is how we have engaged with our student course representatives, and having those representatives’ voices come forward, not necessarily in a formal survey space but in a more continuous dialogue.

Newer Modes of Dialogue

At Salford University, we have moved quite effectively from old models of very formal staff-student liaison committee meetings and surveys, which were often inefficient, and have been undertaking a lot more regular contact points across most of our programmes.

We now have weekly meetings between student reps and programme leaders, with outcomes and actions shared in Microsoft Teams as a collaborative workspace.

We revisit these outcomes and actions to see if things are being done. Have we got students just shouting into an empty bucket and nothing is happening? We have moved much more into the dialogue space – speaking directly with students and answering their questions in that way.

At the University of Salford, we were intending to trial this discourse-based approach with a few programmes and have run it across the whole institution.

Students have found it valuable, and it has allowed us to engage more than the one or two dynamic people who wanted to be the programme reps, and who traditionally put themselves forward as positive, outgoing, and highly-socialised individuals.

This has allowed us to engage with students who might not have spoken out in other contexts, but they can do so with the freedom that some of the online platforms provide.

Power of the Student Panel

We also make use of student panels, and find they are an effective way of having a group of people set up which allows you to get a representative sample. A group of students can be deliberately assembled who are representative of the average student population. This group can also be representative of academic schools or more targeted groups, in order to gain views from specific subsets of the student body, e.g., mature students, postgraduate students, those with a disability, commuters, etc. 

The other thing we have done is look at working in partnership with our Students’ Union, because there are some questions they can ask more effectively than faculty. We feel the nature of the answers the students would give and the way they engage with certain questions and our areas of interest would be different if we ask it as ‘the University’ compared to if ‘the Union’ asked it as a peer-to-peer question. Looking at ‘who asks what’ matters and impacts on dialogue.

The credibility of the dialogue depends upon making sure you are listening all of the time, not just when you (as ‘The University’) want to hear things. Students are much more likely to give you answers to your questions if you are just as willing to listen to them when they want to talk to you.

Listen in the places they are speaking – some of that comes back to what channels are we using, what messaging we are putting out where, and asking students where they want to have these discussions. Then, it’s about having it where they want to have it, instead of the conversation always being on your terms.

A consistent, persistent, insistent approach to listening and speaking is critical. It is also about clarity of the channels – what we’re saying where, focusing on what’s important, and not drowning student voices.


Report: Student Leaders’ ‘Ask’ of Universities Gathering Feedback During the Pandemic


About Prof. Neil Fowler

Prof. Neil Fowler has been the Dean of Students at the University of Salford since 2017 and has focused on upon building an integrated framework for engaging with the student voice, facilitating both operational and strategic enhancements to the student experience.

Guest blogHigher educationStudent Experience ManagementStudent feedbackStudent voice

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