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Student Identities and Forms of Engagement

By Ben Hunt, Sector Insights Lead / 06 December 2023

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Identifying and Engaging the Higher Education Student

Higher education students’ identities are constructed in different ways, by them individually, by higher education institutions and within society. This article introduces different ways of thinking about student identities, considers what this might mean for student expectations, and finally reflects on what this might say about different forms of student engagement.  

It's important for staff to reflect on the different lenses through which students are viewed, their often competing expectations of higher education, and what this means for developing institutional narratives and strategies. This includes: 

  • Communications, marketing professionals, and admissions staff who focus on advising students. These roles shape expectations of university life, influencing applicant perception and choice of provider.

  • Student experience practitioners who engage with students and seek to measure the student experience. Being aware of the different constructs of student identity and common methodologies for engaging students is key for enhancing student satisfaction. 

  • Senior leaders in universities. Regulation has evolved over the last five years to utilise a number of student satisfaction proxies to regulate quality. As such, thinking deeply and creatively about how students experience university life and what it means at the strategic level is a necessity for a university’s compliance and regulation.

Identifying the Student

The higher education student’s identity can be conceptualised in several different ways. Brooks and O’Shea discuss five main ways of thinking about students: 

  • Students as learners

    • Associated with mastering a particular discipline or skill. 

  • Students as consumers 

    • Associated with consuming a particular object, in this case, receiving a degree.  

  • Students as citizens 

    • In relation to: ‘…the contribution they make to social development and progress, and the reinvigoration of the public sphere’. (1)

  • Students as (current and future) workers  

    • In relation to their engagement with the future economy by mastering a particular skill which will be useful for the workforce.  

  • Students as socialites  

    • In relation to the ‘social opportunities afforded by higher education’. (2) Stereotypically, this has been associated with having ‘party credentials’. (3)

There are clearly tensions between some of these identities. For example, consumerism, the idea that higher education is a product to be bought and sold, and therefore is something instrumental, can be seen as in tension with higher education being purely focused on the process of learning, which has non-instrumental value.  

Students occupy several of these identities at once. For example, Brooks and O’Shea argue that in the Australian higher education system: ‘Despite the increasing convergence of higher education systems round more marketized models….and the observed decline of the public good as both an idea and an ideal….evidence suggests that some students continue to place importance on their roles as citizens’. (4)  

Student Expectations

Different student identities could shape different expectations of their higher education experience. For example, if a student mainly perceives themselves as wanting social growth at university, they may choose institutions which have a strong focus on student societies and community. A 2013 study from 150 qualitative interviews with first- and second-year undergraduate students found that students in the UK: 

  • Want ‘value for money’.  

  • Want a good learning environment which supports them. 

  • Want to ‘improve their career prospects’.  

  • Want to feel a sense of belonging and community at university, including having positive social aspects outside of the learning environment. (5) 

It is, however, contested regarding how much student identities shape behaviours. Patfield et al argued: ‘…just because the field of higher education is now constructed as a marketplace, students do not automatically behave in a way that is consistent with consumerism’. (6) As it does not follow from a particular context or identity that students will expect particular things, it is important for institutions to excavate what expectations students have in their own context.  

Engaging the Student

The way to understand student expectations is to engage with students. Numerous studies have found that highly engaged students have better outcomes in terms of academic achievement and employment. Understanding the different ways students engage, and how this evolves over time, is an important aspect to reflect on at your institution when considering engagement activities. Bols and Lowe (7) have described student engagement as fitting under four paradigms:  

  • Representative partnerships, such as formalised student academic representative systems and students’ union structures.  

  • Cooperative partnerships, such as students partnering on projects and being paid to advise or do project work. Much has been written in this space, particularly regarding students and digital engagement. 

  • Consumer rights champions, such as students creating and submitting petitions. This became more prominent within the COVID pandemic and the call for refunds for cancelled learning and teaching sessions. 

  • Students acting as individual feedback agents, such as making social media comments, utilising complaints systems, and completing feedback surveys. 

It may be the case that some forms of engagement are preferred by students, for example, individual feedback from students on their course structure, rather than engaging extensively with academic representative structures. It’s important to understand: 

  • How do students want to engage with you? Is it through partnership scheme opportunities, online feedback, in person fora, or a mix?  

  • How are you accessible to students and supportive of their engagement? Do you offer students a variety of ways and fora to engage with you?  

  • How can you form environments for students to engage in different ways? Do you support paid opportunities for students to engage with partnership, the infrastructure of representative structures, online fora, and feedback mechanisms?  

Bringing it All Together

It is important in your own context to reflect on the various identities of your student body, what their expectations are, and what this might mean about how they should be meaningfully engaged. It may be the case, for example, that students who primarily engage online with their education will not want to do so through traditional students’ union structures, instead they may prefer partnership opportunities. Understanding different student identities, what these identities indicate regarding students’ expectations and how to engage students proactively will lead to a better experience and outcomes overall.

If you’re interested in having a conversation with us about understanding student identities and improving student engagement, get in touch.  


(7) Tom Lowe and Alex Bols, 272, A Handbook for Student Engagement in Higher Education    


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