Embracing the Student Voice in Higher Education

Loyiso Maciko

In an ever changing higher education environment, Durban University of Technology (DUT) has grasped the importance of embracing students as key stakeholders and has developed an integrated theoretical framework underpinned by the principle of ‘Student Agency’ as an integral aspect of ‘un-silencing’ the student’s voice. At DUT, student agency is viewed as integral to a holistic student approach to student success and strengthening the student voice in higher education has been identified as a priority area. 


The workshop, held towards the end of October 2022, included 10 South African Universities participating and engaging in various topics related to ‘the student voice’. In getting the workshop started, an activity that sought to co-create an understanding of what the student’s voice is and what it means to un-silence it was introduced with the views of participants captured graphically using padlet. See Fig 1.  

Figure 1: Ice breaker exercise - participants brainstormed their ideas about ‘student voice’

Dr Mzwandile Khumalo, and Ms Charlotte Taka then made a brief presentation on DUT’s Student Agency Framework, as well as discussing various strategies for implementing good practices that enable student agency within institutions.


The philosophical and theoretical orientations that have framed DUT’s approach were also presented. These included creating the space within the student support system for students to critically engage with their own reality, identify themselves within it, and actively participating in the University's transformation.

Figure 2: DUT’s identity – culture matrix

In the identity-culture matrix (Fig. 2) the student’s experience is envisioned on a continuum with active participation as the one pole and non-participation as the other, reflecting the student’s level and range of engagement within DUT.  The particular value of this perspective on student development is that it looks beyond the formal curriculum offered within the student’s study programme and includes a range of various other activities and initiatives within the university, including co and extra curricula activities.


An important characteristic of the DUT approach is that student agency is not seen in isolation, but rather, as embedded in holistic student support, as showcased in Fig. 3, below.

Figure 3: Depicting the holistic, integrated approach to student agency promoted at DUT.

For the top left quadrant, students were asked to share their experiences of DUT’s First Year Experience programme. During this process, the institution was able to capture and be empathetically receptive to the communicated challenges which are illustrated in Fig 4.

Figure 4: Example of student responses related to their perceptions of the DUT First Year Experience programme

Embedding the student voice in the design of student support initiatives has shown great potential to inspire, to give students a sense of belonging and, ultimately, to positively impact on their academic progression.  Stemming from the discussions which took place during the Siyaphumelela workshop, a number of possible interventions aligned to this goal were presented. These include:

  • Building student capacity for success
  • Building authorial agency
  • Creating systems and processes that promote student agency
  • Reducing cultural incongruence by creating an inclusive enabling culture that values the student’s voice
  • Creating a conducive learning environment
  • Acknowledging that the roots of the authorial agency are communal.


At this juncture in South Africa, where the imperative to transform higher education is great, it is vital that universities realise that collecting data on student perceptions is essential and that learning and teaching feedback should be purposefully elicited and integrated into course and programme implementation. The DUT experience highlights new possibilities and brings hope to other South African Universities that positive change can be achieved when student agency is promoted and integrated into the institutional strategic plan and is part of a holistic approach to student success.