MCO at AArU General Conference 2023

The case for student involvement in university governance - Presentation by the MCO

  • Date: 18 MARCH 2023  

  • Event location: Sousse, Tunisia

  • Type: Special Events

Magna Charta Observatory Secretary General, David Lock, gave a presentation on the importance of student involvement in university governance at the Association of Arab Universities 2023 General Assembly. The context was that students tend to be less engaged in the governance of many Arab universities than they are in universities in other regions of the world.


In the beginning, in many situations, including the University of Bologna, students appointed their professors and determined what subjects were studied. Over time however, there has been a transition to professors, or administrators, being in charge of universities via a variety of collegial and managerial models of leadership.


Students are now variously seen as ‘learners’ (passive or active), ‘pupils’, ‘trainees’, ‘partners in research’ and ‘co-creators of knowledge’, ‘a source of revenue’, or a combination of these. To restrict our perception of students to being recipients and not to involve them in the governance of the university is to deprive both students and universities of an element that is vital for the success of both.


The Budapest Declaration, adopted at the 21st European students’ convention, in February 2011, built the case that students are the main actors in higher education and should be involved as active partners.

The main points from the Declaration were that students wished to maintain the role of higher education as a public good and public responsibility in order to guarantee equal access and success. They were willing to mobilise across Europe to protect higher education, despite being listened to less and less. Student participation was seen as the key for fair higher education, which was seen as the only way to secure social development and sustainable economic growth. Student involvement in governance was essential in preparing students to be active citizens in democratic societies. It was felt that the view of students as consumers, as opposed to members and active participants, would have severe impacts on HE systems as well as greater society.

Earlier, in the Berlin Communiqué (2003) European Ministers of Education had stated that ‘students are full partners in higher education governance’. That communiqué said that students were not consumers of higher education, but significant components within it. Consumers were not involved in the management of processes, but students should be co-responsible within higher education management, as higher education is developed for students. Students are the main beneficiaries of increasing the quality of HE. It concluded that students should have more impact in decision-making and governance of higher education, which must be a community of students and professors who are equally responsible for its quality.

Although these documents are rooted in Europe, the evidence supporting them applies also to the rest of the world. Indeed, many of the reported concerns which led to the start of the Arab uprising in 2010 related to aspects of higher education which students felt were not meeting their needs.

Turning to what student engagement in governance meant in practice, ESU had set out four stages as follows:

  1. Accessibility to information, involving open and free access to all documents related to institutional policies and decision-making structures. Additionally, full access was seen as the key for a transparent educational system.
  2. Consultation, which was where participation begins, with the canvassing of student opinions, views and feedback, but without any guarantee they will be taken into consideration.
  3.  Dialogue with students, however full influence to affect final outcomes was still not guaranteed at this stage, although dialogue between students and decision-making bodies is vital.
  4.  The final stage - partnership and decision-making, was seen as the highest form of participation, with students involved at every stage of governance, from agenda setting, to voting and implementation. Partnership is the stage where common ownership and shared responsibilities exist. At this level, respecting the independence of student representation is crucial. It is vital that this stage exists not only in theory, but also in practice.

Students’ participation as active partners would only be ensured once all four stages have been reached.

Noting the concerns that student representation has been politicised in some situations, it was suggested that if students were trained to participate effectively in university governance and if students upheld the principles of openness, representativeness, democracy, independence, accountability and be accessibility to all students, (as described in the Ljubljana Declaration (2008)) the risk of this should be mitigated.

Summarising, from the perspective of universities, student representation in governance should be beneficial as students can be the best ambassadors for universities. They can assist in universities’ engagement in society, social responsibility, promoting access etc. Their involvement in strategic planning should improve its quality. It should enhance the collegial community and shared governance, help to avoid future problems and enhance the reputation of the university.

From the perspective of students, engagement would facilitate the development of skills and attributes such as representation, communication, confidence and engagement. A sense of belonging and commitment to the university could be enhanced, which should extend to when they became alumni. Effective citizenship, responsible democratic engagement and leadership development were other benefits which should serve them well throughout their lives.

David Lock,  20-3-23