What’s in a Name? Unpacking Students’ Roles in Higher Education through Neoliberal and Social Justice Lenses

Keywords: students as partners, students as producers, students as co-creators, students as consumers, students as change agents


There has been an increase in research and practice exploring how students can gain agency to shape their higher education experiences. Numerous terms evoking certain metaphors have entered the discussions around engaging students, from students as consumers or producers, to students as creators, partners, or change agents. There is scope within the evolving literature to explore the differentiations between these metaphors and the ways that underlying assumptions ultimately shape our practices and research. We unpack the five metaphors frequently used to redefine students’ roles in higher education. We then engage in a dialogue across differences, highlighting how our own two distinct perspectives on student engagement—grounded in neoliberalism and social justice—align, overlap, differ, and provide constraints or affordances for student engagement. We offer a critical and reflective commentary questioning the drivers of students’ changing roles in higher education in the hope of inviting others into generative dialogue toward expanding the evolving field of student engagement.

Author Biographies

Mollie Dollinger, La Trobe University

Mollie Dollinger is Associate Lecturer at La Trobe University (AUS). She leads the Student Partnership portfolio and works across various initiatives to support and strengthen student voices.

Lucy Mercer-Mapstone, University of Edinburgh

Lucy Mercer-Mapstone is Lecturer in Higher Education Learning Design at the University of Technology Sydney (AUS). She specialises in academic development and inclusive pedagogies.


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How to Cite
Dollinger, M., & Mercer-Mapstone, L. (2019). What’s in a Name? Unpacking Students’ Roles in Higher Education through Neoliberal and Social Justice Lenses. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 7(2), 73-89. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.7.2.5