Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to consider recent developments in student engagement practices within higher education institutions (HEIs) and to reflect upon the practical reality and challenges faced by HEIs as they develop such practices. Design/methodology/approach – Consideration is given to theoretical understandings around institutional and social power relations and to the influence such relationships can have on the development of student engagement practices within HEIs. The work of Giroux, Freire and Foucault is drawn upon to help develop and deepen understanding of the power relationships at play within HEI student engagement practices. Findings – It is argued that the power imbalance ingrained within student-tutor relationships serves to constrain how students act and respond in the presence of tutors, and this can have significant implications in terms of the extent to which student engagement practices genuinely capture the perspectives, interests and visions of students. Practical implications – Thought needs to be given to how HEIs will balance student engagement with academic work. The historical hierarchical staff-student relationship will need to be challenged and re-defined as some staff and students move outside of their comfort zones in order to work as partners and develop mutual understandings around, for example, practices of assessment, curriculum and teaching, and seek to improve the quality of student’s HEI experiences. Originality/value – The paper develops and deepens our understanding of the power relationships at play within HEI student engagement practices and opens up debates about the potential of student engagement practices in HEIs and the related dilemmas which surround the development of such practices.
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