Mini-series: The politics of Peer Learning: Navigating tensions of student empowerment and institutional co-optation

© Mihaela Bodlovic 2019 Festival of Creative Learning

In this Peer Learning and Support mini-series post, PhD student Larissa Nenning, presents a synopsis of her Student Keynote talk that she presented at the International Peer Learning Forum in Brighton in Summer 2019…. 

The British Higher Education Academy Report on Peer Learning (Keenan 2014), repeatedly states that Peer Learning is a cost-effective way to improve student experience, learner responsibility, and the university’s reputation, whilst reducing dependency on teaching staff. As a student and staff member who has been involved in Peer Learning for over four years now, I have become increasingly reflective of the different institutional motives for supporting Peer Learning and its consequences.

I believe that as Peer Learning practitioners, we should clearly oppose the instrumentalisation of Peer Learning for the divestment from and restructuring of teaching. This requires more conversations around the pedagogical aims of Peer Learning and how they can help us shape the universities we want, rather than compensate for lacking investments. Critical engagement of students and staff in processes of Peer Learning expansion is required in order to navigate the ambiguity of this practice, which has often united those who see it as cost-effective teaching support with those who understand it as radical student-led pedagogical practice. I would like to highlight two areas that deserve more attention.

Structural inequalities

Firstly, I would like to highlight some tensions in the community-building and student-experience enhancing dimension of Peer Learning that is often praised by universities. As a long-term Peer Learning coordinator, I agree that facilitating the creation of student communities where mutual care trumps competition is a wonderful aspect of Peer Learning. These communities have often gone beyond students and come to include both administrative and academic staff too, creating new student-staff partnerships. However, we need to be asking ourselves a key question: On what terms do we allow certain students to participate and exclude others?

Critically reflecting on how structural inequalities shape the recruitment of Peer Learning leaders and student’s participation in learning sessions is key. One aspect concerns the composition of teams and their target groups. Instead of recruiting elite students, we need more Peer Learning schemes which are by and for marginalised communities, such as Widening Participation or BME students, as well as more diverse teams of Peer Learning leaders.

This is linked to a second aspect, namely the costs of Peer Learning. Such crucial academic support work should not be shouldered by students for free in order to save teaching costs. Students engaged in Peer Learning deserve more recognition, which needs to be negotiated with all actors involved. Peer Learning is only valuable and sustainable if the processes and conditions are inclusive and fair.

Student empowerment

A second area that deserves more attention is the learning that we encourage to take place in Peer Learning sessions. Students coming together to discuss academic knowledge with each other in a non-hierarchical environment has great potential to challenge individualising learning practices promoted everywhere else in higher education. For someone with a background in student unionising like myself, this democratising possibility has always inspired my engagement in Peer Learning. Critical pedagogical theorists have also long emphasised the transformational potential of such learning, arguing that only engaging in a non-hierarchical dialogue with each other allows us to develop our full human capacities (Shor and Freire 1987, McLaren 2001).

We should also build on the insights of student movements towards decolonising universities which have highlighted the multiple ways in which colonial power inequalities manifest themselves in what is taught in mainstream courses and what is left out. Recognising the emancipatory potentials of student-led learning practices, we can take our current Peer Learning practices a step further, moving beyond facilitating the usual essay and exam preparation sessions. Peer Learning can be a collaborative space for critical reading and discussion, if students are given the freedom and institutional support to do so.


Overall, while we should welcome investment in our projects, we should be critical of instrumentalisation for economic gains that might undermine the spirit of Peer Learning in the long-term. Peer Learning offers great potential to re-think the current higher education landscape, but we need to critically situate it in its wider institutional and political context. Akwugo Emejulu (2017) reminds us that universities have always been “contradictory spaces”, which “govern knowledge through hierarchies of control whilst simultaneously providing temporary and contingent spaces to think within and beyond themselves”.

Peer Learning can help create such contingent spaces to think within and beyond the current university. It can support the construction of academic communities of care, equip students with crucial skills for community organising, and create opportunities for the interrogation of dominant knowledge. This requires thorough deliberation with all actors involved in setting Peer Learning objectives and creating strategies for progressive change. In the spirit of Peer Learning, staff need to be supporting students to take the lead in the creation of such goals and strategies in order to build better learning conditions and more inclusive communities in our institutions.

If you would like to discuss any of these issues further, please contact Larissa Nenning.


Emejulu, A. (2017). The University is Not Innocent. Verso Blog Post [accessed on 05.06.19].

Keenan, C. (2014). Mapping Student Peer Learning in the UK. Higher Education Academy [accessed on 05.06.19].

Lynch, K. (2015). Control by numbers: New managerialism and ranking in higher education. Critical Studies in Education, 56(2), 190-207.

McLaren, P. (2001). Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the politics of hope: Reclaiming critical pedagogy. Cultural Studies? Critical Methodologies, 1(1), 108-131.

Shor, I., & Freire, P. (1987). What is the “dialogical method” of teaching? Journal of Education, 169(3), 11-31.

Larissa Nenning

Larissa is a second year PhD student in Social Policy. She has been the School Student Leader for Peer Support in the School of Social and Political Science for over three years. 

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