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Message from Morsing Making Student Agency the Norm
01 October, 2021 New York, United States

Making Student Agency the Norm

"When students are agents in their learning, they are more likely to have ‘learned how to learn’ – an invaluable skill that they can use throughout their lives.” OECD (2019)

Dear Friends of PRME,

Like you, I have the privilege to engage with many business school and university students. I am always inspired and learn a lot by listening to their reflections and hearing them raise concerns and questions. Last week I was invited to do a keynote speech at the Berkeley-Haas Deans Speakers Series on responsible management education, and one of the students noted that I was talking about how ‘student agency’ should be the norm as we train our students to become the future leaders that the world needs. She challenged me as she raised the excellent question on ‘what do you mean by student agency? how do you expect students to engage in changing the world?’

My response to the Berkeley-Haas student was by providing an example. A couple of years ago, when I was still a professor at Stockholm School of Economics, a small group of students passed by my office to invite me for a session the following week. They had gone through the entire curriculum in all programs at the school and were now inviting all faculty to listen to their 90 concrete ideas for how we could improve the curriculum to integrate climate change in all courses. I very much appreciated the students’ courage to recommend to their professors what we should teach. We listened and some of us took the excellent suggestions from the students to adjust our curricula. For me, this is a wonderful, small but impactful, example showing how students identified a lack in their education and then decided to act to influence a positive change. This is an example of student agency in the ‘classroom’. Of course, student agency can also be directed to action outside the educational environment. Student agency can happen in many spaces.

There is no globally agreed-upon definition of student agency. A recent OECD Report which highlights the importance of student agency defines it as ‘the capacity to set a goal, reflect and act responsibly to effect change. It is about acting rather than being acted upon; shaping rather than being shaped; and making responsible decisions and choices rather than accepting those determined by others.’ (OECD, 2019) The OECD Report refers to studies that show how students, when they are agents in their learning and they play an active part in what they learn and how they learn, they show not only greater motivation and wish to pursue the objectives for their learning, they become better at ‘learning how to learn’.

In a world of global ‘wicked problems’ of climate change and rising inequalities where there are no predefined solutions, we need leaders who not only have the knowledge to address these problems but also importantly the skills for ‘learning to learn’, i.e. the capacity to set goals in new complex situations, critically reflect and act responsibly to help put the world on track.

In the recent World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, it is estimated that 50% of all employees will need reskilling by 2025 as the adoption of technology increases. In this report employers also emphasize ‘critical thinking' and ‘problem-solving' at the top of their list of prominent skills needed from employees in the next five years, and they specifically highlight skills in self-management, such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility.

Now is a good moment for us as business school educators to ask ourselves to what extent we are actually providing our students with a context where student agency is the ‘standard teaching norm’. And where our students accordingly are able to develop those skills needed in business: critical thinking, self-management, and resilience, and where we as higher education institutions at the same time contribute to that huge reskilling process, ahead of business, by simply having trained our students to be better learners.

The concept of student agency has roots in ‘the idea that students have the ability and the will to positively influence their own lives and the world around them.’ As business school educators we have a huge responsibility to provide a context where that student agency becomes the norm.

Warm regards,

Mette Morsing


‘OECD Future of skills and education 2030 Agenda. Conceptual Learning Framework.’ OECD (2019)

‘World Economic Forum Futures of Job Report’. World Economic Forum (2020)

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