A Literature Review of Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation

Lessons for contemporary student engagement


  • Simon Varwell Student Partnerships in Quality Scotland, Edinburgh, UK




student engagement, Arnstein’s ladder, higher education


The COVID-19 pandemic continues to deeply impact education and wider society, with consistent disruption to relationships between authorities and citizens. As higher education sees continuing turbulence overlap with a strengthening of student engagement, this systematic literature review reappraises how students as ‘citizens’ are enabled to shape their learning. It does so in a Scottish tertiary context and through the prism of Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation, a classic framework whose eight rungs present a spectrum of ways that stakeholders can be engaged in decisions. The article explores the use of the ladder over half a century in planning, housing, health, schools and, finally, higher education, analysing critiques and adaptations of the ladder, conducting meta-synthesis across the literature to extract conclusions for student engagement. It concludes that Arnstein’s ladder has continuing value to conversations about partnership in tertiary education, and that the centrality of power to both the ladder and student engagement in a sector and wider world of increasing democratic citizenship presents a challenge to decision-makers. These conclusions, and the study’s limitations, point to further research opportunities that could enhance the understanding of engagement and partnership at a time of change and uncertainty.


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A woman climbs a ladder, reaching for help from above