Five questions about students as partners

The idea of ‘students as partners’ is often seen in the context of the student engagement agenda. The idea of students as active participants in learning has led to numerous projects designed to support students to contribute to shaping their course delivery and content, anything from independent study modules to students working with course leaders to shape their curriculum. All these things are good, interesting, valuable projects, but are they partnership? Are we in danger of adopting the language of partnership, or applying the ideas of partnership to specific one-off schemes and projects, while missing its transformational implication?

The present government has made it clear that it considers higher education to be primarily a private good. It believes that students will be assured of the best experience possible if they treat higher education as a consumer choice. Students as partners might be seen as a valuable alternative to the government position. But we must be very careful to be clear about what we are doing with student engagement; in this, as in so much, context is everything.

If, for example, we believe that we engage students merely in order to find out what they want and give it to them, we reproduce this dangerous narrative of consumerism and lose sight of the responsibility of educators to challenge and stretch students.

Bearing this in mind, there are five questions I believe we need to ask about partnership.

Question one is, what alternative models are we rejecting when we opt for partnership? The word ‘partnership’ is an attractive one, and hard to disagree with, but in order to make a meaningful choice we need to examine and reject the alternatives. This also ensures that when things get difficult we know why we chose to take this approach in the first place. I have mentioned the consumer model as a rejected alternative, and I suspect I hardly need to tell you why it warrants rejection. The students as consumers model assumes that the experience of attending higher education is something that can be packaged and sold; it reduces complex interactions to a mere transaction; it substitutes satisfaction for learning. It turns teachers into service providers and is fundamentally elitist in the way it draws on narratives of wealth and privilege.

But a further alternative that must be considered is that is that of the student as apprentice. Traditionally a student attends university in order to gain mastery of a particular subject area. How can students be expected to know what they want to learn in advance of learning it?

In order to reject this we need to embrace forms of expertise that do not lie in subject knowledge; in fact, we may need in some cases to relax the structure of the disciplines and open up pathways for students to roam more freely among the various knowledge areas, in the process developing expertise beyond the conceptions of their teachers. We also need to recognise the existing knowledge that students bring to learning, in particular those students with professional experience gained outside the academy.

We do not need to wholly reject the apprentice model for students to be partners, but we do need to reimagine it. Students are apprentices in the business of student engagement; until primary and secondary schools adopt a similar approach many students will not have the language or the practice to engage constructively in their learning. Students will need support and coaching to engage effectively as partners – and this support could come from sources other than academic staff, including current students.

The second question is; partnership between which parties? In the student movement we value collectivism and democratic representation; while individual students may engage in various forms in their learning the whole system of partnership must flow through the students’ union as the collective voice of students.

I say this because what is rarely mentioned in all this discussion of students as partners is that the relationship between students and their institution is one of power, in which students are potentially deeply disenfranchised. Institutions that purport to share power with students are only reinforcing that the power belongs to them to share – or to be taken away if priorities shift or projects do not deliver hoped-for outcomes. The students’ union needs to exist to maintain a student voice that is independent, that is truly student-led, and that extends to all corners of the administration of institutions.

This brings me to my third question, which is; what responsibilities are implied in a partnership approach? In NUS we have a member engagement policy that we call the ‘three Ds’ – meaning we work to engage our membership in demand, design and delivery of any project or campaign. Responsible students will not be satisfied with passing demands up the chain and sitting back until their demands are met; responsible student partners will work within the student collective to determine priorities for change, they will work with their institution to determine what that change should look like and they will consider how students themselves can contribute to deliver that change on the ground. This is the goal of students as partners – that students should become, not just co-creators of knowledge, but co-creators of the university itself.

And so to my fourth question – how can this approach be embedded across institutions or, what might the challenges be? The first I have just mentioned – students who are not traditionally engaged. In this I would include part-time, postgraduate and distance learners, and sometimes those students from less advantaged backgrounds – those for whom time constraints and their more marginal position within their institution mitigates against their full inclusion.

A second challenge is the academic staff. How are academics to be expected to support this brave new world of student engagement if they are not enabled to be a part of the conversation determining how it can work, what it means and what benefits or value they might expect to gain as teachers from developing new practice? Good practice would focus on creating an ethos of partnership in institutions that depends not on top-down dictats, but on critical, informed dialogue between students, their representatives, academic staff and institutional administrators and managers.

This brings me, finally, to my fifth question – what benefits might we expect from a partnership approach? The evidence seems to suggest that we may see happier, more engaged students, higher levels of retention and suchlike. We will also see students whose fundamental belief is in their power to suggest innovations to shape their environment, an ethos that will surely serve them better in the wider world than a belief that the only power they can access is that of purchasing power.

But we can go bigger. I would seek a higher education sector that takes seriously its responsibility to serve the wider public good.

In the UK today we have a democratic system which many young people have turned away from, believing they have no capacity to have an influence. Universities have a function in civil society – that of knowledge creation and thought leadership. Universities have a responsibility to suggest how the world might be better and more just. Both the practice and the theory of students as partners have the potential to set a challenge to other organisations and institutions in civil society to adopt a participative approach and seek to enable those who ostensibly lack power to have an influence to shape the world.

Students as partners requires recognition that systemic change is the least of the challenges ahead and that deep thought and dialogue will also be required. What is needed is a way of forming and sustaining partnerships that are robust enough to be able to cope with constant criticism, re-evaluation and the introduction of new evidence – that can cope with the dispute and intellectual challenge that is the lifeblood of universities. Only then can a ‘students as partners’ approach help to deliver on the promise of higher education.

This was an edited version of a speech given on 4 September to Leeds Met Course Leaders Conference. You can find the full transcript here.

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