Please see below a transcript of my speech to Leeds Met course leaders conference on 4 September 2012
Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I can see from the agenda that the dominant theme for you to address today in your conference is the idea of students as partners, or students as co-creators.
In the next twenty minutes I will share with you some of my thoughts on the theme of partnership, focusing not just on the benefits of the partnership model – of which I believe there are many – but on the unanswered questions, the things that I believe we need to consider more deeply if we are to develop and sustain a real and lasting culture of partnership in our institutions.
It is my view that we are in danger of adopting the language of partnership - or applying the ideas of partnership to specific one-off schemes and projects - while missing the transformational implication that partnership can have in our institutions. Not just on individual student or academic behaviour, or on institutional cultures and structures, but on the very conception of higher education in wider society.
I hope to convince you today that students as partners is a framework not just for a better education, but for a better world.
Students as partners is closely linked to the concept of student engagement
– the idea that students should be active participants in the learning process, rather than passive recipients of knowledge. Although the practices around student engagement may be long-standing in some cases, student engagement as a policy priority is relatively recent. The idea of students as active participants in learning has led to numerous projects at institutions around the UK. These projects are designed to support students to contribute to shaping their course delivery and content.
Student engagement can be used in all manner of contexts, to mean a range of different things.
At its most basic level, student engagement can mean creating an independent study module in which students are de facto responsible for course content. Taken further, it can mean course leaders working with students to determine the shape and content of the curriculum. In some cases it can mean students taking on a role in course delivery. I heard recently of an educational project in which students were supported to create their own open educational resources on feedback and assessment, to be used to advise and mentor new students. All these things are good, interesting, valuable projects, but are they partnership?
The NUS/HEA project on student engagement suggests that student engagement can span from mere ‘consultation’ through ‘involvement’ to ‘participation’ to ‘partnership’. This suggests that partnership must be a necessary goal of student engagement practice. The Quality Assurance Agency in creating its chapter of the Quality Code on student engagement asserts that one facet of student engagement is student participation in quality assurance and enhancement processes, and advocates a partnership approach to joint working in these areas. For QAA, ‘partnership’ entails the coming together of different parties to work on a shared goal, and the focus is on the logistics of coping with the potential for disagreement of values, perceptions or experiences. A point in the right direction, for sure, but this approach may be in danger of question-begging through its failure to tackle the deeper mechanics of partnership. And to be fair to QAA, it is not in their remit to determine how institutions should approach partnership; a nudge approach is as far as QAA can reasonably go.
One final observation here: it is surely no accident that the national focus on student engagement has occurred at the very time that the sector has faced turmoil over the costs of higher education and the tripling of undergraduate student fees. The present government has made it clear that it considers higher education to be primarily a private good and that it believes that students will be assured of the best experience possible if they treat higher education as a consumer choice.
Those of us who detest current policy and the rhetoric behind it, and are fearful of the impact the policies may have both on participation in higher education and on the effectiveness of the higher education sector as a whole, may see student engagement and students as partners 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.
There are some who see the national student survey as a valid tool for students to shape their learning environment; others see it as the ultimate consumer tool, reducing complex learning experiences to mere satisfaction.
In reality, the survey is probably both these things.
It is how we make use of it, alongside a range of other practices, and the weight its results are given within institutions, that will make the difference, not the existence of the survey itself. Likewise, if 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.
So, bearing all this in mind, I believe there are five questions we need to ask ourselves about partnership.
Question one, 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 of the student as apprentice. Traditionally a student attends university in order to gain mastery of a particular subject area. Students spend time with experts in order to become closer to expertise themselves. Teachers determine curricula because they know what they are talking about. 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.
In my view, 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 hand, 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, partnership between which parties?
The shorthand of ‘students as partners’ carries a multiplicity of possibilities - from individual partnerships between students and teachers, to institution-level partnerships.
In the student movement we value collectivism and democratic representation; while individual students may engage in various ways in their learning, the whole system of partnership must flow through the students’ union as the collective voice of students.
Partnerships at the course level should be student-led, via the students’ union.
I am deeply concerned with the growing trend of student engagement professionals recruited by institutions to do the job of student engagement – a job that is most properly done by the independent students’ union.
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 – one that is not confined to the student learning experience, but that considers all aspects of the student lifecycle, and all policies and practices that might affect students, or in other words, all the policies and practices of an instiution.
This brings me to my third question, 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.
A responsible institution will not only welcome this approach, it will do whatever it can to make it a reality for all its students, even those students who say they are not that invested in student engagement.
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 sometime those students from less advantaged backgrounds – those for whom time constraints and their more marginal position within the institution mitigates against their full inclusion.
We need to crack this, urgently, and I think that induction may be the key. This is why NUS this year will be conducting a major research project into induction for different student groups, attempting to establish what practices can be put in place to support students to engage from the start of their course and successfully to complete.
A second challenge is the academic staff. Now, I know that as academics much and more is expected of you, from delivery against research targets, to provision of feedback within a fixed time, to service on multiple departmental committees and in your particular case, the burden of course leadership.
I say you are a challenge because in all of this, where is your voice? How are you to be expected to support this brave new world of student engagement if you are not enabled to be a part of the conversation determining how it can work, what it means and what benefits or value you might expect to gain as teachers from developing new practice?
This conference, I hope, will stand as an example of good practice in 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 serve them better in the wider world than a belief that the only power they can access is that of purchasing power.
But I think we can go bigger. I believe passionately in the idea of the student as citizen and 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 isn’t easy – it’s not something that can be adopted and then put in the prospectus.
It is something that has the potential to transform our institutions at all levels.
It requires recognition that systemic change is the least of the challenges ahead, and that deep thought and dialogue will also be required.
Because 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.