By Sally Varnham
What the sector needs now is to work with students for students, inside and outside the classroom in partnership. Student partnership is a way of thinking, not simply an activity. Traditionally, student engagement has meant management-driven feedback and consultation, and token representation on committees and boards. By comparison, authentic student partnership is an institutional commitment to systemically accessing the voice of the ‘expert learners’ – our students – to understand their evolving needs and expectations. It also contributes to the development of students as critical thinkers, leaders, innovators and citizens in a global society.
Australia has been slow to embrace the benefits of working in partnership with students to enhance the quality of their learning experience, even though a partnership approach to student engagement has been a fixture in higher education internationally for many years (for example, sparqs in Scotland, TSEP in England and NStEP in Ireland). Under one of the last National Senior Teaching Fellowships awarded, UTS’s Professor Sally Varnham has worked collaboratively with national student bodies and individual students, staff and managers from Australian institutions to develop a set of Principles (Students and Tertiary Educators Undertaking Partnership (STEPUP)) to assist the implementation of student partnership initiatives.
In 2019, the Student Voice Australia Pilot Project has been funded by ten institutions to pursue this work at the national level. The Fellowship and Project are leading a shift in thinking and many others are now coming on board. But sector-wide embedding requires the collective support of students, institutions, government and national agencies. And resourcing at a national level, for example, to train student leaders for professional and positive engagement with their institutions. In the perennial struggle to provide a quality experience for all students in the face of competing demands, true student partnership offers a destination worth pursuing.
Professor Sally Varnham
University of Technology Sydney
2016 National Senior Teaching Fellow
ALTF 2019 Legacy Report here