WISE Wales

WISE Wales – the Welsh student partnership initiative – held their conference in Cardiff on 23rd May and I have been following it on Twitter. What a great acronym – WISE stands for Wales Initiative for Student Engagement. Its partnership approach, said to be a defining feature of further and higher education in Wales, ‘engages students as active participants in the leadership, management, development and delivery of their own educational experience’. It is built on three pillars: Working in Partnership, Valuing Feedback and Harnessing Expertise. In common with its near neighbours, WISE operates as a collaboration between sector groups: ColegauCymru/Colleges Wales, the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, Higher Education Wales, the National Union of Students in Wales and the Quality Assurance Agency (see wisewales.org.uk/). How good would it be if the whole sector here could pull together in this way to embed student partnership nationally and in institutions across Australia –definitely top of my wish list. In the meantime however I am happy with the strong support Student Voice Australia has been shown by so many members of the higher education community – students, staff, senior managers and nationally, TEQSA.

Just a few points from the WISE Wales event:

@KatieDavorn of @HallamUnion introduces ‘partnership in practice not in principle’, in talking about how Sheffield Hallan SU has recently developed a partnership approach to student representation with SUs, student representatives, University directorates and Faculty Staff. Danielle Barnard @Bangorstudents states: ‘Partnership is not a transaction, it must be done with mutual respect,’ and Jeremy Harvey @TSDSU emphasises that collaboration is a necessity for good partnership. His gem is:

‘We come into the room with different values and priorities, but we come out with a united goal and direction’ #PartnershipWales18

This just about perfectly sums up what the approach to a true authentic partnership between students and institutions should be.

Back at home, I believe partnership is developing …

Yesterday I attended a Workshop of students brought together to provide input into 2027, the university’s strategic plan exercise. It was once again clearly demonstrated that students have great ideas and want to become involved if their input is sought and they feel they can make a difference.

Importantly, the students pointed to the value of engagement for their own professional development.

I look forward to reporting more on this in my next blog …

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Student voice highlighted in print

This has been a great week for focus on student engagement and student partnership.

First was in the May 21 issue of Campus Review in an article entitled: ‘Leading the Culture Change from the east of England’ (https://www.campusreview.com.au/2018/05/leading-the-culture-change-from-the-east-of-england).  David Richardson, Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UEA), discusses the shift in the university/student relationship in the UK to that of students as partners and co-creators in education.  He refers to the change as happening ‘at a revolutionary rather than an evolutionary pace’ (for Kate – this may have led me to rethink how I refer to the pace of change in Australia). Like David,  I have long found the ‘students as consumers’ characterisation of the relationship disturbing.   It encourages passivity and a ‘getting what they paid for’ mentality rather than viewing higher education as a joint enterprise for the common good. He agrees that we ‘shouldn’t fall into the trap’ of seeing students as consumers and points to the positive side of the increased cost of education as students having more at stake and wanting to be at the table as ‘co-producers’.  The needs and expectations of students have changed and students more and more feel they can contribute by ‘co-decision making at all levels’.  David shares the thoughts of two student union officers at his university online through the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIosLt9hCUk. I was on the panel entitled: ‘Nothing about you without you’ with Professor Richardson at the UA conference – and I can vouch that this video is worth watching.  In summarising the partnership relationship which has developed at UEA, David says: ‘We have to have mutual understanding, we have to be honest, we must communicate, and as a university we have to listen to our students and act on their views”.  Importantly he recognises that such a culture change may be uncomfortable initially for many staff and stresses the importance of bringing all the university community along on the shift.  He concludes: ‘If you work with students, the solutions you get may well be more creative and more impactful than you expect.  And that’s part of the tremendous value they bring. Students will help you make change happen’.

A perspective on student voice from an international student leader is featured in the HERDSA News, (2018) Vol 40 (2) – the magazine of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia. This is in an interview with Bijay Sapkota, UTS student and current president of CISA.  In response to the question of what drives him to work so hard for student engagement he says: ‘Students who are engaged will be proactive and this will impact on the quality of university education and ultimately benefit the education system as a whole.  Engaged students develop into great graduates.  It is not my books that created me as I am now – it is conferences, being on boards, meeting with different committees.’  Bijay has prioritised engagement of the voice of international students and his support and input has been so important, especially as a member of my various ‘conversations with students’ presentations.

In the same issue of the HERDSA magazine there is a short report of a project to hear student voice run by universities in Hong Kong (‘Redesigning Student Learning Experience in Higher Education Project: http://sub.cedars.hku.hk/cms/htdoc/upload/other_file/ef79f3b2e4a28f5618fd501714be9071.pdf).   Full-time undergraduate students across Hong Kong institutions were invited to propose and carry out a team project to inform on ‘their needs, their ideas and views on optimal arrangements of university education processes’.  The work of eleven teams was presented at a symposium held in August 2017.   The project was a great success – as an organiser concludes: ‘Local examples of student-centred, student-initiated, future-orientated teaching and learning experiences have been created and shared.  Student voice and ideas on optimal learning arrangements in higher education have been brought up and discussed’.   She points to impact: ‘As a result, one project has been awarded funding for continuation in the university while another project has attracted collaboration among different universities.’ (Anna Kwan, Chair of Hong Kong HERDSA).  This is not unlike the UNSWHeroes initiative showcased at my September 2017 Symposium.

These programs provide a clear demonstration that students are such a rich resource of ideas. As institutions like UEA and as a sector like the UK, we need to embrace the cultural shift to embed their voices in all that we do – for enhancement of quality and relevance and the professional development of our students.

On another note: last Friday I took part in a panel run by Flinders University which asked: Work Integrated Learning- are ‘students as partners’ possible?  A great forum for sharing a wide range of insights, experiences – not only but also from the many students present.  More on that later.

Changes to the UK National code – fixing what’s not broken?

I have always held out Chapter B5 of the UK National Quality Code as something to which we should aspire – in terms of a philosophy and an expectation of institutions working together with their students – rather than as a compliance tool. I wholeheartedly agree with the words of Tom Boland, Chief Executive Officer of the HEA, who said in launching the Irish National Student Engagement Pilot Programme: “Achieving successful student engagement is not about enforcement and compliance; it’s about building up a meaningful culture and two-way communications.” To place student partnership beside regulation would in mind view further encourage box-ticking and tokenism rather than genuinely embracing student voice as key to enhancement and quality and integral part of the way things are done in the sector.
Wording is important. It was a feature of Chapter B5 that it was phrased in terms of expectations and indicators which clearly indicated its spirit. For example, Indicator 1: ‘Higher education providers, in partnership with their student body, define and promote that range of opportunities for any student to engage in educational enhancement and quality assurance’; and Indicator 3: ‘ Arrangements exist for the effective representation of the collective student voice at all organizational level, and these arrangement provide opportunities for all students to be heard.’
The spirit of a community working together was clear from the setting up shortly afterwards in the UK of The Student Engagement Partnership between sector agencies and the National Union of Students. Together with Chapter B5 this inspired my project which was to develop a view of how in Australia we could take a lead from abroad and work together as a sector. How we could develop the means of embracing student voice authentically and effectively in decision-making at all levels of an institution’s operations. I found the research of Gwen van der Velden and others at the University of Bath hugely valuable (G M Van der Velden & ors (2013) “Student Engagement in Learning and Teaching Quality Management’) . This research was undertaken in conjunction with the UK QAA and was underpinned by Chapter B5. I began to look at how we could do student engagement better by talking with Gwen and student leaders in the UK. This, together with my discovery of the great trailblazing work undertaken by Eve Lewis and student partnerships in quality Scotland (sparqs), made me even more convinced that this was the path we needed to take in Australia. Even more affirming was the replacement of the Higher Education Funding Council by a body known as the Office for Students (OfS) which seemed to convey the message of putting students in their right place – at the centre of higher education.

So why the changes? I was puzzled and more than a little alarmed to hear of the intention to remove Chapter B5 in the replacement UK-wide Quality Code. The draft document, circulated for consultation, significantly downgraded the place of student voice in quality assurance and enhancement in the sector to be implied within the term ‘supplementary practices’. To quote from the Wonkhe comment of 27th March by Catherine Boyd this was despite the fact that: ‘… the development of student engagement in the UK has been internationally renowned and hard fought.’ She says: ‘ For many, this was too much of a demotion’. The sector’s response was strongly against the proposals. The opposition was not only to the proposed new Code but also to the lack of student engagement in the new OfS. As Catharine continues: “Furthermore, the strong reaction from the sector to the limited function of students in the Office for Students seemed to send a clear message that students remained at the heart of the system” (https://wonkhe.com/blogs,uk-quality-code-2-0).
A strong pushback was to be expected from the sector bodies – sparqs and TSEP- which have worked long and hard and with huge success to embed student partnership across the system. Most heartening however was concern at the removal from of the expectation of student engagement from the new Code expressed by the peak university bodies comprising senior management in Scotland and England.
So much so in fact that student engagement has re-entered the new iteration of the Code published recently by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA). This is out now for consultation. It is in much lesser form however.
The new Code aims for succinctness and brevity and the proposed student engagement provisions are definitely brief. While it is clearly a huge step forward from the previously drafted version, it is arguably still a major step back from the original philosophy and intent behind the wording of Chapter B5. The proposal now is for the expectation of student engagement to be found in the new idea of Core practice (for all UK institutions): ’The provider actively engages students, individually and collectively, in the quality of their educational experience’; and Common practice (for all institutions with enhancement led approaches or combination approaches) ‘The provider engages students individually and collectively in the development, assurance and enhancement of the quality of their educational experience’.
For the UK, time will tell as the consultation process proceeds. Importantly, the sector’s strong reaction to the removal of the clear expectations in Chapter B5 shows the weight which it places on student engagement as a way of doing things – from learning and teaching to university governance. Hopefully this ethos is there to stay despite what could eventuate as a lack of reinforcement in the national code.

Conferences about students without students – no longer

Apologies for my recent erratic blogging …
This is largely because there is so much interest in student voice in Australia it seems that for 2018 I am hugely busy with a full program of speaking engagements and workshops and working on the Student Voice pilot set up.
The great thing about each invitation is an affirmation of the importance of this work and of progressing the embedding of student engagement across the sector. As some of you will know, my sessions take the form of conversations with students, and other presenters are doing the same on all manner of topics affecting higher education. This format provides a hugely valuable opportunity for attendees at these events to engage with the insightful views of student leaders and student representatives in a less formal way and to learn from those at the heart of the sector.
Next week I am speaking and running a workshop with a group of student leaders at the TAG conference in Melbourne. Shortly after I am taking part in a workshop at Flinders University in Adelaide entitled: Students as partners in work integrated learning: is this really possible? and in June I am speaking, together with students, at the Student Retention and Success 2018 Conference in Melbourne and the CISA Annual Conference in Cairns. It seems that no longer do we have conferences about students without students and this is a major step forward.
Importantly it is students who are driving opportunities to be heard at these forums. Leaders of the peak student bodies organised sessions at the Universities Australia conference and in the Hot Topics satellite the following day. In the latter session they provided a wide range of perspectives on Student Wellbeing from the experiences of their particular cohorts – undergraduate, postgraduate, indigenous and international – separately and together. There was overwhelming support for the value of this session and I hope that these opportunities will increase as we all work together as members of the sector towards enhancement. Our five national student leaders are a big part of the program of the upcoming HEQN Conference Assessment, Integrity and Review on 7th and 8th June in Melbourne which many of you will be attending.
It is so good that we are following comparative sectors, which have long embraced student views in all their discussions.
And I can’t finish this blog without mentioning my latest adventure. The ‘Sally road show’ extended to China recently as I delivered two presentations in Beijing at events organised by the Chinese University of Political Science and Law and Renmin University of China. The gathering was entitled: Sino-Dutch Public Law Forum – Accessibility, Accountability and Autonomy of Higher Education: China, Europe and Beyond. What a fantastic opportunity – to join with 9 other academics with a strong interest in higher education law and governance from Europe, the US and South Africa and to hear from a large number of academics and students from China on all range of topics relating to the university/student relationship – law and governance. The simultaneous translation over two very full days was a new and exhausting experience but hugely interesting and rewarding.

Finally, it is with some incredulity (or I could say, alarm) that I realised today is May day. The year is speeding past and while the Student Voice pilot is not quite up and running, we are moving closer towards having everything in place. I am confident that we will get there shortly with all of your support.
In the meantime, student voice is definitely making headway in institutions across the sector and in national bodies. Most recently, it was announced that Sadie Heckenberg, the President of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Postgraduate Association (NATSIPA) is among the new appointments to the Higher Education Standards Panel. Go Sadie!

Watching the Irish pilot program progress

As I am working to put in place the necessary steps to embark on the Student Voice Australia pilot program, I am closely following the Irish example. Their National Student Engagement Programme (NStEP) was launched in March 2016 by the program partners, the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). The 2016 pilot stage involved five higher education institutions and by April 2017 the program had grown to include 23 higher education institutions across the public and private higher education sectors. The aims of the program are:
• To develop student capabilities to engage in quality enhancement and assurance activities at all levels of the higher education system.
• To assist institutions to develop processes and activities, which support/facilitate the meaningful engagement of students.
• Strengthen the value placed on student engagement across Ireland and develop tools and resources to support a common understanding and build effective practice.
The Irish program and these aims provide the inspiration for the work here. Reports are now coming out from the institutions involved as they review their progress – check out the NstEP site http://studentengagement.ie/ and also those of the participating institutions – for example that of Maymooth, the National University of Ireland https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/dean-teaching-learning/national-student-engagement-programme-nstep.
The program in Ireland is fortunate to work as a partnership between sector agencies. Although in Australia the work has the support of such agencies such as TEQSA and the separate and combined peak student bodies, it will exist essentially as a collaboration between the 10 participating institutions.
It will be hosted at UTS and, as I am discovering, working through the processes required to put such a program together is no mean feat. I am lucky to have the support and advice of representatives from the pilot institutions here.
It is important to get it right. It will play no small part in the sustainability of student partnership here. This is particularly the case in the appointment of the Student Voice Project Officer. This person will fulfil a central role in the pilot in working with the participating institutions in facilitation or progression of student partnership processes. They will perform many functions one of which may be, where required, helping institutions in developing processes for training and support of student academic representatives at all levels, and working with student leaders to this end. Evidence from comparative sectors abroad points overwhelmingly to the importance of these representative systems to develop capability and confidence in students to have an effective voice up through all levels of an institution’s decision-making.
To quote from a tweet congratulating an Irish class rep of the year: ‘Class Reps are vital partners in enhancing higher education for all students’.

What is the new UK Office for Students up to? – watch this space

First steps towards a Student Voice Australia Pilot program

Yesterday was a very exciting day for me and for student voice in Australia as we had the first meeting of the institutions who have indicated their willingness to participate in the pilot program. It was wonderful that the leaders of the national peak student bodies were able to join us – Mark Pace (NUS), Natasha Abrahams (CAPA), Sadie Heckenberg (NATSIPA), Bijay Sapkota (CISA) with us in spirit. And we welcomed Ethan Taylor, the founding President of UATSIS – the newly formed association of undergraduate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students. Their input is central to this work.
At my Fellowship symposium in September 2017 I launched the STEPUP for quality enhancement Principles and Framework developed from the national sector-wide collaboration during the year (in which many of you took part). The pilot program, which involves ten institutions, aims to assist in facilitation of those principles across the sector by building on the initiatives already happening in the diverse range of institutions providing tertiary education in Australia. It takes a lead from NStEP Ireland and aims at the sustainability and progression of student engagement to student partnership in sector culture and practice. The pilot follows the sentiment of the symposium, expressed by institution staff and leaders, and students and student leaders across the sector.
Importantly the initiatives currently underway within institutions throughout Australia, many of which were showcased at the symposium, are student-driven. Many of the institutions have agreed to join the pilot at the instigation and through the work of their student leaders.
Yesterday’s meeting had open and valuable dialogue between institutional representatives and student leaders. It was agreed to form a Steering Committee made up of a representative and a student leader from each of the participating institutions. The most important step will be appointing the right person as co-ordinator.
For more details of the Fellowship, the Project which preceded it, and the Pilot as it progresses, watch this website and the Facebook page.
[Note – ‘university’ is to be changed to ‘institution’ as the work now rightly includes all institutions making up the tertiary sector].
I would welcome your comments in the Discussion section here and on the Facebook page.
More later …

Student initiatives – new year thoughts

New Year thoughts …
Over the break I have been able to reflect on the moves being made in Australian institutions towards embedding cultures of student partnership. Over the past two years I have discovered so much that is going on within institutions and it is very exciting. How best to sustain and support this trend into the future? There is such a diverse range of institutions and student bodies and it is clear that this diversity is reflected in the processes which have been put in place in different institutions. There is much strength to be gained from the initiatives and the professionalism shown by student bodies within universities, and nationally, in the lead they are taking to embed a strong student voice across the sector. I feel this is hugely significant.
Looking internationally, it is clear that effective student partnership is student-driven: sparqs in Scotland, TSEP in the UK, and NZUSA for example – students working together with institutions and national bodies such as quality agencies (QAA in the UK, AQA in New Zealand). There is now a lot to suggest this is now happening within institutions and nationally in Australia (the MOU with TEQSA shows this).
In visiting different institutions in New South Wales and Victoria prior to Christmas, I met with various groups of student leaders and representatives who, often at their instigation, were working together with their institutions in developing ideas for partnership which suited the particular circumstances. It is so good that this work is accompanied by strong buy-in from management in terms of their institutional strategy and direction, and by academic and professional staff in terms of support. I am confident that this direction of student organisations will go from strength to strength as they see it as their role into the future. This is however hugely dependent on effective knowledge transfer and handover from the outgoing to incoming student leaders. It is essential to ensure new leaders ‘hit the ground running’ in working with their institutions. It is so good that the NUS January student leaders’ summit will continue to stress this factor which is so vital to student partnership moving forward.
I see professional executive personnel working within student associations in institutions as key also to sustaining and developing the capability and confidence in students to facilitate partnership. It was great to be contacted by a group of personnel who fulfil this function – the Tertiary Access Group. Among other things they undertake training and support for student leaders and reps in their student bodies. I met with Mitch Trevena from La Trobe and Lowan Sist from Monash during the TEQSA conference in November when they outlined their roles and we discussed ways in which they can help in embedding student voice into the future. I look forward to talking at their annual conference in May this year.
Of huge significance on the national scene is the agreement entered into on 16 December between the peak student bodies – NUS, CAPA, CISA and NATSIPA – to work together on all matters affecting their constituents. This agreement, together with the respective MOU’s entered into by these bodies with TEQSA, is a major step in the ability of students to work together with their institutions and the national regulator, for the enhancement of quality and of the student experience.
Another exciting move is that lead taken by CAPA in running a student-led session on the satellite day of the Universities Australia annual conference in late Feb/March. These students have put out a call for other student groups to join them and I look forward to an informative and valuable session.
Before the Christmas closure seven universities had put themselves forward to be part of the pilot student partnership program to be instigated in 2018. This is so heartening – more on it later …

year end

As the working year draws to a close and I am on my way to New Zealand for Christmas with my family, I am writing to thank you all for your support and enthusiasm for my endeavours and for student partnership generally in the Australian tertiary education sector during my OLT project in 2015-2016 and my Fellowship this year.

It has been hugely busy and rewarding and I am full of hope that the meaningful and authentic engagement of student voice is on the way to becoming ‘the way we do things’ in the sector.  I would like to take the credit but in reality I am lucky to have been part of ‘the idea that’s time has come to Australia’.   There is so much evidence now emerging which suggests that it is a path worth travelling for the benefit of the sector in terms of enhancement of quality, student experience and professional development.

Thanks to your valuable input we have concluded the STEPUP for quality enhancement Principles and Framework, and a Toolkit to assist with facilitation.  The attendance at the 1 September symposium was phenomenal and its success was due to all of your contributions – particularly those who shared their student partnership initiatives – and hearing of the development of student engagement in Ireland from Cat O’Driscoll.   There is so much to be learned from other sectors.  I am fortunate to have had the sage advice of Eve Lewis from sparqs, and also the members of my Advisory Group here.

The dedicated and professional group of national student leaders – Sophie, Peter, Bijay and Sadie – have concluded MOUs with TEQSA and on Saturday they entered into an historic agreement to work collaboratively to progress student issues.  I have worked also with an amazing bunch of students, student leaders, student representatives and student body executives from institutions across Australia.  All have impressed me with their dedication and energy for progressing student voice at the same time as advancing their studies.

As well as the great collaborative workshops and the symposium, a high point was the TEQSA conference in November with its strong focus on student voice, with many of the 80 students present involved in sessions.

In 2018 I am hoping we can move further towards sustainable student partnership in the sector and I will be in touch with you again then.  Thank you to those institutions who have agreed to be part of the student partnership pilot – more needed.

Sadly, my Fellowship Manager Ann Cahill is moving on to new pastures though I am sure she will always maintain an interest in this area.  I’m sure you will all appreciate the hugely valuable role she has performed and thank her for that.

Please feel free to contact me at any time over the break – particularly if you have great ideas and suggestions.

In the meantime, wishing you all a very happy and relaxing holiday season.

Sally Varnham

19 Decmber 2017










Agreement entered into by national student associations

Congratulations to National Union of Students (NUS), Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA),  Council of International Students Australia (CISA) and  National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Postgraduate Association (NATSIPA) on the  agreement they have entered into to work together on  major issues.

Sally Varnham

19 December 2017






Student Leaders’ Student Voice Summit

An important initiative I am working on with NUS and TEQSA is a national student leaders’ student voice summit. This is something that is already happening in New Zealand and the program they ran in September 2017 provided a great blend of sessions looking at student leadership from diverse perspectives. While there was a focus on the quality agenda, the sessions included a look at the way decisions are made in universities as well as sessions focussed on helping student leaders to understand what partnership looks like and to help them more effectively carry out their roles.

Importantly, it brings together the outgoing and incoming student leaders across the sector with the aim of both knowledge transfer and capacity building among high level student representatives.

At present there are a number of national opportunities for Australian student leaders to come together but these are typically under the auspices of various national student bodies.

These gatherings are of course important to furthering the aims of those bodies. Nonetheless it would be highly desirable to see an opportunity for student leaders to take part in a forum that transcends specific agendas. This style of gathering is will require some support from institutions to make it possible for their outgoing and incoming student leaders to attend.

The various national student associations – NUS, CAPA, CISA and NATSIPA – have stated a commitment to work together to further student partnership. The Summit as proposed creates an opportunity for the timing of their national meetings to be aligned so that student leaders could efficiently attend different national engagements. This in turn might encourage greater idea and resource sharing and streamline meeting agendas by reducing duplication of sessions.

There is plenty of food for thought on how best to set this up. There are already examples of student summits running at the local level such as the student leadership initiatives running at Charles Sturt University. At a national level we need to start somewhere and as we become more sophisticated, the model will be refined (as has been the case in New Zealand).

A clear goal has to be to make such a leadership summit available to all student leaders regardless of what other affiliations they may hold. This means that even if the summit needs to be hosted by a particular association it should not be seen as being only for members of that association.

Sally Varnham
18 December 2017