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 and also those of the participating institutions – for example that of Maymooth, the National University of Ireland
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

Training and supporting student representatives

Throughout my Fellowship I have talked about the importance of training and support for students engaged in representative roles. The toolkit we are creating continues this discussion. It includes two very different examples of how training and support can be provided. The first comes from a pilot program hosted at UTS Faculty of Law.

A pilot project was initiated in the law faculty at UTS, working with students and staff engaged in the undergraduate LLB program to determine whether this type of engagement with students would be beneficial to staff, students and the program.
Student representatives received training before the committee met and were provided with ongoing support. Training was provided during a two-hour session that was run twice to suit student timetables. Two trainers worked together using slides and other tools to lead students through their responsibilities as representatives and how they could go about carrying them out.

Staff participating in the committee were recruited according to their roles and were briefed about the program through a staff seminar. No training session was provided, and it was concluded that staff training was likely to be desirable. This provided a valuable lesson in emphasising the importance of ‘bringing staff along’ with the partnership experience – in terms of their seeing the potential benefits of working with students for enhancement of their courses.

The second example is a leadership program that has been implemented at Charles Sturt University to assist with training and supporting student leaders.

STRIVE – A CSU Student Leadership Program is a pilot program that provided students with the opportunity to learn about leadership and develop their leadership skills, to get recognition for their existing leadership positions both within and external (local, national and international) to CSU.

The Program comprises four strands, each containing a collection of modules. STRIVE was designed to be completed through ten online modules taking about 30 hours in total to complete and the practical application of a leadership role, also involving about 30 hours of practical activities. On successful completion students receive a CSU Certificate in Leadership and recognition on AHEGS.

CSU have also held Student Leadership Conferences that aim to build a network of student leaders and assist with the development of student leadership skills.

These are just two examples of the potential gains for universities, their staff and their students in working together for enhancement.

Sally Varnham
11 December 2017

SAR toolkit

The toolkit we are creating includes a section on student academic representation. This student representative opportunity can begin at course, year or subject level (as appropriate to the course of study students are engaged in). Such a system is seen as having huge value not only in giving a wide number and range of students the opportunity to have a voice in enhancement of quality and their student experience, but importantly also in developing a broad base of students with the experience, ability and confidence to progress through to faculty and university committees and senior governance roles. It provides opportunity for many students to participate in a capacity closely matched with their level of experience and to develop skills in representing fellow students.

The toolkit includes examples around SAR from the symposium initiative sharing session. The first was provided by NZUSA and VUWSA. New Zealand universities, and now some polytechnics, operate a system of course representation which involves having a representative in every class to improve the learning experience for current as well as for future students. Reps provide feedback regarding their own experience as a learner and the experiences of their peers. They are also invited to comment on, and provide input to, proposed changes.

At the University of South Australia, the Academic Student Representative (ASR) Program operates within the Division of Education, Arts and Social Sciences (this provided a Case Study for my OLT project reported on my website). This program operates at the year level to assist with improving the quality and experience of learning and the teaching within the Division as well as helping to improve extracurricular experience. The role may also include attending School Board and Divisional Teaching and Learning meetings and non-academic engagement with Campus USASA Representatives and the Student Engagement Officer to discuss ideas for club and student engagement activities.

These are just two examples of how engagement at the SAR level can be put into effect. There is now a body of evidence from sectors abroad of the value for all in such a system (see…/).

Sally Varnham
4 December 2017

Creating a student partnership agreement

Last week I talked about the toolkit we are developing as one of the deliverables for my Fellowship. This week I want to continue with that topic.

An important area of focus is the development of student partnership agreements. Their value is highlighted by Eve Lewis, Director of sparqs:

“We believe that Student Partnership Agreements will be a useful tool for institutions and students’ associations alike. They are a practical way in which to talk to the student body as a whole not only about what enhancement activity is taking place, but also about how they can get involved in it. This is an important step in helping students to help shape the quality of their education.”

Sparqs has published guidance for development of Student Partnership Agreements in different types of tertiary institutions:
Guidance on the development and implementation of a Student Partnership Agreement in universities

Guidance for the development and implementation of a Student Partnership Agreement in colleges

Although written for a Scottish context they contain many useful ideas and templates that can be used in creating agreements within Australian institutions. There is at least one Australian university that has utilised the sparqs approach and their story featured in the initiative sharing session at the 2017 symposium for my Fellowship.

The ANU Academic Board has endorsed a Student Partnership Agreement developed between the Presidents of their undergraduate and postgraduate student associations, ANUSA and PARSA respectively, and the Pro Vice-Chancellor (University Experience). It was drafted through consultation between the student body, the two Student Associations and the University.

The Student Partnership Agreement consists of two components. Part A outlines the Academic Board’s commitment to working with students as partners to improve the university experience. Part B outlines initiatives that will enhance student engagement. The Chair, Academic Board, Pro Vice-Chancellor (University Experience) and Student Representatives will meet annually to review the Student Partnership Agreement and initiatives.

The ANU agreement provides an inspiring example of what can be achieved in a relatively short timeframe.

Sally Varnham
27 November 2017