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


One of the deliverables from my Fellowship is a toolkit that aims to provide you with ideas, hints and resources that may be of assistance in your journey to embed student partnership at your institution. It brings together insights from institutions in Australia that are doing good things with respect to partnering with their students in decision making processes. The Australian examples we draw on were featured during the initiative sharing session at the final symposium for my Fellowship.

In places the toolkit refers to the good work being done by organisations such as sparqs that are further along the road to student partnership and have developed excellent tools that you will find useful. Some of those tools are also mentioned in the Australian examples included in the toolkit.

The key aspects of student partnership that feature in the toolkit include building partnership. Building partnership with students is a challenge for institutions as this may require a culture shift amongst at least some of the institution’s stakeholders.

Developing student partnership in an institution takes time. Time is needed to build trust and common understanding and to address concerns that stakeholders may have around what student partnership means in practice.

Nonetheless institutions are embracing this challenge. The toolkit provides examples of Australian institutions that are doing just that. One example, the Student Partnership Agreement, is from the Australian National University, and I will discuss this further in my next blog.

Another example of a key student partnership initiative is that of the University of South Australia. It has developed a Student Engagement Framework to provide an enhanced student experience and increased student engagement across the University. This involved extensive consultation with staff, students, alumni and industry partners. Student Project Support Officers are working on a range of projects in collaboration with staff in the delivery of an enhanced student experience.

Queensland University of Technology have also been developing student partnership processes.

Pilot projects saw staff and students working together to re-imagine curriculum. Their goal is to embed student partnership across the institution, while encouraging approaches that will complement individual discipline’s cultures. An interdisciplinary Working Party of staff and students was formed to guide implementation across the Institution. The Think Tank-Academic Governance (TTAG) has also been established to improve the way students engage in academic governance at QUT. The Think Tank members include students in representative roles on Committees and Boards, other students who are not in formal representative roles, and professional and Academic staff representing the co-curricular space, faculties and the Learning and Teaching Unit.

The QUT examples highlight the need for flexibility. Clearly a one size fits all approach won’t work. Nonetheless student partnership remains relevant no matter how students engage in learning. Students have a right to participate in shaping their experience and they have much to offer.

Sally Varnham
20 November 2017

Should institutions review their student engagement?

All institutions are involving their students in decision making processes in various ways and to varying degrees. Would it be useful now for them to ask themselves critical questions around where and how they are engaging their students? Sectors overseas have seen this to be a valuable step as institutions and their student cohorts progress towards student partnership.

During my OLT project we saw examples where institutions lacked an overview of where their students were involved in decision making. Institutional websites with difficult to navigate information about opportunities for engagement are a part of that story. Inconsistencies between survey responses and anecdotal evidence of engagement provided to me at conferences and supported by subsequent follow-up told another part of the story. It is clear that lots of people are doing good things but it is a shame that the message isn’t permeating as thoroughly as it could.

The other side of this dilemma is the question of how students are engaged and there is plenty of evidence that institutions often still see ex post facto consultative models as engagement.

Although it requires an investment of time a good starting point on the road to effective and sustainable partnership for institutions is to examine where and how they are engaging students through a review or audit process. It would be useful to ask all members of institutions where and how they believe students are engaged in their decision-making whether academic or otherwise. That input could then be compared with documentary evidence in policies, websites, statutory instruments. Parameters that could be considered include the number of students engaged, how they are recruited, the duration of their engagement, how they are expected to interface with other institutional stakeholders in the process, what training and support they receive and how successful that engagement is. On the question of success, measures such as students turning up, actively participating and following through on assigned tasks (if there are any) are useful.

Simply sending out a survey is not enough although it is a start. Surveys are typically plagued by poor response rates. It would be of more use to delve deeper and to prioritise this activity as not just another piece of busy work. The time commitment per individual should not be significant but gaining comprehensive feedback would be. Opportunities such as student flash pizza sessions (to borrow from our friends in Adelaide) provide a good way to gather evidence. Brainstorming sessions during faculty, division or school meetings are another.

Armed with this information institutions could start to map how they are interacting with their students and where the gaps are. A picture would form of styles of engagement and where attempts at engagement are not working. This would open channels for a dialogue around how things can be done better.

Opportunities to consider how student engagement is communicated arise and again gaps can be identified. Institutions would also benefit from turning the spotlight on innovative and effective practices occurring in their midst that may have gone largely unnoticed.

The opportunities for improvement, removing ineffective and time-wasting processes and replacing them with more effective options, learning from one another and above all enhancing student experience would I believe make the investment in this process well worthwhile.

Finally, although I have expressed this process from an institutional perspective ideally the process of reviewing student engagement should be carried out as a partnership between all stakeholders ensuring that the process is robust and respected.

Sally Varnham
13 November 2017

Architects of their experience- what the report found and what it means for us – Student Academic Representative systems (SARs)

In last week’s blog, I briefly mentioned the recent report Flint, A., Goddard, H. and Russell, E. (2017) Architects of their experience: the role, value and impact of student representation systems in Higher Education in England, TSEP,…/. This week I want to share with you an overview of some of the key points made in that report and what it means for us here in Australia. While the tertiary education sector of each country has its own special unique character, it is important that we learn from the experience of others. The overall message of this research is that the engagement of student voice is of value to providers, to students and to higher education as a whole. It does however recognise the challenges in implementation of processes for authentic student engagement and offers suggestions from which are useful. The report was published by The Student Engagement Partnership (TSEP), a partnership of the National Union of Students, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the Higher Education Academy and the funding council HEFCE (about to become the Office for Students). This group champions and develops student engagement practice in the English higher education sector. The research was undertaken by a team led by Abbi Flint, an independent educational developer and researcher who is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy with specialist interest and experience in student engagement and partnership.

The research was born out of TSEP ‘s recognition of the importance of student representation in quality enhancement and learning and teaching and the absence of current analysis of English student representation systems. TSEP promotes the view that “the continued success of representation systems is rooted in collaboration between the provider and their student body”. The report analyses a limited qualitative research study exploring how higher education providers and their students’ associations perceive the role, value and impact of their student academic representation (SAR) systems.

What does Student Academic Representation (SAR) look like?
There is no universal model in England- both strategy and operation are diverse ‘… it is adaptable and flexible to different contexts and organisational cultures’. Important influences are the culture and ethos of the institution and students’ association, other organisational factors, individual perspectives and external drivers including institutional reputation and changing national policy. In short it is a system that exists in a complex landscape with many demands impinging on how it operates. Many of those demands resonate with experience here in Australia.

SAR tends to be framed in the broader context of student engagement and voice, with a common purpose around enabling student perspectives to be gathered, listened to, and to inform enhancement and educational change. SAR continues to be valued highly with potential benefits for multiple stakeholders and is perceived to influence change in academic and wider aspects of the student experience. However, there are also common challenges and areas that provide opportunity for future development, and there are numerous local developments underway to ensure that SAR remains relevant and effective in the changing context of HE in England.

Where student voice has traditionally rested on consultation (which is often the case in Australia) there are challenges for institutions in implementing a partnership model. For some the effective exercise of SAR may be impeded by the reality or perception of power imbalances between institutions and student bodies, and by institutional culture. It was seen that there is still a need to build support for and engagement with SAR as a partnership model and for developing strong working relationships between institution, staff, student bodies and student associations is seen as critical to success.

Responsibility for the development of SAR systems tends to lie with students’ associations though often it may in reality be shared with their institutions Training tends to be led by students’ associations. Roles in recruitment and selection processes for representatives vary. Joint activities typically include: promoting SAR, collaboratively acting on issues raised through SAR, recruitment and selection, and developing shared strategic visions and documents relating to student engagement and representation.

The articulated purpose of SAR varied with interviewees. Generally it included dealing with academic matters such as quality, curriculum design, development, validity and delivery, and wider student experience issues. A key question was whether the SAR operates mainly to provide feedback on current experiences, or whether it is permitted to have a more proactive role in areas such as curriculum and course development. Student voice towards quality assurance and quality enhancement was a common element of how SAR was defined and articulated.

While this purpose may vary across disciplines, faculties and campuses essentially it is seen as being integral to gathering student voice, to feeding into discussions and developments, and as part of decision-making processes.

More could be done to clarify and communicate the overarching shared role of SAR as a system:
Without a clearly articulated purpose for SAR, there can be misunderstandings and a lack of clarity around the role of individual student representatives and how they work with provider staff at the local level’.

The report questions where the boundaries of SAR lie, and what activities could be legitimately included in the definition of ‘representation’ (a matter which was discussed extensively during my collaborative workshop program).

Many participants recognised the inclusivity of SAR as a challenge, in the context of the changing nature of the student body and modes of study, and were thinking about how to address this (in some cases collaboratively)’. Among the challenges there were those relating to student demographics, for example student groups with limited campus contact.

Staff engagement with SAR is essential and currently varies according to their attitudes to and understanding of the system and its value. Factors identified included pressures on staff time and resources, and difficulties in accepting student views which were uncomfortable. Student representation is perceived to be strongest where there is a positive commitment from staff (at all levels) to the SAR process and generally to wide student engagement in the institution. The Report reinforces the importance for staff to be supported, resourced and trained to work with SAR systems (also discussed extensively in my workshops and during my dissemination activities).

Students’ perceptions of SAR were also seen to be challenging: how to encourage students to appreciate they could become representatives, for them to know how or with whom to raise issues, and for existing representatives to see their role in the context of the wider work of the students’ association.

There was also the view that operation of SAR through institutional structures and mechanisms can be problematic in creating power imbalances and a lack of flexibility in promoting student representative participation. Participants reported exploring more informal and interactive models of engagement.

These findings reinforce our view of the huge importance of training and support for both students and staff.

Training for representatives
Training was identified as an area where work needs to be done to ensure that it is delivered effectively to student representatives and that the content delivered is addressing student representative needs. This includes differentiating the training for representatives in more senior roles.

The value and impact of SAR
This area is obviously of most importance to the sector in Australia as we work towards facilitating sustaining student partnership models. The research found that SAR has benefits for institutions through ‘contributing an alternative perspective to ensure the currency and relevance of the offer to students’ and keeping ‘the student perspective at the centre of what the provider does’. It is also seen as an opportunity for sharing practice between disciplines and as having value to the culture and community of an institution.

SAR benefits individual student representatives through personal and professional development, and students’ unions through building reputation and credibility with the provider leading to political benefits. SAR should also benefit the wider student population and there are also developmental benefits to individual provider staff.

SAR was reported to drive and inform change in diverse aspects of academic delivery and quality including teaching quality; module and assessment design; responding to course survey feedback; influencing plans for course moves, closures, and redesigns; influencing changes in module selection processes; changes to the academic framework and timetable; input into specific learning and teaching projects; and informing Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) submissions.

What this means for us
The importance of this research is the value it places on the exercise of student voice through student representative systems. Of equal importance is learning from the challenges the research identifies and the responses it suggests.

The strongest lesson is the importance of building relationships and embedding an ethos of partnership, and supporting all participants within the system. Partnership models that seek to address power imbalances are essential.

It is important to recognise that student representative systems are neither static nor can they be uniform across our diverse tertiary education sector. They need to be adapted to institutional context and to a changing landscape.

This research is both timely and encouraging.

Sally Varnham
6 November 2017