Launch workshop

On Friday I held my Fellowship launch workshop which opened up a sector-wide collaboration towards a shared understanding of student partnership: what it is, why it should be and how it may be facilitated within institutions and the sector.

There was a great attendance of institution senior managers and their nominees, and a large number of students from across Australia.  Not only was there a capacity turn out but the enthusiasm and the willingness of all to contribute to the discussion was impressive.   It indicated not only an interest but a considerable appetite in the sector for exploring the embedding of student partnership within universities.  The students made an overwhelming contribution and were reasoned and articulate in this.  Many of those present had already initiated practices within their universities and were able to contribute their ideas and insights from these.  We also had the benefit of the experience of senior managers who had come to Australia from sectors overseas where student partnership is more embedded.

The idea of these workshops is to create a forum for open, safe and respectful discussion between all members of university communities and the sector to explore what initiatives mean and how they may be facilitated in their institutions.   The attendees are asked to contribute their thoughts in respect of the questions posed in the Briefing document and at the workshops during the session or at any time, on survey monkey  The vision is at the conclusion of the workshop program we will be able to put together a draft set of principles and a framework for student partnership based on a common understanding.   For this to happen it is vital that the sector has ownership of the ideas and the collaborative process is designed to work towards this.

It is new, and I would really appreciate receiving your feedback and ideas for how it may be done better as it progresses.

During the workshop program we will be collating responses and posting newsletters with themes which have emerged.  Please watch this space and have your say.

Sally Varnham

Sector-wide collaboration

This is the week we launch the Fellowship sector-wide collaboration. The aim is to reach an agreed set of principles and a framework for student partnership through engagement. To the launch event here at UTS on Friday 28th April we invited DVC/PVCs or their nominees, and students from around Australia. The attendance is looking very exciting and is almost at capacity.

The invitations are much wider for the state workshops – any university personnel and students who are involved in student engagement or have an interest in the area and wish to be involved are welcome to attend. The dates, times and venues are listed below. There will also be an opportunity to provide input online.

The plan with the launch and the state workshops is to keep them short and focussed with attendees being asked to record their input online during the discussions. We have prepared and sent out a Briefing Paper to all those who are attending so they can get a glimpse of the research which has been conducted in Australia and elsewhere, together with the student partnership initiatives put in place in other sectors such as the UK, Europe and New Zealand. We will be posting the Briefing Paper on this web page.

The Briefing paper also has these questions designed to lead into the discussion:

1. What opportunities should universities be providing for students to participate in decision making in their institutions?

Communication and Transparency
2. How should institutions be communicating with students about those opportunities and outcomes from engagement?

Student Leadership
3. How can universities best work with student leaders to develop and maintain effective student representation?

All student voices
4. What can universities do to encourage representation of all student voices?

A national partnership culture
5. On a national level what should the sector be doing to further a partnership culture?

This series of workshops builds on the wide interest which has been shown by the sector over the course of my research and my Fellowship. The idea is to now provide the opportunity for all members of the sector, senior managers and students, academics and professional university staff to share their knowledge, experience and insights on the role of student voice in university decision making and governance.

Workshop program
Fellowship Launch UTS 28 April 1-3pm
Queensland – Brisbane QUT Kelvin Grove Campus 3 May 9-11am
South Australia – University of Adelaide 24 May 1-3pm
Melbourne – RMIT Storey Hall 26 May 10am -12 noon
Western Australia – Murdoch University Perth 2 June 9.30-11.30am
The New South Wales workshop will be at UTS in June – date TBA

While I am encouraged by the enthusiasm shown in the sector, I want to stress that my role is to facilitate a wide discussion on this very important area and it is your views which are central to this exercise.

Sally Varnham

From ‘You said, and we listened’ to true partnership

This theme ran through the recent sparqs conference in Edinburgh. It is an important lesson to take as we in Australia move to consider how best to engage student voice in university decision-making and governance.

‘You said, we listened’ relies essentially on student feedback and in reality the university is deciding the terms of engagement of student voice. Of course feedback is a good place to start. Student views… on the learning and teaching that has occurred in their subjects and courses, and on their university experience generally, are obviously important to the university in planning for the future. And it is essential to this process that students are able to see the effect of their input – the changes made by the university in response to their feedback.

This process is however ‘reactive’ rather than proactive. It places the emphasis on students as passive consumers rather than as active and engaged partners. Why not involve students from the beginning of development of courses and curricula; of designing methods of delivery for teaching and learning; and in formulating university plans and strategy? Why not ask students for their ideas and use them as ‘change agents’? A culture of partnership requires the university to work together with students where possible on matters from course content and delivery through to university strategy, and the vast array of operations which affect the university community.

While student feedback clearly has its place, it is controversial. Most universities do take their feedback exercises seriously and use them as a means of adapting to students’ wants and needs. The relatively low numbers of responses may indicate however that the process is looked on by many as ‘box-ticking’ with little real affect in terms of enhancement of their courses and their university experience. Another cynical view is that student feedback surveys are used mainly for university rankings and tuition fees. See for example the student uproar in the UK in relation to the Teaching Excellence Framework which relies to significant extent on the National Student Survey: ‘Universities and NUS plan boycott of flagship teaching rankings’ The Guardian 22 November 2016…/universities-nus-boycott-teac….

Effective and authentic student voice is now accepted in comparative sectors abroad to embrace more than asking after the fact. Rather student/university partnership is embedded as a ‘way of being’ for institutions in all that they do. There is evidence that many Australian institutions are moving towards this ethos also. Student partnership will be explored further as I move towards the sector collaboration.



Sector development of student partnership principles in Ireland

The great thing about my work is that there are now so many sectors abroad going down the student partnership path – their innovations and experiences are valuable. This week I will concentrate on the sector development of student partnership principles in Ireland. Their National Project on student engagement was begun in 2014 with the establishment of a Working Group by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). This body worked together with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and the Qualifications and Quality Authority Ireland (QQI) to establish, in 2016, a set of principles, and to begin the pilot National Student Engagement Programme which is currently underway.

The Irish project was assisted by Eve Lewis from student partnerships in quality Scotland (sparqs) and was influenced by the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG) which have principles of student-centred processes embedded throughout.
Clearly it is of great value to us in Australia to look at this process and to follow the Irish experience to see what leads we may take. This is both from the development of the principles and the 18 month pilot National Student Engagement Programme as it progresses. The latter has two ‘streams’ – the course rep programme to build student capacity, and building institutional process and capacity for student engagement.
The Chair of the Working group, Professor Tom Collins, said in launching his report which led to the Principles and the pilot Programme:

Student engagement essentially means student involvement in governance and management, quality assurance, and teaching and learning. While students are ultimately responsible for their own learning and level of engagement, effective student engagement also depends on institutional conditions, policies and culture that enable and encourage students to get involved. The benefits of effective student engagement can include better retention rates, higher levels of satisfaction with educational outcomes, and better student/staff relationships on college campuses. ( )

I would also add to this the value in assisting the professional development of students as critical thinkers, innovators, leaders and citizens.

Now I focus on Cat O’Driscoll, a key initiator of the Irish initiative and now the Co-ordinator of the pilot. Her path demonstrates the sequence which became clear to us time and time again in our project research overseas. Cat, who I met at the sparqs conference, began her journey as a course rep in the early days of her studies at University College Cork. She then chaired that university’s Student Council, becoming sabbatical Vice-President for education. She took the knowledge, experience and confidence she had gained there into the national and international contexts – becoming first a Vice-President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) later working with the European Students Union (ESU). Her motivation for starting out of this path she gives as ‘wanting to fix things’, and as she moved up through the system she found that her roles all fed into each other: ‘… though each level is not always aware of the others. For instance, course reps don’t always understand the national structures, and national representatives tend not to understand the international dimension’. But, she says, while there are differences between disciplines and countries students generally face the same issues and challenges.

Cat acknowledges that there is still ‘variable practice in the sector’ and there is much work to be done in the programme. She looks to student reps and student organisations to be instrumental in working with universities to drive engagement practices to wider implementation and embedding.

For the interview see:

Further resources for the Irish process:
‘Embedding the Principles of Student Engagement’…/principles_student_engagement_insert_fi…
A Vision for Partnership – USI Student Engagement Policy…/…/2016/03/A-Vision-for-Partnership-USI.docx
The National Student Engagement Programme


Student Partnership Agreements

Last week I talked about the sparqs conference I attended in Edinburgh recently.   In this and my next few blogs I will be pointing to the highlights for me in terms of learning opportunities but I recommend you to check out the range of session topics for yourselves (link at the end).

On a personal note I felt that our work towards student partnerships in the Australian sector received a big boost, and likewise for the New Zealand contingent from NZUSA and Ako Aotearoa.   There was great attendance and engagement at my two presentations and an interview  I had done with sparqs earlier about the project and Fellowship (which appeared on their website in October) was reproduced in the sparqs newsletter in the attendees conference pack  (the link:

This week I want to continue highlighting the value of the conference sessions to my work, devoting this blog to the sessions on Student Partnership Agreements.   These agreements have appeared on the sparqs agenda for some time and the conference presented a great opportunity to hear about how they are being developed and implemented.

Presentations from Robert Gordon University and Glasgow Caledonian University focussed on initiatives in this area.  Kevin Campbell, Vice President of the GCU Students Association talked about the process for revisiting their existing agreement pursuant to his election manifesto, looking at whether it really reflected partnership, its accessibility and use since development.  This involved research groups of both staff and students working separately and together.  The key matters identified were a need for new feedback mechanisms to ensure the agreement was simpler, a ‘living document’, working for all and accompanied by a better communication plan.  This agreement was to be drafted and agreed to by both 50% each staff and students.  A Student Summit was convened with 100s of staff and students attending and the draft agreement was discussed in depth in terms of content and how it would be used.  Most importantly it was agreed to be used at all levels in order that it be normalised – student/staff consultative groups, school boards and all occasions when students and staff work together.  In Kevin’s words “We want to ensure that this [GCU Community Partnership Agreement] is a living model of how to work in partnership to ensure an excellent student experience”.

The most important message for me from this, the similar presentation from RGU and the sparqs conference generally, was the emphasis on staff and students working together to agree the fundamentals of a culture of partnership.   This applies to all the university does – from learning and teaching through to university strategy and governance.

Too often is ‘student engagement’ defined unilaterally by university staff and management.  We need to move away from this mindset to an ethos of true partnership.

For the presentations on student partnership agreements, together with the huge range of valuable presentations on all facets of student partnership, see .


Sparqs conference 2017

It has been very clear from the beginning of my research that the culture of student partnership in universities is becoming well embedded in sectors overseas, and we are fortunate to be able to look to their knowledge and experience. This is reflected in the draft Project report which appears on our website My work on student partnership in Australia is hugely inspired by the trailblazer – student partnerships in quality Scotland known as sparqs. The presentation of its leader, Eve Lewis, was hugely motivational for those who attended our project final symposium, and this was carried through in the excellent workshops she ran for students and staff the following day. Last week I had the good fortune to attend and present at the sparqs conference in Edinburgh. From the time the conference was opened by the Scottish Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Shirley-Anne Somerville) there was a buzz among the hundreds of attendees who represented all parts of the higher education sectors of the UK and Europe particularly the very strong student presence. It was great to be an environment in which student partnership is a reality – accepted as ‘way things are done’ by all from the Minister down.

There were so many really valuable sessions I would like to write about here. Many I couldn’t attend as I presented twice myself, so the other Australian attendee, Kate Walsh from Flinders Uni has made notes to brief me on her return. I’ll pass these on in future blogs. A session which left a strong impression with me and gave me lots of food for thought was the student plenary panel. The members gave a range of perspectives – Rebecca McLennan, a former sparqs Associate Trainer, Vonnie Sandlan the current president of NUS Scotland and Adam Gajek of the European Students Union (ESU) and provided such valuable insights. It felt very validating to hear about the role students are playing and their professionalism when they receive the support of universities. Institutions and sectors who aren’t engaging students in partnership are missing a valuable opportunity both in course enhancement through to university strategy, and in the professional development of students. What was particularly clear was the importance of students in the training and support of others to undertake representative roles throughout the institutions (sparqs works with colleges of further education as well as universities), and nationally. The talk of Adam on the value of student partnerships in assisting in the development of citizens in democratic societies resonated strongly with me. Those who are familiar with my work will recognize that as a consistent driving factor.

Touched with a certain amount of incredulity, there was an enthusiasm and keenness to hear about the relative beginnings of student partnership thinking in Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Our sessions were well attended with engaged audiences, and I was involved in some great discussions during the breaks. I have returned with so many ideas and a heap of valuable contacts.

I also took the opportunity to accept the invitation of the student engagement group to visit the University of Edinburgh. More about those discussions in a later blog.

On a finishing note, we visited Teviot Row House (…/Teviot%20Row%20House%20(EUSA… ) the oldest student union building in the world which made me want to be a student again. However, I may have been almost counted out by the horrifying fact that women have only been admitted there since 1970. The age and layout of the building also poses huge challenges for disability access (as is shown on their webpage). At least we are lifetimes ahead in both these areas.


An agency supporting the sector

One of the features of student engagement in university decision-making elsewhere is the presence of sector agencies that support student engagement activities and promote student partnership.

In the UK the national entity which is the forerunner in support of student representation is student partnerships in quality Scotland (sparqs) (  In England and Wales in 2011/2012, The Student Engagement Partnership (TSEP) ( was formed between  the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) ( ), the National Union of Students (NUS), the Association of Colleges (AoC), the Higher Education Academy and the Guild of Higher Education (, There is also Wise Wales ( ).  A couple of examples illustrate the type of support these agencies provide.

In Scotland, sparqs supports students, student associations, universities and colleges to improve the effectiveness of student engagement in quality at the course, institutional and national levels. It provides a national training program and ongoing support, training and resources for institutional trainers, including toolkits for use in developing training.  Sparqs also provides representatives with opportunities for collaboration beyond their representative duties and training.  Representative forums and conferences allow for exchange of experiences, ideas, clarifications, trouble-shooting and extending knowledge bases. Recent initiatives include supporting the development of student partnership agreements within institutions and reporting of recognition and accreditation of academic representatives.

The Student Engagement Partnership (TSEP) operates in partnership with the sector organisations above to promote students as active partners in their education and student experience. It supports the sector in enabling students to be actively involved in the development, management and governance of their institution, its academic programs and their own learning experience.

An alternative approach is in New Zealand where the National Union of Students Associations (NZUSA) is supported in its student engagement work by the higher education and polytechnic sectors and by the Academic Quality Agency for New Zealand Universities (AQA) (

In developing a systemic approach to student engagement in decision-making for Australian universities it would be valuable to consider the provision of a sector-supported entity based on one of these models.


Celebrating student engagement

The sparqs 2017 conference is fast approaching and I am looking forward to talking there about what we have been doing in Australia, and to hearing about the many exciting initiatives that are taking place in student engagement in Scotland.

One of sparqs initiatives that will feature in the conference is their student engagement awards.  The awards are for:

  • An initiative led by a students’ association in partnership with their university which has made the most impact on the enhancement of the student experience
  • An initiative led by a students’ association in partnership with their college which has made the most impact on the enhancement of the student experience
  • A co-curricular initiative/project (curriculum design/curriculum delivery/assessment) which has had an impact across the college or university
  • A student-led initiative across the college or university which demonstrates a clear commitment to equality and diversity and has had an impact across the organisation
  • University course rep of the year
  • College course rep of the year

This is a great way to promote sharing of ideas through showcasing initiatives.  It is also a tangible demonstration that student engagement is an important and valued activity.


Taking opportunity to hear what students think

During the Student Voice project and now during my Fellowship I have adopted the practice of including students in ‘conversations’ and as individual speakers in my conference sessions.  It makes sense that if we are going to talk about student engagement in decision-making, students should play a big part in those discussions.  This inclusion of students has been very well received and they have provided valuable insights and ideas.  It has also been inspiring to see that it is not just the project team and the Fellowship that has promoted this approach.  At recent conferences, there have been other presentations that have enlisted students as part of the presenting team.  The most recent event was the Universities Australia Conference in Canberra where I attended three very successful sessions which involved student panellists.

At the satellite events which followed the Conference I conducted three sessions which included students.  For the Chairs of Academic Boards session I was joined by Lizzy O’Shea (former President of the UWA Student Guild) who presented her thoughts on processes for, and the value of authentic engagement of student voice at all levels of university decision-making.  At the following two events Winson Widarto (President ANUSA International Students Association), James Connolly (President ANUSA) and Rowan Alden (former student representative on CSU’s university council) discussed their initiatives for engagement of student voice; and  Peter Derbyshire (President of CAPA), Nina Khairina (President of CISA) and Sophie Johnston (President of NUS),  presented their ideas for the role of student leadership working in partnership with universities.  At all sessions the strong themes were training and support for student representatives, and the development of capability and knowledge starting with course representation.

Rowan Alden also talked about the particular challenges in engaging student voice at a regional multi-campus university such as Charles Sturt and her experiences with founding a student leadership conference which brought all student representatives together.  Because of its success, the university has continued to hold the event yearly.


Will student partnership in governance improve the bottom line for universities?

One of the questions that is raised in relation to initiatives seeking to promote students as partners engaged at all decision-making levels within Australian universities, is what is in it for the institutions?  The question presumes that this level of engagement will come at a cost, requiring universities to expend additional resources and possibly face new risks.  The question also seems to assume that institutions will only commit to such programs if they see them as enhancing their bottom line.  While there may be some readily identifiable costs associated with committing to championing student partnership at individual institutions it is unlikely that there would be a clear direct correlation between resources invested in student partnership and the financial performance of the university.  There is likely to be a complex interaction between student partnership and financial performance and other programs that may be operating simultaneously.  Challenges with implementing initiatives and the changing landscape in which universities need to operate are also likely to thwart attempts to show such a correlation.  Is enhancing student engagement still a good business strategy for universities?  There are good arguments why this is the case, whether it is viewed as a competitive strategy, listening to customers or a mechanism for improving internal efficiencies.

Importantly, financial performance is not the only way to measure how effective initiatives are.  A university is more than a business.  A university can be viewed as a community of scholars; an instrument for national purposes; a representative democracy; as well as a service enterprise embedded in competitive markets (this multifaceted view was promoted by Olsen in Olsen, J.P., (2005) The institutional dynamics of the (European) University Working Paper No. 15, March 2005).

The vision of a university as a representative democracy calls for demonstrable participation in decision making by students as a significant part of the university community whose needs must be represented.  Such a position is a real world view that recognises the student body as a significant part of the university’s reason for being. While the business vision may dominate the democratic vision of a university a university is more than simply a business.

When the various personalities of a university are combined there is a clear case for ensuring that student engagement in decision making is more than a token representation at lofty heights where the student voice may be drowned out by board and council members of significant authority.  The promotion of student voice has capacity to benefit the business operations of the university as well as fulfilling its obligations as a representative democracy.  As a regulated body funded by the state there is also a clear role for student voice in promoting quality.  Within a community of scholars, the voice of students should not be dismissed as a junior voice but must be reckoned with as the voice of learning experts.

These other functions are equally as important to the role of student partnership in decision-making to a university.  The concept of students engaging fully in university governance is not new.  There is abundant evidence of this approach in other countries.  Australia lags behind in developing and implementing a coherent approach.


Training and Support for Student Representatives

Last week I talked about the need for engagement with students in decision-making to be authentic, with the university putting emphasis on partnership rather than consultation.  I also pointed to the need to support that level of engagement.

The first step in this engagement is to provide opportunity for students to participate in decision making processes from early in their university career.  A good way to encourage this is to provide for student representation to begin at course, year or subject level, and progress through to faculty and university committees and senior governance roles.  The advantage of this approach is that it provides opportunity for many students to participate in a capacity closely matched with their level of experience.  It enables them to develop skills in representing fellow students.  They gain experience in raising issues with university personnel and understanding how universities work.  They can work out if they like representative roles.  If they do, the next level might be to engage in a faculty board or discipline society or committee. From there, students may progress to increasingly more senior roles commensurate with expertise and appetite.  However, some may be happy to continue from year to year working on representing their course, contributing their increasing experience and sharing it with new representatives.

To facilitate students taking on these roles support and training needs to be provided.  At the course representative level training doesn’t need to be particularly elaborate.  We have run a pilot project where the course representatives were provided with a two hour training session which explained the purpose of course representatives, helped students to identify what issues course representatives should engage with (and what issues they shouldn’t), provided some basic training in meeting protocols and communication skills, and provided them with a series of scenarios to discuss to check their understanding of their role.  Students were also provided with details of where they could get help if they encountered a problem they didn’t know how to deal with or if the role presented challenges that they needed support with.  They were provided with a handbook and contact details for a support officer they could talk to as needed.  It was important also to get academic staff on board with the idea of course representatives and to see them as a valuable tool for them in enhancing their courses.  I will develop this in a later blog.

We found that the course representatives provided some valuable insights that led to improvement.  The course representative engagement also provided an opportunity to disseminate better understanding amongst students as to why some things are done in a particular way. These results were facilitated by the student being prepared for and supported in their role.

As student representatives take on more senior roles their training and support needs may increase but at the same time these more experienced representatives can play an important role in mentoring newer representatives.  At the most senior levels, some institutions are already providing opportunity for student representatives to take part in more advanced training such as company director training and financial briefings.  This level of investment in student representation is an important indicator that a university is taking its engagement with students in decision making seriously. It is also an investment that can pay dividends though building expertise within the student body that can be shared.