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.


Authentic student engagement in university decision-making

True partnership with students in decision-making takes time and effort and that is undoubtedly a challenge at a time when universities seek to improve their bottom line. However, evidence abroad shows that investing in creating true partnership with students will enhance a university’s success.  Student partnership is not just a feel-good exercise but one that makes good sense in a competitive environment. This week I want to focus on what authentic engagement looks like before exploring how it can be implemented and why iut is beneficial for universities.

One of the best tools I have seen for explaining what authentic engagement looks like is Arnstein’s ladder.  The ladder comes from a 1969 paper by Sherry R.  Arnstein entitled “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”.  The citation is JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224 and while the paper relates to government rather than education it is well worth reading.  The ladder was introduced to me by Professor Gwen van der Velden (Warwick University) and Eve Lewis (sparqs).  It looks like this:

The target in university decision making, as in other activities needs to be partnership.  Not relinquishing control but empowering those affected by decisions to actively participate in making them.  The ladder is also informative for what it reveals about “consultation”.  Universities like other institutions may pride themselves on consulting with their constituents but the reality is that often consultation is a tokenistic form of engagement at best.  Key problems with consultation relate to who is consulted, when are they consulted, how are they briefed and what is done with their input?  True consultation is when affected parties are brought in at the very beginning of the process, or even are asked for their views when ideas for change or innovation are being considered.

Consultation often fails to embrace diverse views, asks for input late in the decision-making process, fails to adequately brief those consulted and disregards views that conflict with the decision that, in reality, has already been made.  Not surprisingly this approach actually does more harm than good.  Students see this type of engagement for what it is- senseless window-dressing.  From a business perspective it makes no sense- it is expensive, time consuming and damages the relationship between institution and constituents.

True partnership is time consuming.  It requires investment in ensuring that diverse student voice is captured and listened to.  Student voice needs to be part of formulating the brief rather than responding to what the institution has decided.  During the OLT project a university shared a great story with us of investing heavily in the development of a student space that nobody used- they hadn’t thought to ask the students what they needed.  Ultimately an opportunity arose to redress this situation and students were actively engaged in creating the design brief.   They didn’t demand crazy things, they listened to why some things couldn’t be achieved and they vetoed elements that were impractical or a poor use of available funds.  The result was a state of the art space that is well used and has become a benchmark that other institutions are striving to emulate.


Learning and teaching: a key area in which students are being engaged as partners

Australian universities are engaging students in partnership in a wide range of activities.  These moves open up valuable and much needed discussions about effectively embedding student partnership in decision making across the sector.  One such opportunity was the recent Students as Partners Roundtable held at the University of Tasmania on 31 January 2017 which launched Wendy Green’s Engaging Students as Partners in Global Learning Fellowship. National and international experts including Professor Mick Healey (Healey HE Consultants, UK), Professor Betty Leask (La Trobe University) and Dr Kelly Matthews (University of Queensland) explored how staff and students can work together as partners in learning and teaching.

While the focus of my fellowship extends beyond learning and teaching to embrace decision making at all levels of university activity, the learning and teaching dynamic is clearly an important and central element. Participants provided some thought provoking perspectives.

Betty Leask described the role of education as extending beyond creating economic growth and requiring active and reflective participation, and the development of understanding of the positions adopted by and needs of others in a complex global environment.

Mick Healey reflected on the transformative power of student partnership and its role as a way of doing things rather than an outcome.  Mick considers “… it should be the norm, not the exception, that students are engaged as co-partners and co-designers in all university and department learning and teaching initiatives, strategies and practices.”

The skills needed for students to participate as effective partners in learning and teaching processes can be both developed and utilised more broadly in university decision making and governance.  Understanding of different perspectives and the complex context in which decisions need to be made is critical to effective engagement of students as partners within processes in institutions – both in the classroom and outside.  Building understanding that deep engagement with their university is an important part of student life for all students with far reaching benefits for students as individuals, universities as institutions, and society at large is critical.