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 www.studentvoice.uts.edu.au. 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 (http://www.docs.csg.ed.ac.uk/…/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.

Sally

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