Reflections on Australian universities and embedding student partnership

The 2013 Newman Lecture delivered by Glyn Davis at Monash University’s Mannix College provides an important reminder as to the history of Australian universities. Titled The Australian idea of a university, the lecture traces the origins of Australia’s universities and the philosophical debate that preceded them regarding purpose and culture. The result was that Australia’s universities in their early days presented a hybrid persona drawing from English, Scottish and Irish traditions, eventually also recognising the German research promoting ethos.

It could be argued that today those origins have been surpassed by global influences and the market demands of which Glyn Davis also spoke in his lecture. Nonetheless it is important to recognise that even as universities globally become more similar to one another, Australian universities are still diverse and unique with some significant differences to universities such as those which make up the English, Scottish and Irish sectors. At the same time, there are sufficient similarities for comparisons to be drawn. The same may be said for student representation here which has differences in its history from other parts of the Commonwealth and from other parts of the world.

Throughout my student voice project and Fellowship, I have looked to the experiences of the UK sectors and others who are more advanced in student partnership. They provide insights and expertise on how it can develop in Australia. Many Australian universities have benefitted from institution personnel from overseas joining their ranks and bringing with them their experiences of student partnership. This was reflected in the range of activities I encountered during my Australian research. I have seen a national community ready and willing to share information and expertise to assist others in promoting student partnership.

So, as we move forward with endeavours to embed student partnership across the Australian tertiary education sector it is important to bear in mind the uniquely Australian aspects of our sector as well as its diversity. These factors will play a significant role in how we adapt what we know to the Australian landscape. We start from a position where funding to progress student partnership must be found. We start without government agencies with a clear mandate to progress student partnership. We start with the various national student representative bodies showing a clear interest and enthusiasm for working together to promote student partnership, but we need to focus on the resources needed to allow them to make it happen. We start from a position where it seems that, rather than a national approach as elsewhere, the best road to buy in from institutions is one at a time.

We are driven by the body of evidence from abroad showing clear benefits of authentic student partnership for sectors, for institutions and for students. We are heartened by the evidence developing also from initiatives underway in individual institutions here. So, while acknowledging the differences in the Australian sector, particularly the lack of a national approach as yet, there are many signs that student partnership is progressing here. Importantly we are seeing a will in institutions across the sector to make it happen.

Sally Varnham
24 October 2017

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