Walking the talk

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks but student partnership has remained high on my priorities as we work towards finalising my fellowship and ensuring there is a path forward for student partnership in Australia.

This year has provided some truly inspiring opportunities. It has been really heartening to see the quality of student leadership at the national level and to have the opportunity to work with these amazing young men and women. At the institutional level, again there have been some fabulous student leaders that I have had the pleasure of working with. It has also been impressive to see the number of Australian tertiary institutions that have student partnership programs up and running or who are working hard at developing them. The sizable group of initiatives presented at my recent symposium bore testament to that. There is a dedicated cohort of staff working in the student engagement space both in institutions and their student associations to make this happen. My aim is to ensure that they receive assistance and support in terms of resources and training. Congratulations to ANU, I believe the first university in Australia to work with their student leaders to develop a Student Partnership Agreement. Also to TEQSA who have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding for partnership with students in their processes.

Collaborating with our colleagues in Scotland, England, Ireland and close to home in New Zealand provides great insights. Recently we sent Sophie Johnston, the current President of NUS, to attend the New Zealand student voice summit for student leaders and to bring back ideas for what can be done here. This summit is held annually as a collaboration between their Academic Quality Agency and the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations. The focus is on the professionalism of student leaders and student representatives in terms of knowledge transfer from current to new officers following national and university elections. To my mind to institute a similar event in Australia would go a long way towards addressing the issue of transient student leaders and student representatives and would help to create similar opportunities for student leaders to develop processes for succession to build experience and expertise here.

All in all, I feel that our achievements in working with the sector have been considerable and the capacity to truly embrace student partnership is steadily growing. That said we need to remain vigilant regarding the challenges we face going forward. Rather than simply congratulating ourselves on our progress we need to make sure that we really walk the talk when it comes to student partnership. The first challenge is to make sure that student partnership in decision making is really understood by the sector as an ethos where students are part of all decision-making processes from the beginning – from deciding what the issues are through to determining how to solve them. While I feel we have gone a long way towards this in our engagement with individual institutions, national engagement is needed.

I have learnt from colleagues abroad the importance of sufficient time and resources to enable students to participate in this way. With effective training, mentoring, support and briefing there is no reason why students cannot be part of all decision-making processes even those that may be deemed too time sensitive or complex. My research shows that authentic student partnership is a win-win – for institutions and the sector the enhancement of quality and the student experience they provide; for students a valuable opportunity for professional development as readily employable critical thinkers, innovators and citizens.

Students are experts in their leaning experiences and they have plenty to teach us. I have worked with some incredibly confident and talented young people during my three years of the Project and the Fellowship and they have definitely enhanced the ways in which I have been able to carry out my fellowship activities.
It is important to recognise that the future of student partnership will be best served by working together and utilising the experience and expertise that has already been developed.

Promotion, development and exploration of student partnership remain important pursuits, best carried out collaboratively in the sector, in a spirit of sharing between institutions and students, and institutions and institutions. I have been so impressed by the work being done in a large number of institutions to establish student partnership processes. We need now to build on this progress for such a culture to be established as ‘the way we do things’ in institutions and nationally.

Sally Varnham
16 October 2017

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