National Students as Partners Roundtable

The arched entryway to the Arts West building at the University of Melbourne

Students and educators from around Australia and further afield gathered at the National Students as Partners Roundtable in the last week of September, 2023. We shared experiences and ideas, tips and warnings. We heard from one of the luminaries in the field, keynote Professor Alison Cook-Sather, the author of Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching. She shared work that she had been doing, demonstrating in meticulous detail how student partnership practices map to work-ready competencies.

Who was there?

Australia’s movers and shakers in this field were there in force. Tai Peseta brought a bright eyed and articulate team of student partners from the Western Sydney University who delivered three presentations. One of the students (Samuel Suresh) was even name-checked by the keynote, who recognised his voice. Some of the Western Sydney students told us that in their partnership opportunities they were using skills they had only just been taught in their undergraduate courses. They were building relationships across the university, co-designing new processes, elevating student voice and maintain a very slick social media presence (@wsustudentpartners on Instagram).

Belinda Brear described an enviable range of student partnership initiatives at the University of Southern Queensland in the opening panel. Griffith University sent a team that included their practice lead for authentic student partnerships, Melita Collins. The University of Queensland was represented by students Hanna Möhrke and Shashank Shivakumar and a former student, Alex Crook, who is now their Student Partners Coordinator for Representation and Engagement. We missed having Kelly Matthews with us, though. Mollie Dollinger from Deakin was there to remind us that the stakes were nothing less than the souls of our universities. Curtin University sent a law academic, Christina Do, and a student, Ryan Kirby, who seemed to belong to every committee going. Our hosts, the University of Melbourne, sent their students out to welcome and register us, introduce and run the sessions, guide us around the beautiful but somewhat discombobulating venue and to tell us about emerging Students as Partners practices at one of our largest universities.

What did the students say?

Two days of vibrant discussions ignited our curiosity about the true essence of Students as Partners practices. The answer – to breathe life into the learning experience.

Consider the transformative learning experience of Cheyenne Lim, a student at the University of Melbourne studying Korean. Guided by Adam Zulawnik, her class embarked on a journey – translating a book of stories of North Korean defectors into English. This remarkable example of authentic assessment actually resulted in a published book. Teams of translators – never referred to as students throughout the semester – took on a story each. However, the student cohort was denied authorship credit by the publisher, they would only recognise the academic and the original author. Cheyenne’s story highlights the potential of Students as Partners practices to reshape education, and the challenges.

During one of our collaborative breakout sessions, we tackled the complex topic of navigating power imbalances. What I initially anticipated to be a discussion on negotiation strategies took an unexpected turn when our group dived into a spirited conversation about names. Personally, I prefer students addressing me by my first name. This preference was challenged by students Kris Zhao from the University of Sydney Business School and Shivani Suresh from Western Sydney University. They said that using a title to denote my expertise didn’t undermine equality in our interactions; instead, it made my role within the team explicit. The consensus emerged that if I felt comfortable asking them to use my first name, they should equally feel at ease declining that request. It was not a viewpoint I had ever thought of before. Amy Hickman, from Flinders University, shared that students and staff at her institution receive training on such matters before embarking on Students as Partners practices. 

Students as Partners across an institution

Involving students in curriculum development, teaching quality, scholarship, and pedagogic consultancy appears to be more complex than anything an individual educator achieves within a course. Questions of recompense, equity, access (both by students and staff), and impact are difficult to address, because these practices have not been built in to institutional processes. At Bryn Mawr, Alison Cook-Sather pioneered a program in which students are paid as consultants to create more inclusive, equitable and anti-racist approaches to teaching, and to learning spaces. The Western Sydney students speak for themselves, have a look at their website to see more about what they get involved in. Many other Australian universities are acknowledging the transformative potential of students as partners practices, though they find themselves at the tentative early stages of their journey in this arena. Nevertheless, they have dedicated staff and students who have undertaken small-scale projects across diverse domains, laying the foundation for future progress.

Acknowledging these challenges, I’ve devised a method to categorise such practices, enabling better planning, design, comparison, and evaluation. I introduced this approach during the roundtable session, and I am presently in the process of preparing it for publication. Additionally, I’m scheduled to present it at the University of Sydney’s roundtable on students as partners practices in November.

Jennifer Sun, also from the Sydney Business School, delivered a comprehensive presentation on the intricacies involved in establishing Students as Partners projects.

Students as Partners: Shaping the Future of Higher Education

If the concept of Students as Partners is new to you, consider exploring this University of Queensland resource as an excellent starting point. This concept is gaining traction in higher education, and it’s poised to play an increasingly significant role in reshaping universities for the uncertain future. As I discussed, in some institutions, students are already active participants in this transformative conversation.

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