Have you ever wondered about expanding your student-staff partnership work but are not sure where to start? Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone, Lecturer in Higher Education Learning Design at the University of Technology Sydney, shares tips, questions, and challenges from a new evidence-based practical guide on scaling up student-staff partnership.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to co-lead the design of a university-wide students as partners program in accordance with my then institutions new student strategy. I’d been practising, researching, and advocating for student-staff partnership for years and this opportunity from the university to resource and support these practices was exciting…until I was faced with the question of how to actually scale up partnership.
I had mixed feelings about it – believing it was important for all students to have access to partnership opportunities and the associated benefits in equitable ways while also having concerns about the values and ethos of partnership being swallowed up by the churning cogs of university bureaucracy.
My co-lead and I, in collaboration with over 80 students and staff, undertook the process with a lot of trial and error and with the support of colleagues locally and internationally who had experience in this space. While I knew many people had done this before – there are numerous large-scale partnership schemes around the world – there didn’t seem to be one resource which would guide me through it. This was the reason I undertook my recent fellowship at the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh with Dr Cathy Bovill.
Researching scaling up student-staff partnership
In this fellowship, we (Cathy and I) set about researching why and how UK higher education institutions went about designing, implementing, running, and sustaining institutional schemes which supported student-staff partnership (or co-creation, co-production – there are many names!). We collected qualitative and quantitative data from the people running such schemes at 11 UK higher education institutions including details on scheme design, the nature of partnerships in the schemes, scheme administration and logistics, and recognition and training.
A practical guide to support you in scaling up student-staff partnership
The first output of this study, co-authored with Dr Jenny Marie, was launched in March 2019 and is a Practical guide: Scaling up student-staff partnerships in higher education. This practical guide is designed to support individuals, teams, or institutions in scaling up student-staff partnership. The purpose of the guide is to:
- Walk you through the multiple stages of scaling up partnership from beginning to end.
- Anticipate and answer the kinds of questions you might have as you progress.
- Outline potential challenges.
- Encourage you to establish partnership values early to ensure that your process aligns with partnership itself.
What are some top tips for scaling up student-staff partnership?
Start with why
Research shows that, when we hope to create change, it is best to start with the question ‘Why?’ It is natural for us to just go straight into asking things like ‘what will it look like?’ However, if you want to bring others along with you – for example, encouraging uptake of your partnership initiative – you need to think about why such change is desirable or necessary. So, the guide encourages you to follow an overarching process of:
- Why is partnership important or necessary for you and/or your institution?
- How will partnership be developed and enacted in your initiative?
- What will partnership look like in your initiative?
All these questions are then addressed systematically in much more detail throughout the guide.
Articulate your values and goals
Partnership is inherently a values-based ethos and co-creating your values collaboratively early on – and revisiting them regularly throughout the process – seems to be core to striving for inclusivity and innovation.
What kind of partnership is right for you?
The authors say that “Partnership is a values-based ethos which underlies practice, so what partnership looks like in practice is only limited by your imagination.” That means that the array of partnership practices is hugely diverse. Working through what model of partnership is right for you, in aligning with and achieving your values and goals, is critical for ensuring your initiative is meaningful and successful.
When partnership initiatives cannot include all students and staff in the university (which is most initiatives!), we have to think about who gets included and why? Considering issues of equity from the outset and designing your initiative to adopt inclusive approaches will be important in ensuring you don’t only engage the already super-engaged (and often socially privileged) students and staff.
What are some of the challenges?
Making change in higher education – where traditions are well-entrenched – comes with challenges. Going in eyes wide open means you can come up with ways to avoid or overcome foreseeable challenges. This guide outlines some common ones, including:
- Financial scalability for increasing participation.
- Engaging those beyond the already engaged.
- Balancing competing aims and expectations.
- Communicating partnership as a concept and overcoming resistance.
- Lack of measurable impact.
- Lack of awareness of the scheme.
- Lack of dissemination of practice beyond the scheme.
- Managing administration in overly-bureaucratic environments.
- Spreading the scheme uptake beyond its original location within the university.
But don’t worry at seeing this long list – the guide helps you to think about many of these challenges and more from the outset of designing or developing your initiative.
Ultimately, the guide recognises that partnership is contextual and aims to support you in working through values-based and logistical considerations to expanding your partnership practices in ways that are right for you and your institution. How might you use or adapt this guide for your won context?
Lucy Mercer-Mapstone is a lecturer in Higher Education Learning Design at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research focuses on equity and diversity in higher education with a particular focus on student-staff partnership and deep student engagement approaches.