Are we really ‘walking the walk’ of students as partners in all aspects of partnership?

Painting a picture of empirical ‘students as partners’ research and practices across contexts.
Lucy Mercer-Mapstone, PhD candidate, University of Queensland
9 June 2017

This blog reports on a study involving a large-scale systematic literature review that paints a picture of empirical ‘students as partners’ research and practices across contexts. The results point to significant implications for partnership practitioners and researchers including the need for:

  • more reciprocity in authorship of partnership research;
  • a deeper focus on impacts of partnership for staff;
  • increased awareness and sharing of the challenges of partnership;
  • making partnership opportunities accessible to the majority rather than a select few; and
  • consideration of if and how partnership is working to transform institutional cultures.

Results are aimed at helping those designing, engaging in, and researching partnership work to gain a better understanding of practices across the literature. However, they also raised many challenging questions. I invite readers to join me in using these questions to guide deeper reflection on the potential for extending our own partnership work.

My colleague and I faced a distinct conundrum as we embarked on our own student-staff partnership as part of an Australian fellowship on students as partners. Being typical academics, we looked to the literature for advice on what our partnership might look like – What might it involve? What were our roles? What were the challenges we might face?

But as we began our search for answers, we realized that the scholarship on partnership is both scattered and mushrooming. This disparity overwhelmed me. I gained glimpses of what practitioners around the world were learning but still failed to understand what they were saying in concert.

As my colleague and I waded through articles spread across journals and websites left, right, and center, we invited colleagues and friends grappling with similar questions to join us. So launched a partnership among 8 staff and 12 students, across four countries and six universities systematically reviewing empirical literature on partnership in higher education.

Our first article arising from this collaborative systematic literature review was recently published in the inaugural issue of the International Journal for Students as Partners   reporting on the analysis of 65 articles specifically about partnership over five years.

I found that our results were useful from a practitioner perspective in gaining a better understanding of the broad foci, scale, and range of partnership practices and reporting in empirical literature across contexts.

But as my co-authors and I dug deeper into what lay behind these trends, our findings raised more provocative and challenging questions than we had anticipated.

I’ll share with you here a few of the key findings and some of those questions that really got us thinking:

The vast majority of empirical articles were written by staff, not students.

In addition, less than a third included student co-authors. In a field where the focus is on placing equal value on the expertise of students and staff, to what extent are we extending the reciprocal ethos of partnership from our practices into our partnership research?

There was a focus what students gained from partnership more than staff. 

If that’s the case, are we really considering the impact of partnership for all involved partners? Or are we simply recreating the student-centric paradigm of student engagement rhetoric we report on activities ‘done to’ students, rather than done with them?

Positive outcomes of partnership were consistently reported more than negative outcomes.

I’m the first to admit that exploring and sharing the challenges faced in the complex (albeit, at times, messy) process of partnership can be difficult or uncomfortable. But that’s also a space filled with deep learning opportunities and potential for transformation both personally and for the partnership relationship itself.

So how might we better make space for sharing the equal realities of partnership practice?

There was a major focus on small-scale, extracurricular partnership activities.

This trend raised questions of inclusivity: does enacting partnership at this scale risk opening opportunities to, and thus privileging the voices of, only the ‘elite’ already engaged students in universities?

Such challenging questions have been raised in by individuals in the partnership discourse previously – whether in articles or in heated discussions at conference sessions. But the fact that they arise as coherent trends across a large range of empirical research emphasizes the fact that such questions continue to be problematic for practitioners around the world.

When I re-read these results sometimes (on a bad day) I end up with a sense of being overwhelmed: look how far there is to go in creating the culture of partnership that I so wish to see at my own institution and across higher education more broadly.

Mostly, however, these results and the questions they raise inspire a sense of excitement for all the learning I have yet to uncover.

On that note, I’ll leave you with one final question. If any of the above results resonate with a challenging situation you currently face in your partnership work, when you finish reading this blog, what’s the one step you will take to grow the ethos of reciprocity, inclusivity, and equality that underlies your practices?

Thanks to critical friends, Peter Felten and Kelly Matthews, for their feedback; and to my fantastic co-authorship team for the research inspiration. 

Lucy Mercer-Mapstone is a PhD candidate (Sustainable Minerals Institute) and co-fellow (Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation) at the University of Queensland, Australia. She is also an inaugural Co-Editor of the International Journal for Students as Partners., @UQLucyMM

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