Collegiate Commentary: Five communities created by staff-student projects

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Image credit: Claudio Schwarz, unsplash, CC0

In this extra post, we share with you the Collegiate Commentary from the latest Teaching Matters newsletter: Five communities created by staff-student projects. In the Collegiate Commentary feature, we ask colleagues from other universities and institutions to provide a commentary on ‘Five things…’, and share their own learning and teaching reflections, resources or outputs on the same topic. In this newsletter, we welcome a commentary from Maisha Islam, the Strategic Plan Project Officer at the University of Winchester. 

Student-staff partnership is now a timeless concept and integral practice within Higher Education (HE) (Bovill, 2019). As universities are under an increasing level of regulation and accountability in relation to student success and retention, we see commitments towards partnership working as a form of best practice (see: Office for Students Student Engagement Strategy). This includes the use of Student Partnership Agreements (SPA) which seem to be widespread amongst Scottish HEIs. The University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh University Students’ Association describe their own 2022-23 agreement as a living document. This is a useful way of thinking about student-staff partnerships – such a way of working can never be static. In the context of an ever-evolving HE landscape, it is important for these partnerships to remain agile and flexible to the changing needs of students, staff and institutional priorities.

Having outlined these priorities in line with the University strategy and Student Association’s priorities, it was pleasure to read about the breadth of SPA-funded projects that were being conducted by students and staff. Below, I outline the main themes and common threads uniting all these projects, where impact was felt across the student lifecycle, in addition to providing some key elements related to successful student-staff partnership.

Driving community and belonging: Firstly, I love how the orientation of this edition of the ‘5 things’ newsletter and its subsequent blog posts use the term ‘community’. Indeed, it evokes everything that partnership working should be, whilst also making clear that community is both the means and end product of instituting partnership within our universities (Mercer-Mapstone and Abbott, 2020). We see through these projects about the intention to (re)build community, particularly following the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chew’s (2022) post shows this happening through non-academic forms of engagement – where the impacts of this type of engagement should not be understated in its ability to contribute towards students’ success and retention (Moxey, 2022).

Stemmed and unintended benefits to partnership working: Unsurprisingly, many of these projects spoke about several gains, but most notably these related to students’ employability skills. As a result, the benefits of partnership can be multifaceted and all-encompassing (Alison, 2017). Petrie’s (2022) post detailed how spending a week with other medical students on a Bolivian expedition gave everyone the chance to broaden their horizons and develop as a team – spotting a picture of alpacas always scores extra impact points too!

Further, whilst challenges are almost always encountered in these projects, de los Godos’ (2022) online social hub project shows that in considering widely the students, staff, alumni and external colleagues we wish to reach, we can always work to ensure that issues being faced can be solved cross-institutionally and collaboratively.

The possibility for equity and inclusivity: Importantly, some of these projects relate to the potential of partnership as working to advance goals related to inclusivity and equity (Islam, 2021). Zon’s (2022) piece around students from the Philosophy Society being involved in widening participation work by delivering workshops to P7 and S2 students is a wonderful example of students taking a lead on traditionally-institution delivered work. Additionally, Atkins’ (2022) podcast project aimed at supporting novice researchers in successfully conducting evidence reviews is a testament to the democratizing nature embedded within partnership work. As a result, when aims of equity are centralised in partnership projects, the unique strengths of staff and students can only move us closer to such goals (de Bie et al, 2021).

Evaluating impact to inform future partnership practice: Finally, almost all the partnership projects talk about starting from an identified problem and then using post-project surveys to evaluate their impact, with the potential of improving any future iteration. This brings Edinburgh’s SPA funding to a full circle, as previously noted, whereby it ensures that partnership projects fulfil institutional priorities by consistently monitoring and reviewing their effectiveness. However, as noted by Ali et al’s (2021) own case study, evaluating the impact of student-staff partnership is complex, whereby some dimensions prove fruitful outcomes and others less so.

Spotlight on current Student-Staff Partnership practice at the University of Winchester

In addition to The University of Edinburgh, the University of Winchester is proud to have demonstrated a strong track-record for effective student-staff partnership. This includes the development of two institutional partnership schemes (see: Sims et al, 2014Bohnacker-Bruce, 2019) and the integration of students within core strategic committees, such as our Student Advisory Council and Race Equality Action Group.

Some recent practice related to student-staff partnership is looking at our Student Academic Representatives (StARs) scheme, which is administrated by Winchester Student Union. Working collaboratively, we are looking to further embed a culture of partnership into the scheme, which is our largest student representation and feedback channel. In this year’s co-led StARs training, we made clear our commitment to partnership working and how we all have a part to play towards flourishing and effective partnerships. Together, we also led a session for our Programme Leaders to make transparent how the Student Union and University were training our Student Chairs for our Student-Staff Liaison Committee meetings (SSLCs) and provide space for staff to air any concerns. Fundamentally, this year our Executive Leadership team have prioritised enabling both students and staff to feel that they have collective ownership of our SSLCs by revisiting the principles drawn by Bols (2019) in what makes effective student representation. We hope to disseminate our approach towards this in a future edition of the Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change, so watch this space!

Other relevant student-staff partnership resources of interest from the University of Winchester

photograph of the authorMaisha Islam

Maisha Islam is the Strategic Plan Project Officer at the University of Winchester, whilst also studying for a professional doctorate in Education. Maisha’s main research interests lie in the area of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic student experience and Muslim student sense of belonging/student voice in Higher Education, where she presents, writes, and has published on these topics. Maisha is heavily invested in the area of race and religious equality in Higher Education. For example, Maisha has investigated ‘Asian’ student experience in relation to degree-awarding gaps and has sat on a Universities UK staff panel that developed guidance for universities tackling racial harassment and Islamophobia on campus. Additionally, Maisha is also the co-Chair of the Research England/Office for Students BAME PGR Steering Group and recently finished a two-year term on the Office for Students’ Student Panel.

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