What do we really mean by “partnership work”?

(Illustration: Ada Jusic)

At the Change Agents Network (CAN) Conference, “change agents” are any students and staff working in genuine partnerships with the aim of transforming the educational experience. While the 2018 conference encompassed presentations (from students as well as staff) on a range of partnership projects – in areas including  curriculum development, learning analytics, feedback, assessment, research, peer learning and digital learning – the key take-away for me was a definitional one: what should count as partnership working in higher education?

Peters & Mathias (2018) presented a range of theory in order to make the case that true partnership working involves some tangible transfer of power from staff to students; for example, NUS (2015, p.8) has argued that genuine partnerships must entail “a meaningful dispersal of power”. This seems a useful test.  We are perhaps sometimes guilty of labelling something as partnership working that is in fact more akin to the traditional tutor-student teaching and learning mode.  If we stop and ask ourselves whether a transfer of power has occurred, it will force us to be more ambitious and aim for genuinely collaborative models of working.

Pittaway (2018) outlined a partnership project that seems to pass the power-transfer test unequivocally. The project sought to involve students in a staff recruitment process, ensuring their voice fed in to the final decision making process.  This innovation resulted in positive feedback from students, staff and candidates.

Graham & Payne (2018) had used questionnaires, interviews and focus groups to elicit critical feedback from students on the quality of the induction process at their respective institutions. It emerged that many students were arriving at university feeling “socially isolated and overwhelmed” and they were therefore much more concerned in this period with friendship building and socialising than with academic work.  This led to a re-think of induction timing (tips: start it pre-enrolment, drip feed induction information through the term) and a greater emphasis on social induction over academic induction, at least at the beginning of term. It is clear that the students’ feedback led to a radical re-design of the induction offer, so again this partnership project seems to pass the power-transfer test.

As part of the DigiMentors scheme (Clark et al., 2018), Leeds College of Music’s Marketing department gave a group of students control of (and thus power over) the college’s social media accounts and encouraged them to create content for these. Of course, this required some training around expectations and boundaries, but it led to a series of very successful and engaging social media posts, many of which staff could not have created on their own.

When creating new staff-student partnership projects, let’s keep in mind the need for some degree of real power to be transferred to students.


Clark, R., Fennell, A., Hartley, K., Schofield, M., Davies, R. (2018) ‘Stopping “fake news”: a digital mentor scheme to provide peer support and develop digital capabilities’, Change Agent Network Conference. University of Winchester, 19-20 April 2018.

Graham, S. & Payne, R. (2018) ‘Doing induction: a student perspective’, Change Agent Network Conference. University of Winchester, 19-20 April 2018.

NUS (2015) A manifesto for partnership. Available at: https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/resources/a-manifesto-for-partnership  Accessed: 25 April 2018.

Peters, J. & Mathias, L. (2018) ‘Students as partners at Newman University’, Change Agent Network Conference. University of Winchester, 19-20 April 2018.

Pittaway, S. (2018) ‘Can students contribute to the recruitment of staff? New approaches to partnership working at the University of Worcester’, Change Agent Network Conference. University of Winchester, 19-20 April 2018.

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One thought on “What do we really mean by “partnership work”?

  1. Really interesting post, David – thanks for sharing. Raises some curious questions, I think, as well.

    For example, if we are to (rightfully) empower learners by ‘ceding’ power to them, does this act mean also disempowering the notion of authority that is a key feature of an academic institution (eg that its academics are authorities in their fields/disciplines)? And if not, how can power be equitably distributed within the knowledge holder/knowledge seeker dichotomy?

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