Mapping the discursive and political orientations of Students as Partners initiatives in higher education

Year: 2017

Author: Bell, Amani, Peseta, Tai

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

We have been working with students as partners (SAP) for the past three years (Peseta et al., 2016, Bell et al. 2017), alongside many other university educators who have been collaborating authentically with students to investigate and transform higher education. The movement grew out of primary and secondary schools, and youth and citizen participation in decision-making, and has only recently found its way into the higher education landscape.

SAP activities in higher education are notoriously broad. While the Healey et al. (2014) model distinguishes categories of partnership exemplified by an online collection of case studies (Healey, 2017), SAP functions as an umbrella term to describe activities ranging from Hackathons to undergraduate student research. There can be a tendency to focus on partnership as celebratory, a solution to the challenges in higher education to do with ethics and unequal power, yet the practices of SAP come under challenge when the contradictions of neoliberalism are added to the equation. SAP draws on many traditions and theories, such as Marxism, deliberative democracy / civic engagement, and student engagement / voice. Since SAP draws its legitimacy from a range of political logics, we found it useful to map these in a visual form by adapting a model created by Andreotti et al. (2016) which focused on three main discursive orientations about the internationalisation of higher education: neoliberal, liberal and critical, plus areas of 'interface' where they meet.

In our presentation we use their model to map SAP as a series of discourses that highlight its 'tactical polyvalence' (Foucault, 1990) - the idea that discourses can be deliberately harnessed to serve the needs of different, and even opposing, intentions. Being aware of the tactical polyvalence of SAP means that we can better understand the ways its initiatives are not only conceptualised and put into practice but we have a way of scrutinising the range of truth claims made about it. For us, Williams' notion 'teach the university' contains productive possibilities for framing SAP initiatives where: 'study of the university enjoins students to consider reflexively the ways and means of the world they are in, and what it does to and for them' (2007, 26). For us, seeing SAP as tangled up with the idea of 'teaching the university' allows us to interrogate its emergence as a panacea for equity and inclusion.