Grappling with the notions of student representation in student-staff partnerships in universities

Year: 2021

Author: Kligyte, Giedre

Type of paper: Individual Paper

Over the recent decades, there has been an increased interest in approaches, initiatives and frameworks seeking to stimulate authentic student engagement in higher education. It is often argued that a transactional view of higher education can lead to the homogenisation of educational experiences and diminished learning opportunities. Students-as-Partners movement is a recent development in higher education contexts, aimed at increasing student engagement and advancing more egalitarian learning cultures in universities. With the broader adoption of partnership approaches, some scholars point out that partnership initiatives tend to rely on ‘the usual suspects’ for participation, highlighting concerns about the inclusivity of small-scale limited-scope partnership projects. Practitioners are urged to explicitly consider the principles of inclusion and diversity when recruiting students and devising partnership initiatives. Whilst equity, social justice and student voice are sought to be advanced in student-staff partnership initiatives, these notions are typically untheorised. Partnerships are considered to be enactments of pre-existing democratic principles, which do not warrant further examination. In this conceptual paper, I query these assumptions and turn my critical attention to participatory processes as objects of study in their own right. First, I turn to the existing frameworks conceptualising participatory processes, including Arnstein’s (1969) ladder of citizen engagement, Pitkin’s (1967) framing of representation and Fraser’s (2009) concept of parity of participation. I apply these frameworks to examine a specific case of a student-staff partnership aimed at increasing inclusivity and diversification of the cohort of student representatives in an Australian university. The student-staff partnership was devised to co-create an approach for recruiting student members to an undergraduate course team. Through the process of co-creation, some familiar categories such as student representation, student voice and student leadership were unravelled by students, resulting in a novel student selection process and reconfigured student roles on the course team. In this paper, I interrogate the tensions and paradoxes that emerged through the process of co-creation through the theoretical lens. I highlight how university participatory initiatives and practices are often constructed and performed within the frame of transfer of power, typically leaving the core tenets of representative democracy and epistemology of participation unexamined. I show how these participatory assumptions influence subsequent decisions and processes adopted by the participants, leading to different effects and potential exclusions. I conclude by inviting further investigation into the theoretical principles underpinning participatory partnership initiatives.