Category: Staff student partnerships

StudentShapers and the annual RAISE 2019 conference

Dr Mike Streule, Director, StudentShapers

Early September sees the annual RAISE (Researching, Advancing and Inspiring Student Engagement) conference, this time held at the Newcastle University. Two interesting keynotes provided further food for thought and debate, especially as StudentShapers at Imperial develops beyond its initial stages, and our new curricula are implemented.

An interesting debate by Bruce MacFarlane and Colin Bryson focussed on the effects – both positive and negative – of Student Engagement policy and practices. Such practices and the inevitable measures that follow can be all too simple and ineffective at heart and completely fail to recognise that students are adults, are attending Higher Education essentially in a voluntary capacity and are expected to be ‘independent’ learners. Yet, increasingly we see practices such as attendance monitoring, measurements of student library access, ‘forced’ participation in class or group work as measures of student ‘engagement’. But of course students could be highly engaged in their studies in different ways, and ways that cannot be easily measured or seen – does forcing students to ‘conform’ into certain ways of learning inhibit their academic freedom to engage in various ways that Higher Education is supposed to cherish? Moreover linking interventions with increases in ‘engagement’ is therefore highly speculative and we, as educators need to be reflective and considering of interventions we might make to drive increases in ‘engagement’ without hidden and unintended consequences.

A second keynote by Cathy Bovill considered student partnership practice. Many institutions now support student partnership initiatives in one way or another. Certainly from other talks and discussions over the conference I was proud to represent such a programme that is so well supported and is part of an institutional Learning and Teaching agenda. However whilst StudentShapers still does more than many in terms of the number of students we work with and the range of projects we support, and even though there are recognised broader ‘knock-on’ effects to broader student communities, it is still a relatively exclusive practice.  As an institution we need to consider how we can teach in a more ‘partnered’ way; so that whole classes and cohorts can experience the academic freedom (noted above) to be part of, and engaged with a learning community in which their lecturers or instructors are also part, i.e. in partnership. At Imperial we have some excellent areas where we excel in this and over the coming months we will be putting together a project call to invite staff to work with students to develop their teaching with a greater emphasis on a whole-class partnership.  Changing how our students are positioned in our community is part of the Learning and Teaching Strategy – but it is a process which takes time – see this short read for an excellent summary. Such a change requires providing multiple ways and approaches for partnership to be adopted – something which StudentShapers will support as the Learning and Teaching strategy advances and our education becomes more developed in this respect.

The conference also marked a first of (hopefully) many, with our StudentShapers project student Shivali Jain from the Faculty of Medicine presenting her recent project ‘The impact of a serious game compared to conventional e-learning on performance in managing simulated clinical scenarios’. The poster provided great interest from delegates, and an ‘almost-winner’ of the student poster award.

Power dynamics in student staff partnerships – a RAISE special interest group event

Mike Streule, Director, StudentShapers

I recently spent an interesting afternoon with other Student partnership practitioners and students engaged in student partnership initiatives at a half day meeting discussing power dynamics in staff-student partnership work at the University of Westminster. In recognition that our institutions instil a strong hierarchical structure amongst staff, and that generally the students fall beneath staff in that hierarchy in many contexts, provides us with a troublesome backdrop against which to facilitate student partnership projects. This backdrop leans towards uneven power distributions amongst co-workers on projects with the power bias typically leaning towards the staff. A thought provoking keynote talk by Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone extended this further, recognising that various characteristics such as gender, race and nationality could contribute further to the power dynamics amongst co-workers and create a complex intersectionality.

Student partnership often cites the desire for partnerships to operate in a model of reciprocity, and of mutual trust and empowerment within the project. But taking all these multi-dimensional power distributions, it is unlikely, perhaps impossible to truly have an even distribution of power amongst a staff-student co-working team. Perhaps, even, it is unethical to do so – should we totally de-legitimise the Professorship that an individual may have ‘won’ when all the statistical data would suggest they (according to their characteristics) were unlikely to do so?

So where does that leave us? Staff-student partnership should none the less be intentionally disruptive to the power relationships between staff and students, at least within the context of the project. And such disruption is likely to be potentially uncomfortable to staff and students, but also incredibly valuable. It gives greater agency and legitimacy to the student contribution to a project, and serves as a valuable learning experience that students may encounter again, and the experience directly aligns with some of Imperial’s graduate attributes.

Closing the meeting included an interesting discussion around the post-partnership relationships that staff and students might assume. Perhaps the balance of power shifts heavily back to the staff partners as future assessors of a student’s work or degree outcome? One can of course not retract a lived experience of partnership, but merely acknowledging a (temporary) disruption to the pre-existing power hierarchies by both staff and student is valuable in being able to, in some capacity, resume pre-existing power balances. Importantly however, working in, and developing the student partnership space can in time challenge the institutional power dynamics between staff and students and develop them into a more productive arrangement.

Imperial’s student partnership programme StudentShapers is growing and is part of the work of the Learning and Teaching Strategy to facilitate staff engaging with students as partners.  A roundup of the day, including Panopto recording will be added to the University of Westminster website soon. Feel free to get in touch at