Blog posts

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

Keeping it real: a search for efficacy and authenticity across paradigms

On Wednesday 16 January an enthusiastic audience gathered for the inaugural lecture of Professor Martyn Kingsbury, Imperial’s first Professor of Higher Education, Head of the Educational Development Unit (EDU) and Director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship (CHERS).

Martyn’s autobiographical lecture focused on his journey from school in rural Devon to studying Applied Biology at the University of Bristol and gaining industrial experience in both forensic science and veterinary diagnostic biochemistry. He then completed a PhD at the University of Bath on the cardiovascular effects of atenolol and nitrendipine. After a post-doc position at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, Martyn moved to Imperial College London by way of St Mary’s Hospital.

Martyn Kingsbury presenting on stage

Photography by Fergus Burnett

Drawing on the parallels between efficacy and authenticity in pharmacology and education, Martyn told the audience about his transition from scientist to educationalist through participation in the CASLAT (Certificate of Advanced Study in Learning and Teaching) programme, which eventually lead to his appointment as Head of the EDU in January 2011. Martyn thanked those who he had worked with along the way, some of whom – including his PhD supervisors – were able to attend the lecture.

Concluding the lecture, Martyn formally launched the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship, which will provide a home for educational research across all faculties at Imperial College, promoting existing ventures and helping those interested in research to started through resources and networking opportunities.

Referring to his experience of Japanese culture, Martyn marked the start of the CHERS venture by filling in the first eye of a Daruma doll, remarking that ‘I hope over the coming years, we will fill the other one in as we become more outward looking and have an ever-greater voice in STEM education in the UK and hopefully, beyond’.

Martyn Kingsbury drawing an eye on a red Japanese Daruma doll
Photography by Fergus Burnett

Dr Jane Saffell, Deputy Principal Education at St George’s University of London and previously Associate Dean for Science & Postgraduate Education at Imperial gave a strongly-deserved vote of thanks in which she referred to Martyn’s patience, passion and ambitious vision for the new centre.

If you missed Martyn’s lecture, you can watch it on YouTube. Follow the centre on Twitter @Imperial_CHERS

A PhD in educational research: making the transition

Luke McCrone, PhD student, Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship

If someone had told me 6 years ago that I would one day be studying for a PhD in Higher Educational research at Imperial College, I would have smiled back at them in disbelief.

My acceptance of one of the first PhD studentships under the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship illustrates an important point: educationally speaking, we have come a long way in a relatively short period. Yet being new to this field has required me to adapt. Given that educational research adopts paradigms from psychology, sociology and philosophy, the approach to methodology, data collection and analysis is initially alien to a geoscientist like myself. Learning about these fields has made me recognise the transformative potential of putting yourself out of your disciplinary comfort zone.

My previous experience representing students and living among student hall residents has granted me a window into the realities and challenges of the modern-day learner at Imperial. Students are now learning, socialising and spending their ‘spare time’ on virtual platforms. This is forcing us to review how we design space, pedagogy and curriculum to keep ‘distracted’ students engaged. My anecdotal experience would suggest that students see value in learning with others since they often do it all by themselves outside of the classroom, hence my support for active modes of pedagogy which encourage students to discuss and critique information, not just receive it via didactic transmission. The World Economic Forum similarly states that the development of critical thinking, social intelligence and analytical thinking skills will be most attainable using active learning strategies.

Through my PhD, I hope to build upon my previous experience by investigating how students perceive and engage with physical, curricular and cognitive educational ‘spaces’. My methodology (phenomenology) therefore supports the incorporation of my preconceptions when collecting and analysing data. My preliminary data is showing something interesting: learning activity inside the classroom influences culture and behaviour outside; ‘formal’ learning therefore frames ‘non-formal’ learning. This may seem relatively obvious, but how we teach and organise learning vastly influences the way students continue to interact outside of the formal setting (independently, in groups or not at all). Ensuring students have access to ‘non-formal’ space, be it common rooms, breakout spaces or cafes, is crucial. If we think carefully about the skills, knowledge and behaviours we wish to instil in our graduates to be adaptable lifelong learners, then a holistic view of physical and curricular space design is paramount.

Educational research and the broader social sciences are receiving increasing national limelight. A £10m initiative between the Wolfson Foundation and British Academy was recently announced as one of the largest grants of its kind for the humanities and social sciences. This stands as evidence for the increasing importance placed on research into not only Higher Education, but also the wider social sciences and humanities.

I look forward to reporting continued updates about my research. If anyone has any questions or ideas then please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Luke McCrone, PhD student

6th International Academic Identities Conference 2018, Hiroshima

We – Jo Horsburgh, Martyn Kingsbury and Monika Pazio – have recently returned from a trip to Hiroshima, Japan, where we presented at the 6th International Academic Identities Conference 2018 at Hiroshima University. The conference theme was ‘The Peaceful University: aspirations for academic futures – compassion, generosity, imagination and creation’ and offered us a forum for discussion of how academics’ relationships with students are changing and how those changes affect the role of the university within society from a variety of international perspectives.

Monika and Martyn along with Caroline Clewley from the Department of Physics presented on their research into staff- student partnerships with UROP students, in particular the use of visualisation to target abstract key concepts within Physics and other STEM subjects which students struggle to gain a deep conceptual understanding.

My presentation focussed on my doctoral research into the professional identity development of medical educators, in particular the similarities and differences between different groups of medics in how they develop their identities between different communities of practice.

As well as attending the conference in Hiroshima, on our trip to Japan we also made time to visit colleagues at the Institute for Excellence in Higher Education at Tohoku University in Sendai. During our visit we discussed active learning pedagogies and the work of Carl Wieman as well as common approaches to learning and teaching at our respective institutions. A return visit is being planned for later this year where our colleagues from Japan will meet with and learn from the learning and teaching community at Imperial College.

Jo, Martyn and Monika meet with colleagues at Tohoku University

Dr Jo Horsburgh, Principal Teaching Fellow in Medical Education


Welcome to our blog. We’ll be writing about education research at Imperial, including conference reports, projects we’re undertaking and updates on resources and events to help you develop your own research.

For more information about CHERS, please visit our website.