What is ‘partnership’?

Creating a culture of meaningful partnership is at the very heart of what Wise Wales hopes to achieve, but what does it actually mean?

The history of partnership

‘Partnership’ is a term which appears to have gained traction around 2014, when Healey, Flint and Harrington published a paper entitled Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education in collaboration with the HEA. Almost every mention of partnership since that publication refers back to it as a basis of what partnership means and how it can be used in practice.

Before this, the closest reference to partnership was the publication Students as Change Agents, new ways of engaging with learning and teaching in Higher Education (Dunne and Zandstra, 2011). ‘Change Agents’ refers to the idea that students should be viewed as co-producers rather than consumers of their education. This laid the foundations for what would later become ‘partnership’.

Before the idea of partnership was grown within the sector, the emphasis lay very much on student engagement. The change from engagement to partnership can be found in Wise Wales itself. In 2009 when it was first established, WISE was an acronym for the Wales Initiative for Student Engagement. A rebranding in 2013 evolved it into Wise Wales, with a new mission statement: to achieve meaningful partnership between educators, students’ unions and students across Wales.  This small change reflected the developments in the sector and began Wise Wales on a new journey, moving away from engagement and towards partnership. The following year, Wise Wales launched its Partnership for Higher Education in Wales statement. This document signified a commitment by all Welsh higher education institutions to adopt a culture of partnership throughout their activities. It made Wales the first UK nation to make such an agreement. The statement can be found here.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, sparqs was founded in 2003 with the name representing ‘student participation in quality Scotland’. In 2015, sparqs began phasing in a small but significant change to their name, moving from ‘participation’ to ‘partnership’. Its aims now revolve around supporting students, institutions and the sector to develop a culture of partnership in Scotland.

These changes demonstrate the clear desire within the sector to move beyond simple student engagement, towards a more sophisticated and meaningful partnership agenda.

The difference between partnership and engagement

Student engagement is a term which is used a lot in the education sector, but often with different meanings. In some cases, it puts the emphasis on the student and how they are engaging with their education, and in others the onus is put on the institution and what it is they are doing to engage with their students (Trowler, 2010).

In both cases, engagement is seen as a process or an outcome – either a student is engaged, or they are not; either an institution is engaging, or they are not. This is where partnership fundamentally differs from engagement. You can engage students with a survey, but working in partnership with students would mean giving them the opportunity to input what they think the survey should be asking in the first place, ensuring you feed the results back to them after the survey is finished, and involving students in any of the actions resulting from the feedback. Successful partnership depends more on the attitudes of staff and students, rather than the quality of engagement processes.

How the sector defines partnership

Partnership has been referred to and defined across a number of different organisations in the education sector. Here are just a few examples of what they consider partnership to mean:

There are some clear themes which are pervasive throughout these definitions – collaboration, equality, and change – and this is what we hope to capture in our own definition.

To help us come up with our final version of what ‘partnership’ means, we took to Twitter to seek advice from our membership. We posed the following question:

Which of these definitions do you think best describes what ‘student partnership’ means to you?

  1.  Students and staff working collaboratively and creating excellent student experiences.
  2.  Improvements to the student experience created by student input.
  3.  A fundamental culture shift which embeds the idea that students are experts in their own right, and equally able to create changes to the student experience.
  4.  A relationship between students and staff based on mutual respect, with shared risks and profits, which benefits everyone involved.

The results ruled in favour of option C (38%), but A and D also both scored well (23% and 27%, respectively). We believe this reflects the complex nature of partnership, and the fact there are so many integral elements to it. We hope we have created a definition which encompasses them all.

How Wise Wales defines partnership

In the past, Wise Wales defined partnership in the following way:

The practice of students having a joint say with their educational institution on the quality of the education provided. Partnership is about respecting and valuing the strengths of each collaborating party, agreeing upon mutual priorities, communicating effectively, and working together to reach a common goal.

Wise Wales believes every student is an expert in their own right and that everyone can bring a unique perspective to the table. By working in partnership with their institution, students can be helped to become active architects of their own educational experiences.

Wise Wales Annual Report, 2016-17

Many aspects of this definition are important to the overall idea of partnership, and are reflected in the views of others in the sector. Having completed our research, and asked what our membership thinks, Wise Wales have come up with a new succinct definition of partnership:

Partnership’ is a fundamental culture shift which embeds the idea that students are experts in their own right, and equally able to contribute to their student experience. The collaborative relationship between staff and students, based on mutual respect, results in changes which benefit everyone involved.

Although partnership is clearly a complex idea, we believe our definition provides a summary which makes it easily understandable for people both within and outside the sector. We hope it encompasses the concept that partnership is more than just a means to an end – it is an attitude, a relationship, and an ethos that is adopted throughout the entire institution.

It is also worth noting that this definition of partnership is broad for a reason – it is impossible to define partnership more specifically because of the unique nature of institutions across the country. There is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to partnership, but we hope this definition lays the foundations for what partnership means at a fundamental level.