On the origin of Student Fellows: Reflections on the evolution of partnership from theory to practice

Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do pood service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1876, p.423)

Student engagement has long been a key strategic priority at the University of Winchester, whose aim is to be ‘one of the leaders in the university sector’ in this field (University of Winchester Strategic Plan, 2015-2020, p.6). Winchester is a small/medium-sized institution with a broad remit that focuses on humanities, liberal arts, education and health-based courses. It is an institution that prides itself on its values-driven education. This habitat has been the ideal breeding ground for a diverse biosphere of practice across the institution, in various forms, provisions and initiatives, all evolving convergently around working in partnership with students (Healey, Flint and Harrington, 2014; NUS, 2012). Whilst Winchester has been commended (QAA, 2012; 2016) and celebrated for these practices (Guardian Higher Education Awards, 2015; NUS/HEA Partnership awards 2014), adaptation is essential if an institution is to thrive in what can be seen as the hostile ecosystem of contemporary higher education (HE) (Moran and Powell, 2018). In light of this, the staff at Winchester continue to evolve their practice so that it remains relevant and, above all, engaging to students. One such example of Winchester’s commitment to student engagement evolution has been the emergence of a ‘Centre for Student Engagement’, after a team determined that such was vital to ensuring that all students both be aware of all student engagement initiatives and also, therefore, have the opportunity to choose their level of engagement with them (Shaw and Lowe, 2017; Lowe, Shaw, Sims, King and Paddison, 2017). This particular adaptation within the evolution of engagement was driven by student-staff partnership arising from a ‘Student Fellows Scheme’ (SFS) project, which highlighted the conflicting definitions of ‘student engagement’ and the need for students to have a single accessible place where they might engage with opportunities. This chapter will discuss the SFS in relation to its evolutionary development in the context of hospitable and hostile environments, both locally and in the wider HE sector. In doing this, we willchart the evolution of the scheme to illustrate the challenges faced and demonstrate that successful adaptations are key to developing a culture of partnership. The authors of this chapter have both coordinated the SFS and acted as staff partners and one has been a Student Fellow. This chapter is informed by reflections from our varied perspectives on the scheme across the years. This chapter will therefore follow the SFS’s ever-developing structure, focus, partnership levels and legacy, as the scheme continues to refine itself in the spirit of evolutionary anagenesis.

An environment hospitable to growth

The SFS is Winchester’s flagship student engagement initiative, a scheme that is continuously looking for ways to adapt to suit student and staff needs. It is a student-staff partnership initiative, co-directed by the University of Winchester and Winchester Student Union, and provides sixty students with a bursary to work in partnership with a member of staff on a project that will lead to an enhancement of the student experience (Sims, Lowe, Hutber and Barnes, 2014). The SFS was Winchester’s response to debates in the United Kingdom (UK) HE sector about partnership and student ownership in order to ensure mutually beneficial change for the institution, its staff and its students (Healey, Flint and Harrington, 2014; Dunne and Zandstra, 2011). ‘Partnership’ is a concept that has gained significant traction in HE internationally (Mercer-Mapstone, Dvorakova, Matthews, Abbot, Cheng, Felten, Knorr, Marquis, Shammas and Swaim, 2017), but the UK focus took shape through the ‘call to arms’ presented by the National Union of Students in its Manifesto for Partnership (NUS, 2012). This was not a document with a theoretical or even, perhaps, philosophical approach, but a pragmatic and democratic one stimulated by the sense that British HE was changing, as manifest in the funding relationship change in the UK, with the introduction of£9,000 tuition fees in 2012. Alongside this seismic shift in HE, the Quality Assurance Agency’s Chapter B5 Student Engagement was published (QAA, 2012) and bodies such as TSEP (The Student Engagement Partnership) and SPARQS (Student Partnerships in Quality Scotland) were active in the sector, focusing energy and institutional motivation on student engagement. This movement called for partnership in resistance to a consumerist model in which students pay fees and are treated as customers (Molesworth, Nixon and Scullion, 2009); it championed partnership as a process (Healey, Flint and Harrington, 2014) and demanded a fundamental revision of the traditional nature of student-staff relationships. With this national, student-driven agenda in mind, the University of Winchester developed a scheme that tried to embody these principles. Key to this was the notion (repeated in bold type in the original document) that “the sum total of an institution’s student engagement mechanisms does not equal partnership" (NUS, 2012, p.3). It was not enough to meet the rallying cry of this manifesto by badging a partnership label on an existing practice or rebranding something institutions planned to do anyway. This meant a reassessment of the way students and staff collaborated institution-wide. An essential first step towards the promotion of partnership and its establishment as a Winchester ethos was a discrete activity, subsequently built upon and developed within the hospitable national environment that the work of the National Union of Students (NUS) and others had created. The institution’s current thriving student engagement activity is the telling result.

The SFS structure has evolved greatly since its inception in 2012. The scheme began as a small-scale, Jisc-fundcd FASTECH project at the University' of Winchester and Bath Spa University (UK) (Hyland, Jessop, El Hakim, Adams, Barlow, Morgan, and Shepherd 2013). Initially, there were only eight projects that ran across semester two and, at this stage in the scheme’s existence, the projects were focused solely on technology-enhanced learning (TEL). This particular student engagement emphasis proved successful enough to stimulate stakeholder desire for further SFS projects the following year, on a larger scale and lasting longer. The scheme therefore evolved into an opportunity for sixty students to work on a project from October - after the September recruitment phase - until the Student Fellows Conference in May. The University and the Student Union co-own the day-to-day running of the SFS and its evaluation, as may be discovered in El Hakim, King, Lowe and Sims (2016). That the SFS projects have flourished in the partnership environment at Winchester has led to a change in and expansion of their focus across the years of the scheme. From their TEL beginnings, the projects’ foci broadened to any pedagogical initiative and development, such as assessment and feedback (Shaw and Sims, 2017). This particular focus has since mutated into a scheme that has adapted to suit all manner of environments and student and staff needs, engaging over 300 students across five years.

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