18 Nov 2016

'Talking Student Engagement' Interview with Sally Varnham

In this interview we talk to Dr Sally Varnham, a law professor at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), and an Australian Learning and Teaching National Senior Fellow. Sally has been leading a national project looking at student engagement in university decision making and governance in Australian universities – towards a more systemically inclusive student voice, and has now been awarded a national Fellowship which will build on the momentum from the project to work towards developing a set of principles and a framework for student engagement in Australian universities. sparqs met Sally in September 2016 when our Director, Eve Lewis, visited Sydney to contribute towards the project final symposium as well as other work to support their developments.

1. First of all, what got you interested in the concept of student engagement?

This is going way back but… my interest in student voice started from research into legal issues in compulsory education and looking at the role of schools in developing citizenship through having processes and practices for engaging students in decision making – the democratic school idea. It seems to me that so many young people go through their education thinking that schooling is something that is ‘done to them’ rather than being actively involved. I think schools are missing a valuable opportunity to develop responsible citizens through practices which involve students authentically in decision making - rather than just teaching citizenship. Importantly this helps them to be responsible for the safety of the school environment through restorative practice – rather than a ‘crime’ and ‘punishment’ approach which leads to a ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude. I looked at some schools in New Zealand and New South Wales that are doing really good things in this area with great results.

2. That’s something that has occurred to us: perhaps the best way to teach people citizenship and the skills of engagement they will need in the workplace and wider world, isn’t through some abstract exercise, but by engaging them in shaping their own learning. How did your observations in the school sector compare with what happens in universities?

Really the same principles apply, but in this area I suppose it is more to do with matching expectations and developing higher education which is seen by students to be of a high standard and relevant. Importantly, as we move more to transdisciplinary education we need to realize that because we really have very little idea of future careers and ‘workplaces’, we should be thinking more in terms of helping to develop leaders, innovators, critical thinkers and citizens rather than the old traditional careers. Student-centred learning is of course a big part of all this.

Universities have a great opportunity to benefit themselves in terms of quality enhancement by asking the people they serve – the students; and working to improve the university experience for students, and importantly their professional and personal development. But this of course is all borne out in evidence from what sparqs has helped to achieve in Scottish universities, and this is what makes my contact with sparqs and with Eve so valuable.

3. Tell us a little about the origins of the national project you are working on, and how the university sector in Australia has viewed the concept of student engagement up to now.

I did a project a few years ago for the Australian Learning and Teaching Council which looked at Student Grievances and Discipline Matters in Australian Universities. It seemed to me that it was a lot to do with students lacking a sense of empowerment and universities not matching expectations – or failing to find out until too late what students thought. Also that impression was reinforced by my years as a Student Ombud at my university.

I am also really interested in how universities have so readily accepted the ‘student/consumer’ characterization which fails to do anyone any favours – encouraging passivity rather than active engagement. I’ve published a few articles in this area - as a lawyer I looked at consumer protection legislation and how it has been singularly unhelpful to dissatisfied students who have tried to use it. This is largely because it requires them to prove ‘loss’ which is hard if they’ve gone through and completed the courses despite deficiencies.

Then, and this is probably most important to this answer, I chaired the university Academic Board and we have a large number of elected student representatives on that board as well as student reps on most faculty and university committees. I worked hard to encourage their engagement and despite establishing pre-meeting briefings, mentoring, open-door policy etc. I made some headway, but not much in effective participation, and I thought we could do a whole lot better.

So I started looking at overseas sectors and of course came across a lot of material suggesting huge innovation and development in approaches, of course, with you in Scotland, in England and Wales, the European students’ community and New Zealand (as an aside: it is actually so heartening that now there is so much more student participation in the Academic Board, I think as a result of our project, and that the current Chair taking it on. I went to a student presentation at the last meeting which was great).

I then got a study leave grant from my university to visit the UK, particularly to spend time with Gwen van der Velden and the team at University of Bath who had been involved in a QAA project. I also had interviews and focus groups in England, Belgium and New Zealand. My colleague also made contact with sparqs and interviewed Eve and we were so impressed with what sparqs was doing.

So, I put together a team from UTS and applied for funding from OLT – the Office of Learning and Teaching of the Australian Federal government – as a Strategic Priority Commissioned Project. That was successful and the Australian part of the project started really in earnest at the beginning of 2015. We are now into our final reporting.

4. Last year your research was misrepresented in the media as identifying apathy as the main challenge in student engagement, when you’d not stated that at all. It’s easy to say it’s simply the responsibility of students to make sure they engage more. Yet you’ve argued in your project documentation, and we would agree, that the challenge is about providing appropriate support to enable that engagement. Does this hint at a wider question about how institutions work?

Absolutely – not just institutions but nationally in the sector as well. I actually said that many in the sector think in those terms, and that it is a fairly common response to say ‘why would we have students on committees etc. because they don’t turn up and if they do they don’t say anything?’. But I also stressed that to me that’s a ‘cop-out’ and we need to turn it around and ask: ‘why are we failing to encourage students to become involved, and how can we change?’ Which is why I started looking abroad.

Back to the implicit (and sometimes explicit) adoption of the student consumer characterization and the ‘marketisation’ of the sector and ‘commodification’ of higher education, which I think is quite prevalent here: this focuses of course on determining consumer needs but more from a market survey type basis rather than actually involving them in decisions from the beginning. I suppose the characterization is inevitable – the ‘cloud’ of deregulation and higher fees has been hanging over us for a few years now and the reality is fast approaching.

But my project aims to push that back into the ‘community’ concept of equal participation, which the UK, for example, is working to achieve in the same climate. The phrase which I think you use and I love is ‘higher education ’with and for’ students, not ‘to’ students.

The exciting thing was that, on starting into the Australian research fueled by all the good things in sectors elsewhere, we found that there was in fact a lot of interest and things happening in universities here also – albeit mostly ‘embryonic’; interestingly, often initiated by senior managers and academics who have come to Australia from the UK and New Zealand. From our surveys of institutions and student leaders, and approaches following my talking at conferences and generally networking, we uncovered a range of different ideas being put into place in universities here. We have developed these into case studies which we have called ‘Pockets of good practice’ which will be part of our report. Great initiatives across a wide range of universities, but it is patchy and not part of a general move in the sector, I don’t believe.

In my talks I call it ‘hundreds and thousands’ or the ‘unfinished mosaic’ – but the thing is there is lots of knowledge and experience developing which is able to be shared in the sector. It is patently clear that a culture of partnership is vital and we don’t have that here (yet) – there is a lot of research into ‘students as partners’ in the learning and teaching space and we are in touch with that as obviously it’s all part of a general move.

5. From that research, what do you think makes good partnership?

We developed themes from our research abroad which stand out as important to this culture of partnership. Things like the importance of communication (of opportunities and outcomes), developing experience and expertise by involving students as representatives at all levels, training and support, etc. In addition, what I’ve seen is two vital elements: strong supported student leadership which is able to work in partnership within universities (I am concerned not to do our student associations a disservice as there are some seriously impressive student leaders and representatives who do a great job, but this is not universal or generally well supported by the sector); and sector organisations or collaborations which show a strong commitment and facilitate partnership at national level - like sparqs in Scotland, TSEP (The Student Engagement Partnership) in England, and NZUSA (New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations).

The Australian sector is hugely diverse – from city campuses with large numbers of local and international students often undergrad and living on campus, to the regional and remote universities who have several campuses and large numbers of distance students – often part-time, mature, first in family, indigenous, low socio-economic status, etc., and everything in between. In our case studies we have tried to capture this range. The big challenge is how to capture every student’s voice in these vastly different cohorts.

6. And that leads us to the national framework you are developing. What do you feel would be the advantages of this, and how are you approaching that task?

The national framework is to be the work of the Fellowship. As I said, during the project in 2015/2016 we have managed to develop a considerable momentum and it is wonderful to be able to carry this on towards a national collaboration. During the project we initiated what we called the Student Voice Conversation - through our dissemination activities, our two Symposia (particularly the recent one at which we were very lucky to have Eve from sparqs present, and the workshops in Sydney and Adelaide which Eve facilitated), our three Student Voice publications (on our website at www.studentvoice.uts.edu.au), social media – Facebook (Student Voice in university decision-making) and Twitter (#oltstudentvoice).

We feel that we now have a lot to build on to move forward. As I said, the inspiration and motivation for this work comes to a huge extent from the work of sparqs particularly, but also TSEP and NZUSA. I am talking with Eve a lot about the process for a national collaboration and that will guide me.

It’s proposed to run a series of workshops in the Australian main centres, as well as online forums, and we are working on developing some interesting ideas for these. I have enlisted students at my university as part of the team and to help us.

We are aiming at a set of principles and a framework to help facilitate processes in universities and perhaps nationally. But I think we still need to establish the ground at the beginning by asking: ‘what is student engagement in university decision making?’; ‘why is it important?’ and ‘how may processes for student engagement be implemented to work towards ‘this is the way we do things’ – as a university, and as a sector’.

We are encouraged by the fact there is so much interest. For example, I received an email from one senior manager saying they were thrilled about the Fellowship as: ‘many of us in the sector feel we should be doing more in this space but there is a dearth of ideas and strategies’. We plan to ask universities to consider a short set of ‘self-reflective questions’ for this purpose at the outset.


Thanks to Sally for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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