In this interview, we talk to Kate Walsh, Project Manager of Student Voice Australia, a one-year pilot initiative involving ten Australian institutions who have been exploring student engagement in institutional decision-making and governance. Prior to taking up this role she worked at the Flinders University Student Association in Adelaide.
1. How did you end up in your current role? Can you tell us something of your career to date and the work you did at Flinders?
I’ve been working in the student voice/leadership/partnership space for almost ten years now and find it both challenging and incredibly rewarding. I spent four years earlier in my career as the Coordinator of the Victorian Student Representative Council (VicSRC) - a fabulous student driven organisation for secondary school students that provided excellent grounding for student partnership work (although we used the word participation more so than partnership). Working alongside school students who wanted a say in how they received and participated in their own education was inspiring. I always use this example when I am questioned about what students in tertiary education can really have to offer in decision-making processes within their institutions. There are many examples these days of primary school students getting involved in governance processes. It’s just a matter of how you frame the opportunities and provide the appropriate structures, training and support.
I transitioned into student engagement in a tertiary education context when I took up the Student Representation and Development Officer position at the Flinders University Student Association (FUSA). My role at FUSA was twofold - to support the operation of the Student Association and the elected Student Council reps to fulfill their roles and responsibilities, and to champion and assist the development of authentic student engagement practice within the wider University. During my time at FUSA the focus on working in partnership with students within institutions and across the sector in Australia steadily increased. The opportunity arose to participate in a nationally funded project (through the then Office of Learning and Teaching) centred around student partnerships in institutional decision making and governance, led by Prof. Sally Varnham out of the University of Technology Sydney.
Following the completion of Sally’s National Senior Teaching Fellowship, ten institutions signed up to fund the Student Voice Australia 12-month pilot. The SVA Pilot is focused on continuing to build the capacity of staff, students and institutions to facilitate systemic student involvement in institutional decision making and governance. When the Project Manager position to oversee the Pilot was advertised I jumped at the opportunity!
2. What have the institutions brought to the pilot, and what sort of work did you involve them in? They’re diverse in terms of sizes, cultures and so on, so presumably they have very different perspectives on the same questions.
The ten institutions funding the pilot are indeed really diverse. We have universities involved from major capital cities with large populations of local and international students who are mainly on-campus and school leavers, to rural and regional institutions with significant numbers of off-campus students who are mature age and study part time. And then some institutions who are a blend of both. We also have one Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institution on board, which is fantastic and I hope will lead to change in that sector as well.
A number of our institutions have flourishing student unions/associations, and others don’t have an independent student body but seek to engage students through other mechanisms. There is no doubt all of our student associations across Australia have been impacted by the government of the day introducing Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) in 2005 (coming into place in 2006), whereby membership of a union became a choice for students rather than automatic as it had been before and like it is in the UK. It has always been a focus of Student Voice Australia to work with student bodies and their institutions together and encourage partnership approaches wherever possible. Many of our student unions/associations are gaining in strength and professionalism again (some have always remained strong even through VSU) and are showing a lot of interest in the idea of partnership and considering how they can be an integral part of this movement.
While this diversity is certainly a strength, it does present challenges when trying to deliver a project that meets everybody’s needs and strategic interests! Luckily we have a fantastic Advisory Group made up of students and staff from our funding institutions, TEQSA (our quality agency in Australia) and representatives from the five national student bodies, including NUS and Indigenous, international, and postgraduate student representation. Through working together and drawing on our individual strengths, we are developing good practice guidelines that are broad enough to encapsulate our different needs and contexts but also specific to our Australian experience of tertiary education.
We’ve also established an SVA Practitioner Network (inspired by the sparqs Academic Representation Co-ordinators' network) open to professional and academic staff across Australia interested in developing a partnership approach to working with students within their institution, particularly in governance and decision-making processes. The network is designed to share good practice, discuss national issues, and provide collegial support and guidance and has been a fantastic space for learning across institutions.
3. Back in 2016 we interviewed Sally Varnham, who as you mentioned was instrumental in creating the Student Voice Australia pilot. She talked then about a sense of disempowerment among students, which is always a challenge in formal structures that are, by definition, owned by institutions. Has that issue been at the heart of your work this year?
I am certainly concerned that ‘student partnership’ is a catchphrase of the moment for any kind of student engagement activity (including consultation or simply asking students what they think). I believe we need to be mindful about how we use the word ‘partnership’ and be clear about what we mean when we talk about partnership with students and the expectations we have around working in partnership.
When I speak to elected student leaders and representatives with student unions/associations I do get the sense from some that they are still unsure if genuine partnership between students and staff is possible within their institution. This speaks to a lack of trust, transparency and an unwillingness to share power on both sides. Other unions/associations I know of have excellent working relationships with their institutions and have come a long way in developing their partnership and a shared sense of collaboration and purpose. Partnership is a two-way street and both sides need to have responsibility for developing relationships that build trust, respect and reciprocity and that allow for genuine partnership to form and grow. One of the most challenging aspects of partnership is in recognising and breaking down traditional power structures and ways of working. It’s not easy, but the rewards are well documented and are, in my mind, well worth the effort.
I absolutely believe that student reps, whether they come from within a student union/association or if they come from within their Schools and Faculties, benefit hugely from actively working in partnership with academics, professional staff and management. It’s still very common for people to connect student voice with complaint rather than viewing it as a means for enhancement. Students themselves often don’t even realise they have any agency beyond simply complaining or pointing out what isn’t working. Whilst this is still important information, how much more effective would it be to widen the scope and engage students in conversations from the beginning regarding the whole student learning experience and how they can be a part of a process of enhancement within the institution?
As an example, whilst working within the Student Association at Flinders University (FUSA) I piloted a topic (subject/unit) level representation model in collaboration with the College of Science and Engineering that encourages students and staff to work together to improve the learning and teaching experience. The Topic Rep model centres around student representatives having ongoing, low-level dialogue with their Topic Coordinator as the topic is rolling out, regarding how students are finding the topic and if any adjustments can be made in real time in response to the feedback. Topic Reps are encouraged to share a broad student perspective of what is both working well and what could be improved, as well as contributing to problem solving and finding solutions to issues as they arise. All Topic Reps receive training prior to commencing in their roles to ensure they are clear about their responsibilities and how to approach their role. Following a positive evaluation, FUSA has continued to work with the College of Science and Engineering to expand the Topic Rep model across the whole College, and to run additional pilots within other Colleges within the University.
4. You’ve done a lot of international engagement and research over the year, presenting at our conference in March and also looking at work in Ireland and England. How important has the international dimension been to your work, and what have you found useful in it?
I have been lucky enough to visit the UK (a number of times) and Ireland to check out how Scotland, England and Ireland have developed their practice in working in partnership with students, particularly through the leadership of national programmes such as sparqs, NStEP and TSEP. It is clear how important leadership and practical support can be in embedding student partnership principles and approaches at a systemic level, so I have been keen to be a part of establishing a similar national presence in Australia. Just seeing what is possible and how each sector does it a little differently to suit their context and need has been hugely beneficial in giving me the confidence to try new things with Student Voice Australia.
I can’t emphasise enough how important the support and collaboration has been with our international counterparts in helping us set up Student Voice Australia! I know Sally Varnham would also agree. Personally, I have gained so much through the events I have participated in (two sparqs conferences, sparqs training for Course Rep Training, 2018 RAISE conference, NStEP support and mentoring, meetings with colleagues from TSEP and NUS) and have been blown away with how inclusive everyone in the UK is in inviting me to join in and in their interest in Student Voice Australia! SVA also has some great links with our friends in New Zealand too and we look to support and collaborate with each other wherever possible.
I have met the most fabulous people involved in student engagement work and I keep joking that we need to have an international conference in Bali so we have an excuse to all hang out together!
5. In May you had a Student Voice Summit, where you brought together students from across the country to discuss the benefits and challenges of working in partnership within their institutions and further develop their capacity to navigate this space. How did that go and what were the outcomes?
The Student Voice Summit was a great success! We had around 100 students from 26 institutions participate on the day and I was blown away by the passion and enthusiasm in the room from students really wanting to contribute to an enhancement agenda within their institutions. Across the day, students (this was a student-only event) spent time reflecting on who typically gets to participate in governance and decision-making processes within their institutions and discussing how to broaden opportunities for participation and ensure a diverse range of students can engage and are heard. Towards the end of the day students also worked together to develop ‘terms of engagement’ for how they would like to work in partnership with their institutions, drawing upon what they learnt during the Summit.
Some of the key challenges of working in partnership raised by students included accessing appropriate training (we don’t have an established course rep system in Australian institutions), receiving adequate reward and recognition for their participation (including payment) and experiencing resistance when trying to initiate partnerships.
We also heard from a number of speakers on the day who discussed initiatives within their own institutions that support student partnership approaches. I think students found it really useful to hear examples of how partnership can exist in different forms and be expressed in different ways. During these presentations I was particularly struck by something Professor Eileen Baldry (Deputy Vice-Chancellor Equity & Inclusion at the University of New South Wales) said at one point - that “The enemy of progress is defensiveness”. I thought this is such a key message when it comes to developing successful and productive partnerships, regardless of who the partnership is between. I have this quote on my desk now as a reminder of how important it is to remain open to different points of view (even those who question the validity of engaging students thought partnership) and to seek to understand different perspectives first and foremost. You can check out further details of presentations at the Summit on the Student Voice Australia website.
Ultimately though, I think students who participated in the Summit just enjoyed meeting and sharing with each other! It was another reminder for me of how important it is to create spaces for students to connect with each other and find out they’re not alone in wanting to have a say and be heard.
6. And what next? What are the future challenges for student engagement in Australia, and where does the project go next?
It’s clear that the standard way students often engage in governance and decision-making processes within an institution – that is, physically attending meetings during business hours – has become a barrier for participation for many students who have (among other things) work, study, childcare, travel and family responsibilities and commitments. Not to mention the ever-growing number of students who study online/externally and never actually set foot on campus. So when we are talking about student partnerships in governance and decision making and the traditional ways institutions conduct (and own) this type of business, there are quite a few challenges still to address here if we want to ensure diversity of participation and quality of experience. And I haven’t even touched here upon the increasing commodification of education, power dynamics, privilege, and whose voices get to be heard. These are all issues we are grappling with in student engagement, I think not only in Australia, but all around the world.
What’s next for Student Voice Australia? That’s a really good question! We are currently about to start consultation within the sector and our initial funding partner institutions about where to go from here, so I can’t answer this right now, but do stay tuned. The nature of a pilot project is that we experiment a little to see what works and what doesn’t so I am really looking forward to learning from our experience over the past 12 months through our evaluation process.
That said, I am very hopeful that SVA will continue in some form or another as I think there is plenty of evidence that the pilot has been a really positive initiative for the sector, and for all those involved. I think everyone agrees that it is critical that student engagement through partnerships continues to be supported and practiced within the tertiary education sector in Australia and I hope Student Voice Australia continues to have a leading role here.
You can find out more about Student Voice Australia on our website and please feel free to contact me directly.
Thanks to Kate 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.