Conference report: ‘Developing Student Engagement and Partnership’ (15 May 2014)

Event summary:

Developing Student Engagement and Partnership #dsep will focus on supporting and enhancing the delivery of effective student engagement in quality assurance. Its purpose is to support higher education professionals in building and embedding effective student engagement at UK higher education providers.

Held at what I would describe as a swanky, new media-friendly, blue-sky ideas, themed break-out spaced, quote-adorned, meeting zone in Manchester: the premiere event of its kind, arranged by the QAA in partnership with the NUS, HEA and the Student Engagement Partnership, involved a range of keynote speeches and breakout sessions based around the transformative potential of partnership working between students, students’ unions and higher (and further) education staff.

The main impressions I have of the event, a few days hence, are:

  • The commonality in the viewpoint held by the speakers and presenters; that the student experience would be best served by following partnership principles, with an associated rejection of consumerist rhetoric.
  • The unresolved challenge, recognised by many speakers and delegates, of including in any initiative, process or framework any students other than full-time, on-campus, 18-year old undergraduates.
  • Everyone has something to publish! We heard in most sessions of the imminent publication or development of all manner of reports, including:
    1. As part of HEFCE’s review of publication information reports are due in June on the NSS; one analysing the data gathered since its introduction in 2005; the other a review of the survey itself, which is expected to recommend the addition of questions on student engagement and a change to the students’ union question (Q23).
    2. In July the HEA are due to publish ‘Developing Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education’.
    3. A statement of partnership principles from the Student Engagement Partnership (TSEP), which will be preceded by a Conversation with the sector.
  • An ongoing dialogue about the meaning of the term ‘student engagement’ and how it may be changing as the debate develops (hence some newly defined principles from TSEP). The main aspect covered in the conference was representational, i.e. students’ role and status, rather than at an individual level, i.e. a student’s engagement with their course.
  • Recognition of the risks posed by adding to the national data landscape, particularly where the nebulousness of a term such as ‘student engagement’ precludes characterisation by quantitative means only. [what consequences will additional NSS questions on student engagement bring?]

My verdict one week on… aside from the hyperbole around the transformative power of partnership working there is a sense that this is, genuinely, a movement making some progress in raising awareness of the value of student engagement (in a general sense). It is arguable whether its take-up is driven by the pursuit of a sizable bump up the league tables (on the part of institutions), a mechanism for seeking value for money by influencing policy (on the part of students’ unions), or whether there is a more principled motivating view about the benefits i) for individuals through improved engagement with their course and ii) improvements to the curriculum, directly or indirectly.

In my view progress is more likely to be achieved not through a framework or set of values, but via specific, imaginative projects with a defined purpose. At the next dsep event I would wish to see a more varied list of speakers (not all singing from the same hymn sheet) and practical examples (case studies), such as that presented by the University of Huddersfield (‘students as teaching and learning consultants’[1]).

Glossary of acronyms (in the order in which they appear):

QAA – Quality Assurance Agency

NUS – National Union of Students

HEA – Higher Education Academy

HEFCE – Higher Education Funding Council for England

NSS – National Student Survey

[1] This adds another example ‘student as…’ category to my previous post (


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