Debate: Students as partners

This exercise utilises debating techniques to help students develop their critical thinking skills around students as partners and consider how to respond to arguments against this.

Time: A minimum of 1 hour 20minutes, preferably more.
Participants: minimum of eight participants, ideally no more than sixteen.

  1. Split the group into two smaller groups of at least four people. Put them into separate rooms so they cannot hear each other, if possible. Tell one of the groups that they will be arguing for the motion (i.e. that students are partners) and the other group that they will be arguing against the motion (i.e. that students are customers).
  2. Explain the format of the debate. There will be four speeches on each side and each speech will last for two minutes. It is up to the group how they use each of these speeches, but the last person should probably try to sum up the debate. Make it clear that the debating style is not important and that the participants do not need to be good debaters. The exercise is about the content of the arguments made.
  3. Now give the groups some time to prepare their arguments, structure them appropriately and decide what they are going to say. You should give them as much time as possible, but at very least thirty minutes. During this preparation time, your role is to challenge their arguments, point out any assumptions they have made and keep them on the right track.
  4. For the debate, set the room up in such a way that the speakers face each other and that any extra members of their group sit behind them. Invite each speaker to speak in turn, alternating between those in favour and those against the motion. This should take a maximum of twenty minutes.
  5. For the remaining time, but for at least twenty minutes, lead a discussion in which the groups identify the most persuasive arguments from each side. Make sure the discussion covers the following points:

Should students be partners or consumers?
a They should be partners. It is more democratic. Students are experts in their learning and by working together with staff, it means there is a better learning experience for everyone.
b Do students have more power than customers? Yes. The only power customers have is the power to walk away and not buy the product. This power is not appropriate to the education context.
Why is this argument relevant?
c People at universities, including staff and students, do often argue that students are customers and we should be prepared to tackle this. More widely, by having this debate, it means that you can better understand the purpose of student representation.

What is a partnership? Training exercise

The purpose of this exercise is to help ascertain what is meant by a ‘partnership’, to help you think about what type of a partnership is currently in place at your institution and to consider the way in which your institution’s definition of partnerships might change in the future.
This exercise is aimed at staff members or students involved in learning and teaching, particularly in quality and student engagement or student representation. The exercise can be carried out alone, or in groups.

You will need: Pen and paper. Participants in groups might prefer to use flipchart paper and markers.

This exercise consists of series of analogies and reflections describing the various ways in which it is possible for students to interact with their institution. Some of these are widely considered partnership models, while others are not. It is possible for several models to be in practice at the same time, while some models are not in practice at any institutions. Following each analogy, there are a number of questions listed that the participants are invited to reflect upon and discuss, if appropriate. The participants should write down their thoughts and articulate them as clearly as possible.

Students as customers
The way students interact with their institution is similar to how customers interact with a supermarket or a car dealership. Even if they do not pay for their education, they are in effect given vouchers by the government to spend on their course. Institutions do what is best for students in order to increase their intake and their income. In that way these institutions are run in the interests of students. The more students pay for their education, the higher standards they will demand.
  • Does this reflect what happens at your institution?
  • What power do consumers have over supermarkets?
  • What consequences might there be of thinking about students in this way?

Students as members of a gym
Students interact with their institution like they would be members of a gym. It is not possible to buy fitness and in the same way it is not possible to buy an education. Instead, just as a gym member only gets out as much as he puts in, a student must put in hard work in order to achieve. Students are not ‘empty vessels’ into which teachers pour knowledge, they are active participants in their learning. In this way, students are partners at their institutions.
  • To what extent does this model accurately describe students’ interactions with your institution?
  • How do students’ associations and quality processes fit into this model?

Students as lobbyists
Decision-making power in institutions is concentrated to senior managers. Students, in particular students’ associations, can only make changes to their institution by convincing those with power to make those changes. Even if all students agree on a change, it does not happen unless their representatives are able to convince senior managers that it is the right decision.
  • Is a lobbying relationship the same thing as a partnership? If not, in which ways are they different?
  • If students at your institution wanted to change something, how would they do it? Are they lobbyists?

Students as stakeholders
Students are consulted on decisions that the institution is about to make. Since those decisions affect students, their views should be taken into account. Institutions make sure that students’ views are listened to and taken seriously.
  • In this model, who decides what students should be consulted on?
  • Who shapes the agenda of the institution?
  • What happens if students and senior managers disagree?

Students as members of a golf club
Members of golf clubs have access to the necessary facilities and agree to abide by a code of conduct. Often they are also able to vote and decide how many new members should be admitted each year, what the opening hours of the bar should be and take a few other very practical decisions. Students could be said to act in a similar way. They agree to be part of a learning community, abiding by certain rules, and they are given power to represent themselves to their institution about things which are in their interests.
  • Does this reflect what currently happens in your institution?
  • What role do staff members play in this model?

Students as shareholders
Shareholders in companies, through the virtue of having bought shares, are able to go to an agm (Annual General Meeting) once a year, where the actions of those companies are scrutinised and where they can elect the board for the coming year. In this way, they ‘control’ the company at an arm’s length. Students could interact with their institution in the same way, choosing who runs the institution and setting broad principles by which it is run.
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of running an institution in this way?

Students as workers in a co-operative enterprise
It is commonplace for students to be referred to as ‘co-producers’ of their education. In a co-operative enterprise, the company is run in a democratic way by the workers. Practical decisions about what the company does are taken in a democratic manner and the workers share the profits made by the company. Decisions taken within tertiary education institutions could also be done in a democratic and decentralised manner by the staff and students working as ‘co-producers’ within it, rather than through a line management system.
  • How would you avoid institutional indecision in this system?
  • Should institutions be democratic? Why?

Students as pathfinders and entrepreneurs
When students and students’ associations identify a need at their institution, they set out to meet that need themselves. Examples of this might include setting up academic student societies or sports clubs, starting a student letting agency, or student-led teaching awards. In this way, they are able to address their own needs independently, without the institution.
  • Can you think of any examples of this model in operation at your institution?
  • Is this partnership? Why/why not?
  • To what extent can this model empower students?

Final questions
1 Think of a quality process at your institution such as staff-student liaison committees or student surveys. Which of these models most closely reflect the relationship between the staff and students involved in that process?
2 Which of these models reflects most closely what currently happens overall at your institution?
3 Which of these models, or which combination of models, is preferable to you? Why?
4 If the last two answers are different, what would have to change at the institution for it to move towards your preferred model of partnership?
5 When other people at your institution use the term ‘partnership’, which of these models do you think is closest to what they mean? How can you convince them that your model is better?