by Ketevan Kupatadze
As I continue to think of the ways to implement Students as Partners (SaP) pedagogy at various institutional levels, I found the recently published study by Matthews, Dwyer, Russell & Enright (2018), “It is a complicated thing: Leaders’ conceptions of students as partners in the neoliberal university,” very interesting and thought provoking. Although the study was conducted at an Australian university, it can apply to the US or other Western contexts as it considers how SaP is being understood and implemented in today’s neoliberal, business-like, higher education institutions.
The authors note that “[n]umerous scholars (Ball 2003; Marginson 2006; Archer 2008) have argued that public Australian Universities, like universities in other countries, have become hybrid entities positioned at the threshold of business and education” (pp. 2-3). It is worth noting that some universities are already envisioning student-faculty partnership pedagogies as part of their strategic planning, although as the authors of the article suggest, there isn’t much research that explores the attitudes and the views of the university leaders towards this pedagogy. Mercer-Mapstone et al. (2017) also highlight this lack of research. Hence, Matthews et al. (2018) set out to explore the views of institutional leaders on SaP and its implementation. They state from the beginning that their “analysis revealed a strong neoliberal discourse evident amongst the leader interviewees with our findings discussed in juxtaposition to theorizations of SaP and through a neoliberal interpretative framework” (p. 1).
With a qualitative study, Matthews et al. (2018) investigated the attitudes of senior leaders towards student-faculty partnership pedagogy, as well as the ways these leaders conceptualize the implementation process of such pedagogy and the goals that it would serve. The authors state that “[t]he study was undertaken in an Australian research intensive university that excels in research while aspiring to excellence in learning and teaching. Individuals in formal positions of leadership with responsibility for teaching, learning, and curriculum were invited to participate in this study” (p. 3).

What did the university leaders think of SaP?

While certain terms and values frequently associated with student-faculty partnership pedagogy, such as more democratic, inclusive education, better sense of belonging, collaboration, etc., came up in the interviews, the authors note that the interviewees thought of SaP as a “complicated thing” (p. 4) that for the moment somewhat lacked a “cohesive understanding” (p. 4). Still, some noted that SaP was a way to democratize learning, as well as improve students’ experiences at the university by creating more welcoming and hospitable spaces in which they would feel that they not only belonged, but could develop a sense of ownership (p. 4).

Where does (can/should) partnership happen according to the university leaders?

This is where the findings reported in the article become fascinating. Matthews et al. (2018) report that most, if not all, of the leaders talked of possible spaces for partnership outside the classroom environment and not as part of the process of teaching and learning. The authors note that according to their findings there was no understanding among the interviewed leaders of SaP as a pedagogical practice in the classroom and through the coursework that could transform teaching and learning. Instead, the leaders viewed university governance (university-wide committees) as the least complicated space for starting partnerships. According to one interviewee, partnership should “start with the easy part which is in governance and set the expectation that students have a voice on school committees” (p. 5). Moreover, according to the interviewees, including student voices in these committees would serve the purpose of “quality assurance” (p. 5). The authors write: “While many of our interviewees offered a broader view of SaP (either explicitly or implied) that extended into the realm of pedagogy and classroom praxis, they typically saw classroom and curriculum partnerships as secondary to the primacy of governance related activities” (p. 5). Even when it came to the term ‘student voices’, general consensus was that students would be more frequently and consistently invited to contribute with their feedback, have representation on diverse committees, including teaching and learning, as well as curriculum committees. Speaking about the use of “student voices” by the interviewees, Matthews et al. state the following:

While the idea of SaP privileged the ‘student voice’ in seemingly new ways for these leaders, there was a strong sense of SaP as a one-way transaction that occurs in a linear timeframe. This does not resonate with the current theorizations of partnership (or extensive theorizations on student voice in education) as a form of ongoing dialogue between students and staff who are working together – in constant conversations – on matters of ‘curricular or pedagogical conceptualization, decision-making, implementation, investigation, or analysis’ (Cook-Sather, Bovill, Felten, 2014, 6–7).

Matthews et al., 2018, p. 5

The view of student-faculty partnership as a practice that develops mutual respect, is a reciprocal and mutually beneficial process, and reflects a consistent dialogue between faculty and student(s) on the process itself of teaching and learning, was absent. The authors highlight that according to their findings the university leaders did not see SaP as a process in which students and faculty are engaged together to enter in a dialogue on the issues of teaching and learning, a process that is transformative in itself. They write: “[T]ransformative learning processes with uncertain outcomes, education for broader societal good, or disrupting traditional models of education were rarely mentioned or implied, and notions of inclusion of the diversity of students and staff within the university community were absent” (p. 8).

What are the benefits of partnership according to the university leaders?

Matthews et al. (2018) write that the perception of student as consumer was evident in the ways the interviewed leaders approached the concept of SaP. These leaders saw the practice as a way to elicit more feedback from students with the goal of ensuring that their interests were being met by the university, the ‘product’ that they were selling was more relevant and that it led to students’’ employability. The authors write that for some interviewees this was a clear matter of “packaging of education as a commodity to/for the student-consumer” (p. 6). They write:

A number of the leaders recruited business language and metaphors in their reflections on SaP that resonated with notions of the neoliberal university:

I think it [SaP] will maintain a currency in the way…we teach and what we teach, and a relevance…those things mean that the product the university has to offer is both current and relevant. And what the customers, although I don’t like to call students customers, what the customers want from the product. (T5)

Matthews et al., 2018, p. 6

Hence, from the leaders’ perspective, SaP was a way to “quality assurance,” meaning more student satisfaction and better employability.

The authors’ argument and suggestions for a way forward

Despite the obviously business-like mindset of the interviewed administrators, Matthews et al. (2018) conclude that SaP offers an opportunity to engage these leaders in new ways of thinking as it often is understood as a practice that creates and nurtures liminal spaces (Cook-Sather & Alter, 2011; Cook-Sather & Felten, 2017) in which the participants could explore other ways of being (p. 9).  Following this proposition, the authors “suggest that SaP re-establishes a space wherein competition is suspended and cooperation defines success” (p. 9). SaP could become (or is already becoming) a practice that subverts the dominant, competition-driven and hierarchically structured system of higher education and, instead, offers a space in which knowledge is generated through partnership, collaboration and mutual respect (p. 9). But, of course, the question remains: How does one find “ways to engage the views of institutional leaders in dialogue, and support them in turning their critical eyes on their own rhetoric, through an expansion of the view of SaP as a liminal space that includes those even considering partnership practices” (p. 9)? The authors argue in favor of advocacy that works towards changing the perspectives that leaders hold currently. They rightfully claim that such change is required in order to build a more caring and socially just world (p. 10).


  • Cook-Sather, A. and Alter, Z. (2011). “What Is and What Can Be: How a Liminal Position Can Change Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 42(1), 37-53.
  • Cook-Sather, A. & Felten, P. (2017). Ethics of academic leadership: Guiding learning and teaching. In F. Su & M. Wood (Eds.), Cosmopolitan perspectives on academic leadership in higher education (pp. 175-191). London: Bloomsbury.
  • Matthews, K. E., Dwyer, A., Russell, S. & Enright, E. (2018). It is a complicated thing: leaders’ conceptions of students as partners in the neoliberal university, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2018.1482268
  • Mercer-Mapstone, Drovakova, S. L., Matthews, K. E., Abbot, S., Cheng, B., Felten, P., … Swaim, K. (2017). A systematic Literature Review of Students as Partners in Higher Education. International Journal for Students as Partners, 1(2), 1–23.

Ketevan Kupatadze, Senior Lecturer in Spanish in the Department of World Languages and Cultures, is the 2017-2019 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Kupatadze’s CEL Scholar project focuses on student-faculty partnerships.

How to cite this post:

Kupatadze, Ketevan. 2019, February 27. Institutional Leaders’ and Administrators’ Take on Students as Partners. [Blog post]. Retrieved from