Stop treating students like customers and start working with them as partners in learning

Students and lecturers at the University of Queensland researching ‘students as partners’ activities across Australian universities. The University of Queensland

Stop treating students like customers and start working with them as partners in learning

University is a big investment. Students want value for money because a future of debt is scary. But there is also a danger when we talk about higher education only in financial terms. It shifts the conversation away from how universities develop students as learners, thinkers, and future leaders. It turns students into customers.


Read more: No, university is not a waste of time and money


Perils of treating students like customers

When lecturers think of students as customers, it influences how they teach. Pushing students out of their comfort zones, challenging the logic of their thinking, or giving critical feedback on assignments are all important for learning. Fear of bad teaching evaluations from students influences the extent to which lecturers challenge them.

Likewise for students, when they act like customers, it affects how they learn. The idea of being a customer shifts the responsibility of learning onto the lecturers, leaving students with a passive role to play. Yet, we know students need to take active ownership of their own learning. Numerous studies demonstrate grades suffer – and students learn less – when they are passive learners.

When universities talk about students as customers, they are contributing to the us-versus-them divide. This influences the quality of learning in higher education by reducing its measure to customer satisfaction. Students who say they had a good quality university experience report deeper, more meaningful interactions with lecturers in contrast to transactional relationships. They report having lecturers who care about them - who treat them as people.


Read more: Universities are failing their students through poor feedback practices


Change the conversation by including students

Universities that care about learning value an educational culture in which the student-lecturer relationship is at the heart of teaching and learning. Staff at these universities tend to do more than talk at, about, or survey students, they talk with them.

Students and staff talking at the annual Australian Students as Partners Roundtable event. Author provided/public domain

Recently, students and staff worked together on year-long projects at UQ to re-imagine Australian university education as a partnership. Students and staff from 11 Australian universities reported the values-based idea of partnership - students as partners - offered a counter-narrative to the all-too-common narrative of students as customers. Working in partnership was a chance for cultural change and a new way of “doing” higher education, they argued.

Learning and teaching partnership

Engaging students as partners is first and foremost about the values and principles of partnership:

  • mutual respect

  • open and ongoing communication

  • shared purpose and passion

  • appreciation of different experiences and expertise

  • willingness to take seriously what our partners say

  • an openness to negotiate ideas, and

  • a sense of adventure about creating something new or different.

Core values of students as partners are grounded in principles that highlight how students and staff can work together as co-researchers, co-teachers, and co-creators. Practical case studies show the creative ways partnership values are being translated into practice. Here are five examples:

  1. Students observing and discussing classes with lecturers.

  2. Students and staff working together to revise or co-create new subjects or classes.

  3. Students and lecturers negotiating the syllabus at the start of the semester.

  4. Students and staff collaborating to address complicated university issues together (such as cheating or sexual harassment).

  5. Students and staff co-designing new programs to make university more inclusive for non-traditional and under-represented students (such as first-in-family or Indigenous students).

The focus on partnership signals the importance of dialogue between students and university staff in learning and teaching.

Jarred Turner and Kelly Matthews talking about students as partners in an interview with Peter Copeman at the University of Canberra.

The possibilities for partnership extend beyond universities and national borders. There is a new, open access international academic journal capturing research on students as partners, co-edited by students and lecturers. There is an annual International Students as Partners Institute attended by students and staff. It is co-facilitated by students and lecturers.

We are beginning to see practices emerge across Australian universities enabled by this new language of students as partners – changing the conversation and hopefully university cultures.


Read more: Universities run as businesses can't pursue genuine learning


Join the conversation

A growing body of research demonstrates numerous benefits when students and staff work together as partners. There is room for more voices in the #studentsaspartners conversation.

More Australian universities are embracing students as partners in learning and teaching, and supporting students in these new roles where they work alongside lecturers and staff to shape higher education. Author provided/public domain

We need more examples of how students and staff are working differently, as partners, in universities. Share your examples, experiences, and ideas below so we can keep this conversation going.

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