May 2021 marked a major milestone for the National Student Engagement Programme (NStEP) with the launch of a new framework to support authentic student engagement in decision-making. Steps to Partnership represents both a new national approach to student engagement, as well as an opportunity to create new resources and initiatives for students and staff across higher education. Outgoing USI President has witnessed considerable change in practices, and indeed commitment, to student engagement in decision-making during her time as a student representative. Below, Lorna reflects on the role the framework can play in its further evolution toward genuine partnership.

About Lorna Fitzpatrick

Lorna Fitzpatrick (she/her) was elected President of USI in 2019 and re-elected in May 2020, steering the student movement through the pandemic. Lorna graduated from Business & Human Resource Management at Institute of Technology Carlow. While studying in IT Carlow, Lorna got involved in the Students’ Union as a Class Rep, Part-Time Officer, Deputy President for Education and Welfare and spent two years as President of IT Carlow Students’ Union. Lorna left IT Carlow Students’ Union in June 2018 to take up the role of Vice President for the Southern Region with USI, before become President.

She has served on the Board of the Higher Education Authority, represented students across higher education decision-making processes, including to the newly formed Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. 

Reflections from Lorna Fitzpatrick

On behalf of the Union of Students in Ireland, one of the partner organisations for NStEP, it is was my pleasure to officially launch Steps to Partnership: A Framework for Authentic Student Engagement in Decision-Making a few weeks ago at the National Student Engagement Network, which brings together NStEP participating institutions on a regular basis to discuss challenges, opportunities, and initiatives for student partnership.

NStEPs work has been ongoing since 2016, but it is now that we need to take the next step towards embedding student engagement in a partnered approach between institutions and students. Learning from the practices and actions that we have seen across our sector since 2016, NStEP has been able to develop this new framework based on various interactions with students, staff and institutions. It really is the culmination of 5 years of conversations and it is fantastic to have NStEP bring it all together.

One of the key elements of the 2016 HEA report (found here) was the belief that underpinned it – students are partners in their education and not consumers. That each member of the education community had an important role in creating the pathway forward, together, for the institution. This was ground breaking for our sector – it really set the tone and the agenda for the years ahead. That belief, that mindset, that ethos remains at the cornerstone of our new framework – Steps to Partnership.

Within this new framework, we have new definitions for student voice, student engagement and student partnership – they are all interlinked but they are different. Recognising those differences will help our sector to ensure we are working towards partnership.

We also have new drivers, domains, principles and enablers – the 4-4-5-5 model. 4-4-5-5 are the numbers on a sticky note on my computer screen now – you never know when that will act as a little helpful reminder to turn towards engagement before you make your next move, or at least that is why I have them there!

The 4 drivers of student engagement are the base for building a strong approach to partnership within each institution. The culture, the role of institutions in promoting and defending democratic citizenship, one that really hits home in recent times, the inclusive environment and the ability – in fact, the need for a welcoming environment to have the uncomfortable conversations that sometimes are needed for us all to move forward.

The 4 domains are where all the wonderful ideas can be implemented and become lived experiences and, when done right, become the new way of doing things – something we have all become accustomed to this year. I do want to look to some of these domains to reflect upon them from a student perspective – in terms of Governance and Management, it is all too often the case that if a student has a seat on a committee or board, that the box is ticked – in fairness, the sector is beginning to realise that there is more required to develop true partnership. Don’t get me wrong, those seats are important but so too are the culture, the knowledge, the training that must accompany them – otherwise it is not real partnership and one could argue, that it was never intended to be. Of course, that would be the cynical voice – but maybe they would have a point.

I am delighted to see the inclusion of student representation and organisation as one of the four domains within the framework. The role of organised student representation should never be undervalued. Democratically elected representatives are accountable to their members, to the student body, they are elected based on what they want to achieve. Now, I know many may think we are very aspirational – I know some of my manifesto points are yet to be fully ticked off but they were based on the hundreds of conversations I had with students on the ground in my local institution and across the island within USI, they mean something to the people who elect us. Our goals are always based on the wants and needs of the students we represent. Recognising the value that is to be gained from students organising, recognising our autonomy to organise and govern our own systems while remaining accountable to our members is central to meaningful student partnership.

As we move on to the 5 principles, I think this sentence within the framework really sums it up quite nicely:

“Meaningful dialogue builds trust, developing equitable and inclusive relationships and structures that can empower each partner, ultimately making room for both staff and students to work together to co-create processes and outcomes”.

That sentence should be inscribed on all our minds as we progress through this journey together

And finally our 5 enablers of student engagement. These enablers are suggested ways to develop strong institutional approaches to meaningful partnership. One thing that stands out in our new Steps to Partnership framework is that there is no one right path for student partnership or student engagement – each institution, each department may vary – that is to be expected but the framework and these enablers give us a helping hand that if we all follow, in our own way, we will achieve success.

We are not blind to the challenges of partnership – of finding the ways and space to have those conversations, to building those relationships, we know there is a short life-cycle of the student body. That can often be shorter again for student representatives, although, some of you may be laughing at me saying that considering I’ve nearly become part of the furniture at this stage. I promise, I’m leaving in June!

This framework aims to support staff and students to work together to create the best overall environment for long term success which will always have a positive impact on the student experience but also improves the institution through policies, structures and overall culture.

I am so delighted to see this framework published and on behalf of USI, I want to thank all the students and staff who made it a reality and of course to the NStEP team for bringing it all together.

As I prepare to leave the student movement, I know I will be able to cheer you all on from the sidelines because the understanding and importance of student partnership through meaningful student engagement has never been in as strong a space as it is today. That being said, there is always more to do – we need to ensure that colleagues who who are not as involved or aware of the journey we have come on become as passionate about implementing this framework as we all are. Student partnership is not only the role of the SU and one or two staff champions in the institution it needs to be the basis for all engagements, processes, decision making structures across our institutions.

So I hope you can celebrate your successes to date, reflect on where we could have worked better together and commit to always ensuring partnership is on the tip of your tongue and that of your colleagues when any decisions are to be made.