Inclusive approaches to student–staff partnership in widening participation


We recently delivered a staff-facing conference under the banner of enabling and supporting student success, with student-staff partnership as a central theme. With a delegation of over 125 academic and professional members of staff, and a conference venue well away from the everyday distractions of work, we made the most of a captive audience by delivering a programme which headlined with a student-staff partnership showcase, followed by various parallel-strand talks where students and staff co-presented the work they had undertaken together.

Interest in student-staff partnership has flourished in the last decade or so, although the concept has been around in higher education (HE) for much longer. Advance HE (2022) describe it as a relationship in which ‘all involved are actively engaged in and stand to gain from the process of learning and working together’. In this capacity, students are variously described as change agents, partners, co-creators, or co-producers of their own learning. It is a way of working that is characterised by the acknowledgment of power differentials between students and staff and the reciprocity of shared learning and working (Healey, Flint, and Harrington, 2014). 

Back at the conference, it was a pleasure to hear first-hand about the successes of partnership working, particularly from the students who were buzzing with enthusiasm and ideas as they shared their experiences. What I heard during the day mirrored the positive experiences I have had over many years of working with students in advocate, ambassador, and placement roles. However, conversations about the rewards of partnership working were matched by discussions about the myriad of challenges that today’s students face on their university journeys including meeting the high costs of accommodation, travel, and food; juggling the demands of study and work; and trying to cope with issues such as poor mental health, bullying or harassment. Issues such as these can have a significant negative impact on academic study, particularly for widening participation (WP) students who are typically financially disadvantaged (Gov.UK, 2023), may have little or no family support, and are often carrying what Kahu (2013) refers to as a high ‘lifeload’. 

The challenge for those wishing to embed student-staff partnership as the default model of working, is how to marry the two issues. On the one hand the desire to work in partnership with students to co-create a university journey that is engaging, inclusive and transformative, and on the other, the need to recognise and accommodate the multiplicity of demands that students face in their non-academic lives.

Recognising and accommodating these demands means facilitating partnership opportunities that mitigate for the factors that can limit students’ ability to participate. For example, when considering the high cost of living and lack of financial reserve that many WP students experience, it is incumbent on staff to ensure not only that they are paid for the work they do, but also that they are not left ‘out of pocket’, e.g., having to unexpectedly pay for lunch at an external event or waiting a long time for reimbursement for parking or travel. 

For students with high lifeload, it means providing flexible working options which accommodate the complex and changeable life demands that they face, such as having caring responsibilities, fluctuating mental health, or unstable family relationships. Flexibility in this context may mean offering a choice of working patterns, enabling hybrid working or allowing for last-minute changes to work commitments when life events take over. 

Not all WP students have complex lives, nor are all financially constrained or without family support, but by the nature of definition there will be something about their circumstances that has the potential to disadvantage them in terms of accessing and succeeding in HE. Taking account of these possibilities when planning partnership work leads to an inclusive approach to partnership that benefits all students regardless of their individual circumstances.

In an era when students in HE come from increasingly diverse backgrounds, bringing with them a wealth of assets, it is imperative that all have the chance to play an active role in shaping their university experience, not just those that have the mental and physical resource to do so. From a WP perspective, this means proactively addressing the challenges that students encounter when engaging with partnership models of working. The best way to do this is to work with those students to identify the factors and mitigations that would make partnership working as accessible and inclusive to WP students as for any other. Not doing this risks the exclusion of the least advantaged students and that in turn may mean that the university experience they and others like them have, is less likely to meet their needs. The consequence of this could be to further compound the disadvantage as WP students find the challenges of being successful at a university that has not designed the student experience to reflect their circumstances, are too considerable to overcome. 

Read the full article:

Vuolo, J.C. (2023). Student-staff partnership in widening participation. In One Voice: Fusing Diverse Perspectives for Collective Action.  FACE. ISBN 9780995492257. 



Advance HE (2022) Student engagement through partnership in higher education. Advance HE. Available at (Accessed 13 December 2023).

GOV.UK (2023) ‘Academic Year 2021/22’, Widening participation in higher education. Available at  (Accessed 13 December 2023).

Healey, M., Flint, A. and Harrington, K. (2014) Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. York: Higher Education Academy. Available at (Accessed 13 December 2023)

Kahu, E. R. (2013) Framing student engagement in higher education. Studies in Higher Education 38: 5: pp 758-773. DOI:10.1080/03075079.2011.598505.

Blog By: Dr Julie Vuolo Deputy Head of Widening Access and Student Success University of Hertfordshire

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