‘Students as partners’ – a Nepali perspective, by Sanjeev Dahal, PhD candidate, Boston College, USA

This articlewas originally published in the Annapurna Express, an English weekly published from Kathmandu, Nepal.

'Students as partners' is the current vogue in higher education. How students can partner in learning is an interesting exploration, even though it might be a premature discussion in the Nepali context. In this brief write-up, I discuss the idea of student as a partner in education, observe this phenomenon in several academic spaces in higher education in Nepal, and gauge the level of student participation as partners in these spaces.

Students as partners in learning suggests learning is not unidirectional. Kelly Matthews highlights that 'students as partners' means that student engagement as a joint endeavour to shape and influence university teaching and learning, deliberately emphasizing the relational and social elements of mutual learning.

The term students as partners in learning was popularized by an education system which believes the truth is unknown. Thus both teacher and student are in the quest of truth and together they pursue this quest, with the teacher as a ‘guide on the side’ and the student as a worker alongside. The modern, or the Western education system is an example. But an education system that holds that truth is already known places the teacher on a higher pedestal or as a ‘sage on the stage’ who helps the student to learn. Such a system has limited scope for students as partners in learning. The Nepali education system reflects similar dynamics between teachers and students.

I will now dig further into the levels of participation of students as partners in the modern education system. Bovill and Bulley (2011), inspired by Arnstein (1969)’s Eight Rungs on a Ladder of Citizen Participation, came up with the ladder of student participation in curriculum design. I believe this ladder is useful in understanding student participation in general.

Bovill and Bulley have ‘dictated curriculum—no interaction’ in the curriculum design as the first rung on the ladder, where students have no role in curriculum design. The second rung is ‘participation claimed but tutor in control’. Here students are asked for feedback on curriculum, but such information is not fed-back into the curriculum. In the third rung ‘limited choice from prescribed choices,’ a tutor considers areas of the curriculum where students can participate; the fourth rung, ‘wide choice from prescribed choices,’ describes a higher level of freedom within the prescribed limits of the curriculum.

The fifth rung, ‘student control of prescribed areas’ indicates that specific areas of the curriculum are designed and controlled by students. In the sixth rung, ‘student control of some areas of choice’ and the seventh rung, ‘partnership—a negotiated curriculum’, implies that tutors and students work collaboratively to negotiate and create the curriculum. In the top rung ‘students in control’, the tutor is absent.

Nepali experience

An observation of the Nepali education system using Bovill & Bulley (2011)’s ladder of student participation reflects that student participation in Nepal largely lies on the lower half of the ladder, with some differences between academic programs that are yearly or semester-based.

The yearly programs prevalent in Nepal largely perceive teachers as the ‘sage on the stage’ who have the mastery of the content (read: syllabus) and are primarily responsible for transferring this content to the students. When attendance in class is not mandated in this system the only participation required of the students is in the annual university exams. There is little or almost no expectation that students come prepared for the class. And I have often found students search for course syllabus, past questions, model questions and answers/guess papers/guides shortly before the annual exams. In this context, students participate at the lowest rung with ‘dictated curriculum—no interaction’.

Students as partners in teaching-learning is becoming relatively prominent in higher education. This system expects teachers to be facilitators of learning or a ‘guide on the side’ and expects the students to come to the class prepared about what is going to be discussed, conduct group projects, make presentations, and write independent papers with elements of critical thinking. But my experience with higher education in Nepal has largely been with students having a second rung participation with ‘participation claimed but tutor in control’. Some academic institutions allow for relatively higher student participation with students getting ‘limited choice from prescribed choices’ which falls on the third rung.

Although there is ample evidence in literature about the benefits of engaging students as partners in education, Nepal is yet to take concrete steps in that direction. Training teachers adequately for more engaged teaching, preparing students adequately to take charge of their own learning, and encouraging them to contribute to teaching-learning, can be a big step towards building an education system where students are partners in teaching and learning.