Students as partners – a problem in need of a response in a globalised world?

By Craig Whitsed, Curtin University, Australia

Originally posted 12 June 2017.

I’d be lying if I were to say that ‘students as partners’ is a concept that I am broadly across. I’m not! In truth, I’d given little thought to the idea until I was introduced to it by Wendy Green as a way of understanding and responding to the engagement of students and staff in global learning. At the time, my immediate thought was, ‘what a great idea!’

Catherine Bovill (24 May) in her blog post wrote, ‘Student as Partners work can lead to many shared benefits for students and staff including: an increased level of engagement with learning and teaching, enhanced learning and teaching practices; and an enhanced meta-cognitive understanding of learning and teaching processes’. I agree! ‘Students as partners’ does represent a significant move toward a more evenly distributed, ‘democratic’ form of curriculum and education in the fuller sense, ripe with rich opportunities for students and staff alike.

At first glance, ‘students as partners’ does seem to a rather attractive proposition. But, the provocation to problematize, a consistent thread though the writings of the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, resonates loudly when I start to unpack the various dimensions of ‘students as partners’. For me, ‘students as partners’ represents what Deleuze would see as a series of conditions demanding a response. In other words, it needs to be problematizatised. What does it mean to problematize? For Deleuze, a ‘problem is not a given or even that which appears to be most problematic or controversial; indeed, the most pressing problems can be the least evident ones’ (Gilson, 2014, p. 87). As Gilson (2014) explains, problematizing, involves stepping back, to bring out, or reveal tacit, hidden or, as yet, unrevealed problems. It is through problematization that a problems’ contours are revealed or brought to the surface and, this then shapes the potential array of responses. ‘Problematization is fundamentally an ethical project’ and it ‘gives us the reflective distance from what we do’ (Gilson, 2014, p. 87). Far from being a negative orientation, Deleuze’s problematization ethic involves responding to problems, not as dilemmas to be solved, but as explorations into ‘the conditions of the problem’s emergence, its problematic structure’ (Gilson, 2014, p. 88).

Some time ago, when ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ was widely popularised in Australian political and popular discourse, I listened to Fazal Rizvi speak on the topic of ‘East meets West’. Fazal argued that too little attention had been given to the ‘meets’ in the construct. In problematizing this oversight, he both critiqued neo-liberal, instrumentalist, and largely economic constructions of the ‘Asian century’ and opened up the possibility of re-imagining ourselves, and each other in new – authentic, reciprocal, post-colonial, and potentially transformative – relational terms. Indeed, as Fazal’s reflections that day made clear, universities and those within them must rethink relational possibilities in our globalised world.

In a similar vein, I think it is worth problematizing the word as in the phrase ‘students as partners’. Despite the range of potential positive outcomes Cathy Bovill articulates, I can’t help but think about some of the inherent tensions in this concept.

The first that comes to mind is how as functions at the level of simile; that is, ‘a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly connected’ (’. In other words, ‘as partners’ does not equate to beingpartners. An important distinction, I contend.

If, as Gilson (2014, p.98) argues, ‘[p]roblems… are conditions that demand a response; and are those conditions that shape what will be possible’, I wonder if it might not be a more productive response to speak of students ‘inpartnership’, rather than ‘as partner(s)’.

As a simile, does the word as work to delimit the range of relational possibilities, and prevent full occupancy of the role ‘partner’? What might be an ethical alternative?

I suggest that if we substitute as with in a broader range of possibilities begin to emerge. Dictionary defines in accordingly:

Preposition: to indicate inclusion within space, place, or limits; … to indicate means; to indicate motion or direction from outside to a point within; to indicate transition from one state to another.

Adverb: on the inside, within.

Adjective: Located or situated within; inner; internal; inward; being in power.

Noun: a member of; pull, influence.

As denoted in this set of definitions, ‘in’ represents an orientation toward, motion from outside to inside, a location, membership and importantly inclusion.

Coco Bu in her blog post (12 May) wrote, ‘Although the term ‘students as partners’ is quite new, it seems to me that the ideas that underpin it are much older’. As Coco suggests, these ancient ideas about learning (and teaching) – essentially ideas of engagement, relationship, agency – take shape and evolve differently in differing cultural and historical contexts.

Perhaps, as Gilson (2014, p.98) observes, by problematizing the language we are using to reimagine beingtogether in partnership in the global enterprise of higher education, ‘we have the potential to grasp a problem more fully, understand whence it came and what dangers lie within it’. The ideas that underpin ‘students as partners’ are much older than the term itself, but perhaps, if we take time to problematize while ‘students as partners’ is still in its infancy, we might be able to avoid some of the yet to be revealed ‘dangers that lie within it’.


Gilson, E., (2014), Ethics and the ontology of freedom: problematization and responsiveness in Foucault and Deleuze, Focault Studies, 17, pp. 76-98.