Troubling the idea of partnership

Alise de Bie & Rille Raaper

Editorial note, Cherie Woolmer, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, McMaster University

The idea for this blog post grew from a number of informal conversations I’ve had with the authors, Alise de Bie and Rille Raaper. These conversations started at very different points but gravitated towards a recurring theme of interest for all of us: troubling/challenging some of the normative ideas arising from aspects of the students-as-partners discourse. The process of editing this blog post has required me to question my assumptions about my own advocacy and scholarship of partnership and has reminded me, again, of the value of looking beyond the field of partnerships in higher education in order to clarify and make better sense of it.

Critical reflections on partnership are growing in the field (for example, Bindra et al., 2018; Kaur et al., 2018; Cook-Sather et al., 2018) and, I would suggest, these are to be encouraged in as many forms as possible. In doing so, it takes us a step closer to ensuring many perspectives and voices can join the conversation, encouraging ongoing reflexivity in our work. And the conversation needs to hear about the fragility of partnership spaces, examining how they can sometimes add to rather than eliminate a sense of ‘other’, and make explicit the structural and systemic inequalities in which they operate.

Alise and Rille draw upon their different positions in the academy and offer powerful and compelling accounts about their experiences and perspectives of partnership. They raise important and challenging questions that invite us to pause and reflect so that we can ensure partnership spaces are, indeed, the just, equitable, and inclusive spaces we hope for them to be.


I’ve been engaged in “partnership” (and “separatism”) through a variety of identities and locations over the past 10 years: acting as a student, staff, and faculty member on student-faculty partnerships; as a service user and social work researcher/educator on service user-provider partnerships; as a “community member” and “university staff” on community-engaged collaborations; as a member of disability/queer communities on cross-equity collaborations; and as a Mad person in separatist peer spaces. Consequently, my relations to partnership feel dizzying in that I’m never only standing in one place or one politics at a time.

This means that I come to pedagogical partnerships in higher education with deep accountabilities to service users, disability/mad communities, students/staff from equity-seeking groups. I come with several other philosophies related to collaboration (from social movements, psychiatric survivor politics, co-production in health professions education, community-engagement). The “opposite” of pedagogical partnership is often framed (negatively) as faculty/staff working without students. The “opposite” I am most familiar with is service users intentionally working without clinicians and disabled/Mad students organizing without staff involvement. Much of my work has been peer-based, meaning that I work with others who have a shared experience of something, rather than with those who do not. These forms of separatism are important — and have been essential to generations of psychiatric survivor (and student) organizing and our evolving politics and ethics of collaboration.

I have benefited greatly from my participation in partnerships – especially as a student and service user. While my first experience was a disaster, subsequent projects have offered space to heal (validation, company) from some of the ways I’ve been harmed in the university (through, for example, institutional neglect, widespread inaccessibility, limited notions of what we owe each other) and in social service systems (through coercion, unhelpful help, pathologization of my knowledge) — so I write this as someone who recognizes and has felt the important possibilities of partnership.

However, my most positive experiences of partnership have also been the most devastating because they created a stark and significant discrepancy: There was now a wider and more visible and felt gap between my typical experiences of harm on campus (and within the medical system) and the possibility — arrived at through partnership — that things didn’t have to be that way and could, very feasibly and concretely, be different.

Coming to understand what respect could feel like made me more aware of all of the ways I had experienced (and continue to experience) disrespect. Participating in a partnership (that worked)  was the first time there was a possibility of relations in the institution being other than they were, which encouraged me to begin imagining how they could be better. This kind of opportunity for hope, longing, desire made some of the limits and lowering of expectations in my other relationships even more noticeable and painful. I became much more fully aware of how deeply I had been harmed by academic and medical institutions as partnerships began to offer me security and relief from these negative experiences. Experiencing respect is not just positive, good – it can also be deeply unsettling.

My work in psychiatric survivor / service user organizing and separatist spaces have taught me to value distrust as an important virtue. Service providers (or instructors), for example, are not always trustworthy, and so we need to take efforts to protect ourselves from those who are supposed to “help” us. When pedagogical partnership spaces encourage “trust” as one of the primary values/principles of working together, I worry that this may not always be in our best interest. There may be very good reasons why an ethic of distrust is crucial to partnerships across difference and status. The “pain” of partnership is one moment where distrust seems especially significant — where it’s a good idea to be skeptical, uncertain, to distrust partnership discourse that often presents partnerships as (only) a good thing. To do otherwise, might make us dangerously vulnerable. Distrust might actually be more ethical than a trustful ethics of collaboration.

And so I am wondering about the following things:

  1. What do we find most painful about our work in partnership? How might we dwell with, understand, and respond to those experiences without just reframing them through a lens of resilience or success? How might we especially attend to the ways traditionally marginalized and disrespected groups might find partnerships (especially ones that are working “well”) painful?  
  2. What values do we bring to pedagogical partnerships from our other locations/networks, and what frictions emerge when trying to remain accountable to our communities of belonging while adopting values/principles encouraged within students-as-partners spaces?
  3. Partnership spaces I’ve been exposed to seem to emphasize consensus, empathy, trust. Yet in other literature/disciplinary spaces, there are significant critiques of these concepts, and an articulated need for conflict, a doing away of particular notions of empathy, distrust. How do we make sense of these and other common partnership values in relation to contrasting theorization? How might we embrace the questioning of norms forming in students-as-partners spaces?

Bio: Alise is holding on to the last days of their status as a PhD candidate at McMaster University in Canada. Most of their partnership research falls into the general area of enhancing accessibility/equity in higher education.


I am an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Durham University (UK) where I teach and research issues related to sociology of higher education. Over the past few years, I have become particularly interested in neoliberalisation of university policies and practices, consumerist positioning of students and student politics. I teach undergraduate students on issues of exclusion in university contexts, and postgraduate students on themes related to precarity and empowerment in higher education. I am very lucky to be able to learn from and with students who are from various social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

I highly value the work that is being done under the discourse of ‘students as partners’. As someone with an interest in sociology, I am particularly committed to the relationship between the partnership discourse and wider social and educational inequalities. I am aware that I am not the only one and increasing scholarship in the field has attempted to address various power dynamics. I started my own academic career as a PhD student with a strong interest in the power relations that exist in student assessment practices. I was concerned with power that exists in favour of academics as assessors, but I also problematised the bureaucratisation (and dehumanisation) of assessment processes in neoliberalized university settings. My more recent interests and experiences have shifted my focus to various structural issues, e.g. access to and experience of higher education, that shape the university practices and therefore the partnership discourse. Social theory, particularly critical theorists such as Foucault, Bourdieu, Arendt and Butler have been highly influential to my thinking and the understanding of systematic marginalisation of certain social groups in higher education, and the difficulties that positive change, action and resistance face in such settings.

In particular, I want to emphasise the importance of identity politics in understanding the limitations of partnership discourse. I believe that partnerships attempt but often struggle to empower marginalised groups in higher education. Staff and students both bring their social background, privileges and disadvantages into the partnership. It is naïve to assume that these social and structural disadvantages (e.g. related to social class, racial, gender, religious backgrounds) are easy to mediate, particularly in a context where staff might be from White middle-class backgrounds. Various student movements, e.g. #WhyIsMyCurriculumWhite, #RhodesMustFall and #MeToo on campus are just a few examples of how students have attempted to challenge the normative discourses and spaces of higher education. These bottom-up student-led movements are particularly important in the context of a neoliberal university crisis where students’ unions have been professionalised, academic staff face various forms of precarity and overwork, and tuition fees and huge student debts have become a new normality.  

In other words, I believe it is difficult to create truly meaningful and equal educational partnerships in higher education settings which are primarily white, middle class, neoliberal, and normative in many other ways. My aim is not to undermine colleagues who try to develop partnerships, and I am sure it is possible, but I believe it is very difficult. I think we need to question our role as partners in a higher education setting that is systematically unjust and an increasingly pressurized and inhumane place to study and work. We also need to consider potential opportunities to challenge some of these processes. I don’t have simple answers to such critical matters, and all I can be is a learner who openly discusses her own privileges and disadvantages while aiming to build up mutual understandings and trust that are so essential for any educational process and change.

I would like to invite you to discuss the following issues:

  1. What is the role of students as partners discourse in challenging neoliberal educational processes and practices? What are the tensions between promoting good student experience (in a neoliberal sense) and developing meaningful partnerships?
  2. Can we call ourselves as partners in higher education settings that are systematically unequal and unjust places to work and study at? Are we doing more harm than good in creating assumptions that partnerships can and should be equal and authentic?
  3. What is or should be the role of social theory in defining and developing the student as partners discourse and practices?


Dr Rille Raaper is Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Durham University where her research interests lie in the sociology of higher education. She is particularly interested in neoliberalization of university policies and practices, consumerist positioning of student and student politics. She has conducted numerous research projects on consumer discourse in higher education and its impact on students as learners, citizens as well as political agents.


Bindra, G., Easwaran, K., Firasta, L., Hirsch, M., Kapoor, A., Sosnowski, A., Stec-Marksman, T., & Vatansever, G. (2018). Increasing Representation and Equity in Students as Partners Initiatives. International Journal for Students as Partners, 2(2)  

Cook-Sather, A., Matthews, K. E., Ntem, A., & Leathwick, S. (2018). What we talk about when we talk about Students as Partners. International Journal for Students As Partners, 2(2), 1-9.

Kaur, A., Awang-Hashim, R. & Kaur, M. (2018) Students’ experiences of co-creating classroom instruction with faculty- a case study in eastern context.  Teaching in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2018.1487930

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