A group of students sit around a table and have a discussion

From aspiration to success: putting student partnership at the heart of university life

  • Education

RCSI’s international award-winning student partnership programme is helping students and staff to work with and learn from each other while ensuring that both have influence on decision-making at the university.

In Ireland and in countries worldwide, third-level institutions endeavour to listen to their students and ensure they are represented on university committees.

In the past, this has sometimes simply meant one token student elected to sit in a room full of university management. More and more, however, universities are moving to form a genuine partnership with their students.

At RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, student partnership was identified as a key part of the Strategic Plan 2018-2022 – and the goal was to ensure it became deeply embedded in the wider culture of the entire organisation.

It worked: in 2022, the university’s School of Medicine was named joint winner of the prestigious ASPIRE to Excellence Award for Student Engagement at a ceremony organised by the Association of Medical Education Europe (AMEE) during the international AMEE conference that took place in Lyon, France.

As part of its dedication to student engagement, RCSI set up a formal Student Engagement and Partnership (StEP) programme, led by Professor Celine Marmion, Deputy Dean for Student Engagement.

Expertise and influence

StEP is all about helping students and staff to work with and learn from each other, valuing the expertise and perspectives of both and ensuring that both have equal influence on decision-making at the university.

The programme came about following a major review of best practices in international universities and the establishment of a framework for the university. It took off fast: by August 2021, students and staff had partnered on 18 formal StEP-funded projects.

StEP has a ring-fenced annual budget allowing for open calls for student-led projects. Every year, students and staff have worked together to identify themes and projects, ranging from institutional management, innovative teaching and learning initiatives, academic research and local community engagement.

Crucially, these projects are funded and students are paid for their work. Work on the first round of projects takes place during term time, allowing students the opportunity to work part-time on these projects while not impacting their academic commitments. A second round of funding allows students to work full-time over eight weeks during the summer on their paid project.

Diversity and inclusion

On just one of these projects, a student identified how medical case studies used in teaching almost entirely involved patients with white skin. This meant that RCSI’s diverse student body did not always see themselves reflected in the university’s teaching. She, together with a staff member, worked to develop a bank of slides involving more diverse skin tones.

These slides, now embedded within the medical curriculum, help to reinforce to medical students that representation of different clinical presentations can vary depending on skin tone.

Another partnership project involving students and staff focused on research lab recycling, while others focused on making better use of simulation in the curriculum. A further example is where 36 RCSI students, as members of a student involvement group, actively contributed, at every stage, as co-creators of the School of Medicine’s new medical curriculum.

Genuine partnership

Those who complete a StEP project are eligible to receive the university’s Student Partnership Champion Awards.

So, what impressed the ASPIRE judges? A team led by the Deputy Dean for Student Engagement, which included a senior project specialist and five medical students, worked with colleagues across the university on the ASPIRE application.

To qualify for the ASPIRE award, the judges had to be satisfied that the partnership was deep and genuine, moving beyond consultation to result in real actions that impact the university.

RCSI is the first Irish medical school to receive the ASPIRE honour in this area, and only one of just 12 European medical schools to be recognised for excellence in student engagement. RCSI is now also a member of the AMEE ASPIRE Academy.

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.