Climbing hills – enhancing student experience through partnership-working

Dr Harriet Dunbar-Morris is Dean of Learning and Teaching and a Reader in Higher Education at the University of Portsmouth

The going from a world we know to one a wonder still 
Is like the child’s adversity whose vista is a hill 
Behind the hill is sorcery and everything unknown 
But will the secret compensate for climbing it alone?
Emily Dickinson

I often turn to this poem when I think about the work we do in higher education. It keeps me focused on how to ensure students gain a sense of belonging and community in their journey – their transition to higher education. It also reminds me that we don’t do things alone in learning and teaching, we climb that hill together. So, when we set out to enhance the student experience, we necessarily do it in partnership.
First of all, we get the right people in the room: the students, the academics, the relevant professional services. Then we get the data to help us make decisions, quantitative and qualitative, that tells us about the student experience and the areas that we need to focus upon. In a partnership it is important that all voices are heard, that all voices are equal. For me it is important that everyone gets a chance to interrogate the data and highlight what they see within it; the key aspects. This means that no-one has ownership, a monopoly, or a LOUDER voice. Everyone has the right to question everyone else’s views. However, if goals are to be achieved, we do have to reach consensus and agree actions.
I have found that co-creation workshop approaches are very effective means of enhancing the student experience – in partnership. They can be run in a short period of time to develop a single objective. For example, at Portsmouth, in partnership with the Students’ Union (SU), we ran two short workshops to co-create our Student Charter ( We designed the co-creation workshop process to bring together a range of students (international; research; postgraduate taught; part-time; distance learners; mature; at a variety of levels) and deliberately drew upon those who do not engage with the SU, academic staff (Personal Tutors; those who teach undergraduate; postgraduate; distance learning; collaborative courses) and professional services staff. This way of working achieved parity of voices. The Sabbatical Officers led table-discussions throughout the workshops; during which the mixed groups discussed and agreed the elements of a new Student Charter that staff and students felt they could ‘sign up to’. I facilitated bringing this together as a set of five core principles which summarise what students and staff should expect from each other during their time at Portsmouth, and to help students achieve our Hallmarks of the Portsmouth Graduate ( The charter, and the Hallmarks which it embodies, help students create a sense of belonging in our university community.  The co-creation workshop approach can also be used in a more longitudinal project, and be implemented at different levels within an institution. For example, the University Alliance developed the ‘Sandpit’ model for use in innovative course design1.

I have renamed it the ‘Charrette’ approach at Portsmouth – as Charrettes have long been used as collaborative workshop sessions which bring people together to rapidly design solutions to issues. Charrettes are most often used in design and planning, but are frequently used in educational settings (Carlson et al. 2021). Charrettes, as a co-creation mechanism, enable students and staff to work together, at University, Faculty, School and even at the Course level, to develop projects and initiatives to address issues. For example, the awarding gap between students of different ethnicities (Dunbar-Morris, forthcoming). Student and staff teams (where the staff are both from professional services and academics) are brought together to design a solution to a real issue (participants having undertaken some pre-reading and having understood the data in relation to the issue).

Using the example above, in the Charrette, the facilitators make it clear to student and staff attendees that we have an awarding gap (at the level at which the participants are focusing, University, course, etc.) and that, whilst this exists, it is not acceptable – it exists, but what is the causation? That is what needs to be understood. They also make it plain that this is not about a deficit on the part of students, and that we must examine what we do in our curricula and classrooms.

Secondly, everyone participating has to have a shared understanding of the issue being addressed. This comes about during the pre-reading around the subject, and interrogation of data – before the Charrette takes place. Then the mixed teams work together to develop short-term and long-term solutions. Action plans are developed complete with evaluation plans for the proposed activities, enhancements or changes. Both the approach and some of the solutions help develop a sense of belonging.

As well as these co-creation workshop approaches, we work in partnership to develop excellent learning opportunities for our students. To provide excellent graduate outcomes and opportunities to develop the Hallmarks, we have partnered with the Common Mission Project on a module which provides final year undergraduate students with some real-life experience.
Mission Driven Entrepreneurship; Hacking for Ministry of Defence (H4MoD) ( is a module where students in courses across our School of Computing come together to think through and solve some of today’s most pressing issues around national security, natural disasters, energy and the environment. They work with representatives from the MoD and with support from industry and academic mentors validate original and real-world problems and propose valuable solutions based on extensive evidence which they collect as mixed teams over the course of a teaching block.
To continue the climbing metaphor these students are provided with training and support to start climbing with someone on the belay rope, but they decide on the route and together make the journey. Former Portsmouth student, Luke Caruana, said: “H4MoD was a chance to put into practice skills in project management, leadership, teamwork and business. Whilst you are thrown in at the deep end, there are a plethora of different mentors with you on the journey. The mentorship and guidance you receive allows you to fail fast and learn, pushing yourself beyond your own expectations.”

Partnership working ensures belonging. At Portsmouth we don’t undertake solo hill climbs.

As Dean of Learning and Teaching at the University of Portsmouth, Harriet is responsible for providing leadership in the enhancement and evaluation of the student experience. She champions the student voice, and facilitates partnership working, ensuring student engagement is central to the University’s activities. She led the revision of the Curriculum Framework including embedding the Hallmarks of the Portsmouth Graduate within the curriculum. Other projects have included Personal Tutoring and Content Capture.  

Harriet undertook research in Higher Education at the University of Oxford. Post-Oxford, Harriet held positions at UCAS, the 1994 Group, and the universities of Bath and Bradford. See for more detail.

Harriet tweets as @HE_Harriet

Carlson, E. R., et al. 2021. Creating a Charrette Process to Ignite the Conversation on Equity and Inclusion. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 45(8), 608-618.
Dickinson, E, 1960. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Johnson T. (Ed) Little, Brown and Co.
Dunbar-Morris, H. Authentic Leadership for Student Engagement. In Lowe, T. (Ed) (Forthcoming) Critically Reflecting on Student Engagement in Higher Education: Lessons for Educational Developers

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