Students as Partners: A New Ethos for the Transformation of Teacher and Student Identities in Chinese Higher Education

Research Highlighted:

Liang, Y., Dai, K., & Matthews, K. E. (2020). Students as Partners: A New Ethos for the Transformation of Teacher and Student Identities in Chinese Higher Education, International Journal of Chinese Education, 9(2), 131-150. doi:

Mr Yifei Liang, University of Queensland, Australia


In this theoretical discussion paper, in the context of internationalisation, we contribute a novel perspective for Chinese higher education (HE) sectors by considering the possibility of adopting Students as Partners (SaP hereafter) as an initiative to support the transformation of teacher and student identities within Chinese HE, and advocate further adaptation in Chinese pedagogical practices. This paper starts with an introduction on SaP, followed by a discussion about the concept of identity in teaching and learning. Then, based on the survey results on the expectations of Chinese university students and academics in different periods, critical discussion on the trend of identity changes of student and teacher in Chinese universities is undertaken. This leads to further understanding the intersections between the three bodies of literature (SaP, identity, Chinese HE). Finally, a discussion about the possibility of conducting SaP practices in the context of Chinese HE is critically presented.

The growing body of SaP in teaching and learning

The concept of teachers engaging with SaP focuses attention on the pedagogical relationships between learners and teachers (Healey, Flint, & Harrington, 2014; Matthews, Dwyer, Hines, & Turner, 2018). In practice, pedagogical partnerships between students and teachers unfolds as ‘a collaborative, reciprocal process through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular or pedagogical conceptualisation, decision making, implementation, investigation, or analysis’ (Cook-Sather, Bovill, & Felten, 2014, pp. 6–7). In partnership, certain values are enacted between students and teachers that define the relationships such that SaP is a values-based practice (Matthews et al., 2018). Healey et al. (2014, pp. 14–15) named the values that underpin this relationship as ‘trust, plurality, responsibility, authenticity, honesty, inclusively, reciprocity, and empowerment’, emphasising that students and academic staff benefit from it together. For Cook-Sather et al. (2014), the values of mutual respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility for learning and teaching were central to SaP. SaP stretches the traditional boundaries of the curriculum where any space on campus becomes a pedagogical space where students and staff can learn together (Dwyer, 2018). Analysis of theoretical frames in research on SaP found that the constructs of power and identity underpinned partnership practices as relational praxis that calls into question taken-for-granted assumptions about the role of the teachers and the students in ways that illuminate power dynamics and relational identities by giving permission to learners and teachers to reshape them (Matthews et al., 2019a). For the sake of sustainability and enriching SaP as a global scholarship, partnership is discussed as a ‘complex cultural-linguistic construct’, emphasising that cultural backgrounds will affect how people interpret SaP (Green, 2019; Cook-Sather et al., 2018).

Identity in teaching and learning

The concept of identity is about how individuals and society answer the question ‘Who are you?’ (Vignoles, Schwartz, & Luyckx, 2011). In this broad notion, ‘people identify their “selves” not only with their individual physical and psychological characteristics, but also with significant others, groups or social categories, material objects, and places’ (Vignoles, 2017, p. 2). Therefore, the identity of a person is shaped by the influence of personal internal factors and the external environment. At the same time, identity also influences the response of the individual to future expectations (Simon, 2004), which plays a vital role in personal development. As co-existing individuals in universities, the identity of students and teachers can be affected by external social and cultural environments and the perception of differences between different individuals. Such an ongoing and changing process will further link to their academic performance and future development (Lounsbury, Huffstetler, Leong, & Gibson, 2005).

A discussion about identity changes in the progress of Chinese higher education

According to the exploration of Cortazzi and Jin (1996), Tam, Heng, and Jiang (2009), Jia (2011) and Kim and Olson (2016), it is evident that there is a general shift in the identities of learners and teachers toward more egalitarian teaching and learning environments. This is a move toward more participatory and relational pedagogies that value the contributions of students in the learning and teaching process. As reform policies continue in the context of internationalisation, we expect that more Chinese university students and teachers will have a new understanding of their identities through the expansion of their horizons and experiences in the global HE context.

Identity perception in pedagogical partnership

In the context of SaP, Cook-Sather (2015, p. 2) defined the notion of identity as ‘how individuals define and experience themselves and are defined by others—how an individual/personal sense of sociocultural location and character intersects with how that individual is constructed in many different ways within any given culture and society’. Therefore, identity in partnership is about how teachers and students treat themselves as teacher, student, and partners, and how they perceive each other (Matthews et al., 2019b). As one of the important factors of pedagogical partnership, Cook-Sather (2015) pointed out that the identities of students and teachers influence and are influenced by partnership. In partnership, it requires teachers to recognise the value of students in the process of forming their identities. In this way, both students and teachers could gain valuable experiences in a mutual and reciprocal way (Bovill, 2019a). The shift of student and teacher identities reflected by SaP scholars resonates with the marked changing trend in Chinese HE over the past two decades. We posit that SaP is a more developed form of this trend while acknowledging that Chinese HE comprises a large, diverse and complex array of institutions where western pedagogies have to be adapted with criticality.

Adapting to the new era of Chinese higher education

The current ethos of partnership is framed within a western-centric, Judaeo-Christian value system and rooted in student engagement (Healey et al., 2014), student voice (Cook-Sather, 2018) and the response to the commitments on democracy (Bovill et al., 2013), and these practices, not without challenges, have proven impactful in western-centric universities. What values should guide the partnership ethos in China? This is a line of conceptual and empirical research we are currently conducting that draws on the voice of Chinese students and academics at Chinese universities and theorisations of Confucian values intersecting with values espoused in western-centric SaP literature (Liang & Matthews, 2020). The recent research (Liang & Matthews, 2020) has strongly shown, with the establishment of more Sino-foreign universities and the continuous broadening of horizons, SaP practices are growing in Chinese universities. Through a program of research into SaP in Chinese HE, we are exploring this belief and further investigating how student-teacher relational identities are being constructed and disrupted through educational reform efforts. This is also a line of research where many more scholars are welcomed and encouraged to explore and investigate.


This article critically discussed the concepts of identity in the Chinese HE con- text by connecting with the western idea, SaP, attempting to provide a possible way for further identity change of the participants in Chinese HE. Based on the comparison of survey results over a decade spanning the century, the perception changes of teachers and students on their identities in Chinese universities indicate a trend of inclusive and respectful teacher-student relationships and more mutually beneficial teacher-student interactions in teaching and learning—resonates with the relational identity reflected by SaP. Meanwhile, the cultural-depended characteristic of SaP and the gradual opening of national policies and initiatives as the scaffold of each other, providing a positive environment.

Authors’ Bio

Mr Yifei Liang is a doctoral student at School of Education, University of Queensland. His research focuses on students as partners (SaP), student engagement, learner-teacher relationship and higher education pedagogy in the context of Chinese higher education. His scoping review of SaP in Asian countries has appeared in Higher Education Research & Development. He can be contacted via

Dr Kun Dai is a postdoc research fellow (funded by China International Postdoc Program) at the Graduate School of Education, Peking University. His research focuses on teaching and learning in higher education, doctoral education, transnational higher education, and intercultural learning and adjustment. Dr Dai is an associate editor of Journal of International Students. His articles have appeared in several peer-reviewed journals, including Compare, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, and Oxford Review of Education. He can be contacted via

Dr Kelly E. Matthews is an associate professor at the Institute of Teaching and Learning Innovation, University of Queensland. Her research interest includes students as partners in higher education, curriculum design in higher education, and university teaching and learning. Dr Matthews is an Australian Learning & Teaching Fellow and she also serves as Inaugural Co-editor, International Journal for Students as Partners (IJSaP). Dr Matthews can be contacted via

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