Student Engagement: Oxymoron and Patronage









Student engagement in the medical school has the aims of improving the curriculum, the learning environments, students’ motivation and their active citizenship (Hardy, 2009; Zepke & Leach, 2010). The process of auditing activities about student engagement in relation to international criteria ( revealed conflicts between student engagement and faculty patronage in the Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University, Newfoundland. It seemed that student engagement was closer to an oxymoron than a zeitgeist.

Patronage is defined as condescending actions towards the students; an oxymoron is defined as a figure of speech expressing a contradiction; and a zeitgeist is a spirit of the time and a general trend of habits and dispositions currently (Chambers, 2014).


Data were gathered from interviews with some key faculty informants, from studying background papers, and from iteratively discussing drafts of the report with the Medical Students Society’s Executive (n=28).


Only 24 out of 36 (67%) of the potential key faculty informants responded to requests for information about student engagement. Some faculty viewed student engagement as the way for faculty and students to participate in improving their learning.

Many faculty demonstrated patronage:

– impersonal communications from different sources in the school

– policies, strategies and procedures were frequently issued without consultation

– minimal responses to student representatives when consultations did occur

– lack of transparency about decisions to make changes

– no explanation about why students were excluded from some ad hoc committees

– cancellation of committee meetings without explanation.


Conflicts emerged because students considered their participation was undervalued by many faculty who in turn believed that exchanging information equated to engagement thereby demonstrating patronage. Additionally, conflicts were identified due to the silences (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977) about faculty decisions.

The zeitgeist in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial claimed to favour student engagement. However the aims of student engagement were widely misunderstood and many practices showed patronage indicating that student engagement was an oxymoron.

If the Faculty of Medicine are serious about student engagement then research could investigate the positive and negative influences in the culture, society, and learning environments and their interactions. These influences have been identified by research elsewhere for their importance and their context-specificity (Bryson, 2010; Trowler & Trowler, 2010).

Evidence-based interventions (Kahu, 2013) are available to improve student engagement including building mutual trust (Bryson, 2010) and facilitating societal change through joint student-faculty training (Tett, 2015), and providing authentic support for all students (Kuh, 2008).


Many of the themes in this narrative were presented (a) at Memorial’s medical education scholarship forum in December 2015 and (b) at Dalhousie’s 17th annual symposium on medical/health professions education research in June 2016. There was minimal interest from faculty at Memorial.

However some faculty and students at Dalhousie were positive about the benefits from student engagement. In the interest of balance, it must be admitted that other Dalhousie faculty sought to defend the view that the exchange of information equated to student engagement.

While writing this narrative, I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s words in ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ (1891) – “On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure”.


This entry was posted in Medical Education Research by Iain Robbe. Bookmark the permalink.

About Iain Robbe

I am a medical practitioner (MB, BS, 1980; MRCS, LRCP, 1980) registered with the General Medical Council of the United Kingdom. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic I have reactivated my licence to practise and I am providing telephone support to vulnerable elderly to assist them during the pandemic. I remain active as a Clinical Medical Educationist participating in a number of projects with the universities of St Mary’s and Dalhousie in Nova Scotia and Mount Allison in New Brunswick, inter alia, and separately with three of the veterinary schools in the UK. My focus is on teaching and research in professionalism, ethics, and communications, and particularly the influences of vernacular architecture on the creation of positive learning experiences in undergraduate and postgraduate medical education. I have the degree of Master in Public Health from the University of London (1985) and the degree of Master in Medical Education with distinction from the University of Wales (2001). The guiding principles in my practices are based on andragogy and humanism, and the prime ethical principle of autonomy for the individual and in population health.

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