I think 'partnership' is what I'd call a 'supply-side term'. What I mean is that the staff may call what they're doing 'engaging students through partnership' but I'm guessing students wouldn't necessarily see it like that. What might be a more useful way of conceptualising this is thinking instead in terms of participation - or even contribution.
So at Mozilla we have staff and a whole army of contributors. There's a couple of people I know who were contributing to the Firefox code base aged 12/13. That's our most important product and used by hundreds of millions of people. We often refer to staff as 'paid contributors' and most of our meetings are open for community members to attend.
We also 'work in the open' which means we document everything. This means that people can find a thread and follow it if they're interested. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, slightly chaotic and confusing, but it's our architecture of participation.
The only Oxford English Dictionary definition of 'partner' that seems makes sense in this context is the following:
Any of a number of individuals with interests and investments in a business or enterprise, among whom expenses, profits, and losses are shared.
I don't think most universities, especially after the privatisation of education under the current coalition government, are likely to want to share profits with students. The idea of a co-operative university, as explored by people like Keri Facer, Mike Neary and Joss Winn really excites me, but speaking in probabilistic terms Russell Group universities aren't likely to be jumping on that bandwagon any time soon.
As expressed in the question, students themselves come and go. The student union, however, remains. So it makes sense for a university to do partnership work through the student union. However, I've always wondered just how representative student unions are to all students? It's only my own experience, but I've an MA, PGCE and Ed.D. from Durham and have had pretty much zero contact with the student union. I didn't even have that much as an undergraduate in Sheffield.
The worry for me is that student partnership / participation / contribution - whatever you want to call it - become an 'agenda'. As in the widening participation agenda. The trouble with 'agendas' is that they come and go, whereas this should be something that universities should seek to improve at. Sadly, with a few exceptions, I can't see that happening without a large carrot and/or a large stick.
I mentioned the term 'architecture of participation' earlier. This comes from an article around a decade ago by Tim O'Reilly. In it, he says he uses the term "to describe the nature of systems that are designed for user contribution." O'Reilly's interested in the web and software development, but I think the term is much more widely applicable.
Change doesn't come through business models or new forms of technology but through human interaction. I think we forget that sometimes. Business models and technology might help facilitate interaction, but it's human relationships that change institutions. So I think what should guide us are principles and values. Mozilla, for example, has a mission that expressed in the form of a manifesto. This is updated from time to time, and staff and community members alike can hold decision-makers accountable to it.
So I suppose I'd like to see more mission-driven universities. Values and manifestos excite people. They know where they stand in relation to them. Agendas, business models and particular technology implementations don't usually provide that.
I love universities. In fact, I spent as much time in compulsory education as I did in Higher Education. However, they do tend to be bastions of privilege and credentialing machines. They shouldn't be, but that's often how they're perceived.
So I'd flip the around to ask what opportunities working in partnership provides for assessment and recognition? I'd suggest that universities can do a lot more in terms of being more innovative in the way they assess student work. I also think that as a society we need to be more nuanced about what we consider 'achievement'. For some, we should celebrate their getting to university - both in terms of getting a place and in terms of everyday logistics. We've got a pretty one-size-fits-all approach right now.
Wow. And I didn't even mention Open Badges. ;-)