How aware are the general
public that this is happening? And, in light of recent political events, what
more could universities be doing to support their communities?
When Britain voted to leave
the EU, it did so against the advice of academics and vice-chancellors
from across the higher education sector. The Brexit vote exposed a disconnect
between universities and the public. Many university cities, including
Sheffield (60,000 students) and Birmingham (63,000 students) returned a Leave vote. This
suggests the public has not been listening to universities as much as we had thought.
Many people with no direct involvement in or experience of university may not
recognise the important role universities can – and do – play in their local
community and economy.
The Step up to Serve
Campaign’s #iwill week (21–25
November) provides universities with an excellent opportunity to demonstrate
their commitment and highlight the work they are already doing to tackle local
community needs. The UK-wide #iwill campaign aims to increase the number of 10-
to 20 year-olds getting involved in social action like volunteering.
At the University of
Winchester, the Winchester Hub student committee have used #iwill week to promote the wide range of volunteering projects they
offer and encourage students who haven’t taken part in volunteering before to ‘Give it a Go’. The university
has also made a public commitment to social action through its #iwill pledge, committing to ensuring every student is
encouraged to take part. Campaigns like #iwill week and Student Volunteering Week (20–26 February 2017) highlight the impact students are having in
their communities. Universities can use these national campaigns to demonstrate
to local residents, community groups and councils that this is something their
institution cares about.
There is, however, a limit
to the power of these campaigns. Without demonstrable results on the ground,
there’s the risk that pledges of support become empty gestures. It is crucial
that words are matched with investment. As well as committing to social action
in their strategies (as Manchester, Nottingham and Winchester have done), universities have to invest in providing
opportunities for students to make a difference locally. For communities to
feel the full benefit of student volunteers, universities need to provide those
volunteers with high quality opportunities, support and training to ensure they
are able to have a positive impact.
When universities do this,
the results are impressive. Across the Student
Hubs network, where we are
funded by universities to deliver quality social action programmes, it is
evident how much local communities benefit from student engagement. Of the
schools, care homes and wide range of community partners we worked with in 2015–16,
91% felt they benefited from specifically
Universities contribute significantly to the public good in the UK
but many people see institutions in isolation, disconnected from their local
area. Investment in student social action can help to challenge this perception.
This is something both existing institutions and, in light of the Higher
Education and Research Bill, new providers should be prioritising.
How aware are the general public that this is happening? They're not, well not me at least anyway. Like mentioned in the article, we have had a hectic year in terms of news and politics and it is a shame that stories like this get buried. It's quite staggering (and somewhat heartening) that 31% of students are volunteering.