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Student volunteers highlight the valuable role universities can play in their communities

Francis Wight

Network Development Director
Student Hubs

More than 725,000 students (31% of the total student population) volunteer in their communities each year, having an invaluable impact on local people and services.

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.

So what can universities do to improve public engagement with their work? How can they show their value to local communities?

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.

Universities must back up good intentions with investment

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 engaging students.

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.

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Scott Brerton
Scott Brerton says:
25 November 2016 at 14:41

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.