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How universities can promote student volunteering and social action

Students working together

If the #iwill campaign is successful, an additional 1.5 million young people will be involved in regular social action by the year 2020.

This could include a wide range of activities from mentoring their peers, befriending the elderly, improving urban environments and dealing with waste in the countryside. This ambitious aim can only be realised through tangible actions taken by influential partners from the business, voluntary and, crucially, education sectors.

That’s why I’m joining fellow higher education leaders at today’s Universities UK-NUS roundtable discussion – alongside Universities UK Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge and the NUS’s Richard Brooks – to agree what universities can do to be at the forefront of this important cultural shift, and proactively support students to make a real difference to our communities.

The benefits of getting involved in social action (50% of university students took part in social action in 2015) are clear and transformative. A range of survey findings show that young people want to give up their time for unpaid activities that help others and support the environment. But many lack the encouragement, opportunities and structure to become more fully involved, or to bring in to volunteering the 50% who are currently not doing so.

Let us be clear. The benefits of social action are enormous to the students involved, and will open up opportunities to them which will prove life-changing. Yes, other people will benefit from their hard work. But the principle beneficiary will be the students themselves.

Social action gives students confidence in dealing with unfamiliar situations, and opens them up to whole swathes of new friendships and relationships. Whereas their lives as students will revolve primarily around academic work and social life, volunteering will push them way outside their comfort zone. It is beneficial to them precisely because it is difficult, demanding and draws upon inner reserves of character and personality which normal university life is a closed book to.

How do we bring about this transformation at universities? The National Union of Students (NUS) and Universities UK are solidly behind it, and that will make a powerful difference. Senior leadership teams up to, and including the Vice-Chancellor, need to get right behind it too. Indeed they need to lead the way by engaging in social action themselves, so they are seen to practise what they preach.

Universities could embrace baccalaureate-style qualifications at graduation which expect and then celebrate the voluntary activities in which students have been involved. The Universities Minister and more universities could do more to talk up the benefits and importance of social action and volunteering.

Alongside this, we should consider what the HE sector can do to support more schools and colleges to embed social action. This could include acknowledging its’ value in our admissions processes, an outcome of which would be to aid social mobility.

Finding wins in life is not always easy – to me having universities actively facilitating social action among young people could be a rare and supreme example. Together let’s embrace this opportunity.

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