The town is the gown

If you were trying to convince someone of the value of students’ unions within a community, what would you do to defend them?

If you viewed SUs purely through what you read in the press, then you would have a view that they carry out two activities: first, staging initiation ceremonies featuring controversial fancy dress, anti-social behaviour and extreme amounts of alcohol; and second, banning speakers and sombreros, as the foot soldiers in the battle over ‘PC gone mad’.

This view of student organisations as a place for hedonism and ‘beyond the mainstream’ politics is not simply one pushed by the media – it’s often the recollection which people share about their own time at university. And even today, both NUS and students’ unions use websites and social media to promote political activity and the commercial work that funds it.

The other characterisation of students in communities is of positive economic benefit, with many universities calculating dubious figures on financial inflows and supply chain benefits. Even if these are are true, we know from the EU referendum that concern over the “character” of an area can trump all of these arguments.

These approaches squeeze out what should be one of the headlines written about UK university students’ unions – work in communities, volunteering, raising money and making the world a better place. And given some of the reaction to the 2017 General Election – that it was ‘unfair’ that students voted in their university towns, only to leave a month later – the need to support, demonstrate and highlight this work is urgent.

Impressive numbers

Annually, the Charity Commission collects data on the number of volunteers involved in every registered charity. Oxfam boasts an impressive 26,000 volunteers, the National Trust an even more impressive 60,000 – reflective of organisations renowned for the level of passion and volunteer activity they inspire in people. But by comparison, across the 86 students’ unions formally registered as charities in England and Wales, an incredible 88,273 students are volunteering – more than through the National Trust and Oxfam put together.

Taking part in such activity is nothing new. In the 1880s, students visited the sick and prisoners – experiences that gave impetus to a wave of campaigns for social change, many of which featured students at the forefront. In the 1960s, students hit the news for a range of ‘innovative’ fundraising activities, raising thousands of pounds for local charities. While the wisdom of Sheffield students being sponsored to paint a zebra crossing on the M1, or Plymouth Polytechnic students hoaxing a national newspaper by dressing up as Che Guevara (declaring a start to the guerilla war for Cornish independence in exchange for sponsorship) can be questioned, it was emblematic of students setting out to raise money for good causes. Students raise millions every year for local, national and international causes, yet this isn’t what the headlines are reporting.

Where are we now and where has this come from?

Some in the sector will remember an age of student volunteering funded by HEFCE’s active community fund, which included high-visibility, mass-participation volunteering. Litter picks, fence-painting and tree-planting volunteering projects were common as a way to demonstrate that middle-class students were contributing to their working-class community.

But today, much student volunteering focuses on a long-term impact – and reflects the more diverse nature of our student bodies. Centred around working towards a greater society and world, it uses student interest and skills as a way to add value and develop solutions to big issues in other words – a space where volunteering skills is just as valuable as volunteering time. Three examples from Middlesex University Students Union:

  • Two Middlesex students who are fluent in Arabic started hosting weekly coffee mornings for Syrian Refugees. Through the relationships they built, they discovered that there was a lack of access to information about education in the UK. The SU hosted an evening where refugees could meet academic advisors from the university to discuss their study opportunities. Many then began Access Courses and have now progressed to undergraduate degrees
  • A group of students voluntarily undertook a study into misogyny and sexual violence in their local London borough of Barnet. This found that an overwhelming majority of women had experienced sexual harassment, a tiny minority had reported it and none were satisfied with the response. They took this information and used it to set up a meeting with the Deputy Mayor for Policing in London and community leaders. This resulted in the Deputy Mayor agreeing to examine designating misogyny as a hate crime.
  • Two students studying a masters in housing policy identified a particular local community who disproportionately reported their housing as being sub-standard. An investigation revealed that a substantial amount of the council-provided accommodation was not just substandard but illegal. Following a collective presentation to the Leader of the Council, they agreed not just to enforce existing legislation more effectively, but to go further and create an anonymous helpline where tenants in Barnet can report rogue landlords.

The town is the gown

Since 1992 the number of 18-24 year olds in higher education has almost doubled with 1 million more young people now going to university – and many more students are staying at home. This has altered community volunteering in many universities – a student is likely to be actively making a difference in their home town, the place where they grew up. They also have improved knowledge of the local issues that need tackling and, therefore, can create useful solutions based on longer-term insight.In Sheffield, a student ran a volunteering project around creative writing opportunities for homeless people. It was based on his own experiences of being homeless in Sheffield and knowing how much he would have appreciated such an opportunity to be heard.

Students are paying much more than ever before for their education and we’ve seen an emphasis on needing to spend their money and time carefully. In the early 2000s there was a focus on recording hours, with merit given to the volunteers who spent the most time on projects. But more students than ever students are working part-time jobs to fund their education, which has shifted the focus to projects where students’ skills make the most impact.

Making it work

We have identified two key policy factors for universities and their SUs that make genuine community volunteering successful. First, there’s a dated view of student volunteering that focuses on CVs. But the evidence is that volunteering (and paid opportunities) are most successful when they link to both a student’s academic studies and their wider values.

The principle that be successful, education should provide an opportunity for praxis (practical action linked to values) has long been established. But now students are looking for volunteering opportunities which fit in with their academic study. Examples range from App Design students working with local schools to develop bespoke apps which tackle mental health, to law students accompanying refugees to housing offices, to ensure they receive the accommodation they have a statutory right to.

Second, success depends on putting real resource behind community partnerships. Viewing SU’s as hubs for cross community working, that bring together fellow charities, faith organisations and community leaders is essential. Students are increasingly representative of both the good and the bad in our communities, of multi-culturalism and diversity; but also of a society where many of the fundamental institutions of the social sphere have been eroded.

With faith and cultural institutions facing declining memberships and with closures of public institutions like youth clubs and community centres, there’s a danger that the social institutions that make society thrive are at risk. In this context, the role of students as a bridge within communities and supporting the public sphere becomes absolutely critical.

2 responses to “The town is the gown

  1. A very useful and thoughtful article outlining the power of student volunteering. Thank you for sharing.

  2. The impact assessment for student volunteering is difficult as quality assessment but there are clear examples of change agency given in this excellent precis. True, there was a trend to quantify the volunteering values, which was and is nevertheless significant for the smaller and impoverished towns and cities where there is poor local volunteerism – thus an impact related to levels of local deprivations. The next step in volunteering? An integration into the teaching and learning programme (clearly examples above were within the auspices of a masters programme) and not a ‘nice’ piece of extra-curricular activity. A look at the US where some university missions include structured and mentored student involvement in the local community as a given. Strategic development of the civic missions need to have student volunteers as the centrepiece… with the academic staff too.

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