Should Higher Education Institutions Support Student Social Action?

Posted on: 12 August 2019

The UN’s International Youth Day will be celebrated for the 20th time on August 12th. Since 1999, each year has had a different theme, from ‘Safe Spaces for Youth,’ to ‘Youth Building Peace,’ or ‘The Road to 2030.’ This year’s theme is ‘Transforming Education’ and it aims to examine how institutions, young people, and youth-led or youth-focused organisations are transforming education.

At Student Hubs, we are always curious and enthusiastic to look into the various facets of our impact. In light of this International Youth Day, we wonder what the impact of student social action is, when it comes to education. Does involvement in social action bring value to students’ education? Do higher education institutions have a reason to support social action?

In my two years of being involved in charity work at university, I have found myself increasingly drawing on the experience and knowledge I acquire through social action in my learning. Admittedly, it is quite easy for me to do so, as I study Sustainable Development; therefore, when my seminars involve discussions on NGOs, aid, international volunteering, and similar, I realise how valuable my experience is in allowing me to critically and practically think about these issues.

Has social research been able to find this value on a more general basis?

When looking at the way in which course marks are affected by volunteering or service learning (which we tend to describe as bringing social action into the curriculum), there are some studies that find a positive effect of volunteering on marks, whereas others find no effect at all. However, interestingly, research suggests that students undertaking service learning perform better in terms of straightforward understanding of course concepts. This can relate to activities such as Schools Plus, where student volunteers consolidate their own knowledge and share it with others by tutoring in schools with a high proportion of pupils on Free School Meals and with English as a second language.

Indeed, research finds that some of the most common skills acquired through volunteering are linked to teaching and transfer of knowledge, presentation self-efficacy, writing skills, problem solving, critical thinking, and novel application of course concepts. In 2017-18, 86% of Student Hubs volunteers said they increased their confidence in approaching challenges; whereas 74% improved their ability to lead others to make change. Such skills are invaluable in universities today, especially as coursework is increasingly diversifying away from essays and problem sets, to include group projects and presentations of all sorts. 

In addition, research shows that reflection on volunteer experiences ensures explicit mapping back to learning and curriculum; and it fosters deep learning across interdisciplinary contexts. Student Hubs’ approach ensures that students are encouraged to reflect on their social action activities as they progress through university; they critically engage with causes and evaluate their personal impact. 

So, what does this all mean for ‘transforming education’? 

Activities like volunteering can be actively incorporated into students’ learning process, making their experience of higher education overall more enjoyable, active, and relevant. Importantly, educational institutions need to take on a crucial role in the support of their students’ involvement in social action.

Compared to students who are not supported by their universities to volunteer, a study found that students who are supported report better experiences of volunteering and reflect more positively upon the benefits of volunteering.

Does this mean universities should make volunteering a requirement? Some pre-university academic programmes, such as the International Baccalaureate, make a certain number of ‘service hours’ a strict prerequisite for graduation. However, a recent study concluded that compelling students to volunteer as a universal requirement was not a strong motivator for student engagement. Instead, making volunteering a personal experience allows for a differentiation of activities and learning experiences. Valuing volunteering as part of a holistic curriculum design can ensure conditions for amplified student learning experiences.

We often tend to acknowledge the positive impact of education on social impact for sustainable development. Yet, we should more often consider the reverse relationship; and the virtuous cycle that can consequently occur. Ultimately, educational institutions should enhance their understanding of student volunteering to adequately support and validate volunteer experiences, seeing as this can only have a positive and transformative impact on education. As university students, we can easily get caught up in the idea that our learning comes exclusively from lectures and seminars. We are in serious need of our institutions supporting and facilitating our learning through alternative means such as social action. 

Marina Zorila

Marina is our Social Impact Digital Marketing Intern for the summer. She started her social action journey by getting involved with charity societies at the University of Warwick.

Tags: Education, Impact, Social Action, Student Voice

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