Service Learning: Addressing Participation Barriers With ‘Real-World’ Learning

Posted on: 2 September 2020

This is Part 1 of our Service Learning blog series. You can see Part 2, which focuses on how the programme supports students and communities here.

Student Hubs began delivering Service Learning in 2017, working with our university partner Kingston University to create an in-curricular programme of community-based learning within undergraduate degree programmes which brought together academics, students, and community partners. 

Service Learning develops students’ professional skills within the learning framework of their academic course whilst cultivating a community-based mindset, as Student Hubs leads in co-designing projects and briefs, sourcing community partners to act as clients. Projects are typically research, consultancy or practical in nature for students to take part in, with briefs often targeted at specific functions e.g. marketing and communications, data analysis or design.

In Student Hubs’ past three years of delivery, the programme has grown massively and we are excited to share our learnings with the wider higher education sector in a time when opportunities for students to develop graduate employability skills during their degree is going to be more important than ever. 

Why Student Hubs?

Student Hubs’ vision and mission is built upon the belief that students who engage in positive social action at university build the confidence, skills and experience to become active citizens throughout their life, something which we refer to as their ‘social action journey’. 

We work with university partners to achieve this vision and mission, with Student Hubs bringing our expertise at brokering community partner relationships to universities, as well as creating bespoke opportunities in-curriculum and as extracurricular activities for students to engage in social action. 

By working in-curriculum, as we do in Service Learning, we are able to extend our student engagement provision by accessing students who may not typically engage with extracurricular activities due to other barriers and challenges in their lives. We knew our programmes were successful in engaging those most in need of targeted support: in 2017-18, 81% of all students engaging with our Kingston Hub programmes were access-funded students. Building in-curricular opportunities through Service Learning in 2017 was a natural extension of this work which had already been established through extra-curricular activities with Kingston University. 

In Service Learning, our model is built on our expertise in engaging with community organisations and partners to support our work. This is an area where we thrive, as Student Hubs has a long history of recruiting and supporting many local community partners every year to take part in our Practical Volunteering and Skilled Placement programmes and deliver with university students. We know how to reach out, engage with and successfully support these partnerships. When this is factored into our Service Learning delivery, this means academics can focus on supporting students’ assessment as part of this work, and both students and community partners feel supported by us with the programme expectations and their required delivery. 

Furthermore, students and academics are able to tackle the community need identified by us, supporting the university’s civic agenda too. Student Hubs’ involvement ultimately makes the programme much more effective, efficient and impactful for the students, community partners and academics involved.

How Service Learning started

Building our practices on the educational pedagogy of community-engaged learning, which we called Service Learning, we piloted an initiative called ‘Hack-it-Forward’ with a module within Kingston University’s Computer Programming course. The module was built on the premise that students had valuable academic skills which, combined with their unique life experiences, provided them with insights and abilities to solve contemporary problems being faced by local community partners. 

The impact of Service Learning on academics 

As we scaled our delivery to more programmes, we saw our triple benefit model in action, with students, community partners and university academics all benefitting from our programme. What we have seen as our programme has expanded is that Service Learning adds capacity to academics’ work, as they are benefitting from the support and expertise of our staff team who facilitate relationships with community partners and provide students with high-quality training to deliver this consultancy work. 

Where academic partners understand and engage with the positive impact of community partnerships, they have proven invaluable advocates and allies in increasing the accessibility of these opportunities to their student cohorts. This has a huge impact in terms of increasing opportunities for students to develop core employability skills and expanding the university’s role in meeting the needs of their local communities. 

One of the academics who worked with Kingston Hub to deliver Service Learning reported: “The initiatives have been really great for the students. [Service Learning has] introduced real-world learning into their programme and have enabled us to deliver a more diverse and authentic learning experience. [Kingston Hub] have also given us the opportunity to bring new faces … into the classroom thus giving the students a better experience and a better awareness of their employability skills. [Students] have also benefited from the fact that their efforts are contributing to wider communities”

Looking ahead 

The successes of this approach in embedding social action in meaningful, relatable and assessed components of courses, has aided Student Hubs at Kingston University to expand from one Service Learning course in 2017-18 to 14 in 2019-20, working with all the faculties across the university. These activities have enabled us to address barriers to participation and increase the opportunities students have to engage in social action in their local university communities. We will be discussing the impact on our students and community partners in an upcoming blog in this Service Learning series.  

Service Learning will continue in the new academic year through a virtual programme of delivery, and will continue to provide a platform for students who wouldn’t typically have the opportunity to engage in extracurricular programmes to experience and even become champions for meaningful social activity. As our local communities rebuild from the impact of Covid-19, students who are actively engaged in supporting community growth, connection and change, and universities who are advocates and enablers for this work, are increasingly what we need.   

As contemporary challenges force us to re-imagine educational and student experience, Service Learning provides a clear path for us to create innovative solutions for communities in a way that is meaningful and impactful to the students, community partners and academics we support in our Hub network.

To find out more about Service Learning and how Student Hubs could support your university, get in touch with Fiona Walsh, Sales Director at

Harry Hodges and Fiona Walsh

Harry Hodges is the Kingston Hub Manager based at Kingston University which delivers Service Learning. Fiona Walsh is Student Hubs' Sales Director and leads on university sales, marketing strategy and external relations.

Tags: Community, Education, Higher Education, Skilled Placements

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