Working with student volunteers

Working with student volunteers can make your public engagement activity come alive for the people involved.

The participants gain a unique perspective on the subject matter, and the students gain the experience of interacting with the public, as well as increasing their knowledge and working understanding of the subject matter. 


Working with volunteers requires investment both in terms of time and resources, and should be carefully considered and thoughtfully planned. The following areas will need to considered when thinking about utilising volunteers in your public engagement work: 

  • Policies and procedures: What policies and procedures already exist within your institution with regard to volunteers working with the university or students volunteering for the university? Is there a University Volunteering unit who you could ask for advice on their policy and procedures?  

  • Recruitment and induction: Do Human Resources have information on the recruitment and selection of volunteers? The organisers will need to ensure the recruitment process is transparent, open and fair to all concerned.  

  • Health & Safety: Are volunteers covered under the public liability insurance of the university? (They should be, but you should check this first). You will need to ensure Risk Assessments are done for the work they will be doing, and treat them the same way you would a member of staff with regard to Health & Safety inductions or briefings for an event they may be taking part in.   

  • Support mechanisms: Who will oversee the work of the volunteers? All volunteers need to have a named contact who they can go to with a problem, query or concern. There needs to be an appropriate support structure for the student volunteers which is appropriate to the activity and the volunteers are informed of  

  • Role descriptions: Each volunteer role needs to have a role description, so the volunteers know exactly what is required of them before they sign up for the opportunity.  

  • Expenses: People's policies vary – but out of pocket expenses should be covered. It is not considered good practice to give volunteers a voucher for their time, a token payment or any financial incentive as this could be seen as being a payment for their time. This could have unexpected repercussions in terms of minimum wage requirements and employment law  

  • Safeguarding children: If your public engagement activity will involve contact with under 18s you will need to pay due regard to the Safeguarding Children Policy your university has established. Disclosure and Barring Service checks may be needed if the activity is with under 18s, and this needs to be considered well in advance of the activity to allow sufficient time to process these.  

  • Development and recognition: It is great if the student volunteers could be given opportunities to further develop skills and knowledge through courses or conferences. Enable the student volunteers to be involved in how the activity could be developed by involving them in feedback or decision making and recognise their input through certification or official thanks 


To you as academics, student volunteers: 

  • Bring subject knowledge 

  • Bring enthusiasm and commitment 

  • Show a desire to make a difference 

  • Improve their own understanding of course content through engaging with it in a practical way 

To the student volunteers, public engagement activity gives them: 

  • Opportunity to make a difference 

  • A chance to increase subject knowledge 

  • Opportunity to gain practical experience of working with the public related to their field 

To the participants, student volunteers provide:

  • Different perspectives, from an academic member of staff 

  • Role models 

  • Knowledge and enthusiasm 

Top tips 

  • Establish what is already going on in the university – paid and voluntary. This could be located in a number of places, such as the students' union, careers service or widening participation office. There is no point in re-inventing the wheel, and there may be people with much experience in this area, who can support you in your work 

  • Establish what is going on in the local community- similarly to activities within the university there may be a local volunteering centre who you could work with to develop opportunities 

  • Good support and supervision. This is imperative to ensure that the activity you are running goes smoothly and the volunteers feel valued, supported and are contributing to something important. Also, don’t underestimate the time and resources required to support volunteers 

  • Clear role descriptions – having these makes it easier for everybody to understand their role and what is required of them 

  • Fair, transparent recruitment  

External resources