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Liverpool Applied Social Research Module

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Who: Third year undergraduates studying BA Sociology, BA Sociology & Social Policy and BA Criminology & Sociology in the University of Liverpool, working with local Voluntary, Community or Faith Organisations (VCFO)

What: An optional accredited research project, facilitated by Interchange (a registered charity (Registered Charity No. 1038129) devised by both The University of Liverpool and Liverpool Hope University, who place students taking part in the module with a VCFO to research a problem or issue that has been identified by the client organisation. From this a range of underpinning pedagogic literature has been produced

Why: To enhance student learning and offer local community organisations something tangible in return, through a process of 'in-kind' knowledge exchange between the University and the local community

Where: Through Interchange, students find placements with VCFOs across Merseyside, with research placements covering a wide variety of subjects, including victims of domestic abuse, people with mental health problems and people seeking welfare advice

When: Commencing in 1994, the project has been run annually from October to May, with fieldwork completed in March 

Project description

This project was originally conceived by David and Irene Hall to advance community-based learning. They were then academics at The University of Liverpool and Liverpool Hope University respectively, and were interested in the potential of community-based learning to both enhance student learning and offer local community organisations something tangible in return. This idea has evolved through Interchange, a registered charity currently based in The University of Liverpool. The charity is able to facilitate the collaboration between the city universities and the local community, to allow an 'in-kind' knowledge exchange.

Students work with a diverse range of VCFOs and their beneficiary groups; this requires careful organisation by Interchange. Throughout the year, work is undertaken to help transform a research idea into a proposal that is feasible for a student, with a bank of research opportunities being developed for students to choose from. The students are then required to consider issues of access and determine research methodologies to obtain ethical approval from the School of Ethics committee before gathering any data.

The module is assessed through a Client Report, which presents and analyses the findings for the VCFO, in addition to a Reflective Report that is only for academic assessment. 


  • To provide students with the opportunity to develop their research skills, apply theory and understanding of social policies to real life situations, and use their social science knowledge for public benefit
  • To provide VCFOs with substantial research evidence that they can use practically, particularly as evidence for funding applications
  • To forge opportunities, over and above the module, for further collaboration and knowledge exchange with the community and university

Results and outcomes

What worked well

Although this module is very demanding for academics, with weekly workshops, individual supervision, and meetings with agency representatives, it's also extremely rewarding because students tend to flourish academically and as people. By the end of the module, the students have usually become very purposeful about their future and grown in confidence.

"If I were to list the things that I have enjoyed whilst at Refugee Action, there would simply not be enough paper...Academic learning does not allow the level of understanding that the Applied Social Research module offered. Being given an insight into the obstacles facing people in everyday life allows the things that you have learnt within the lecture room to be applied practically." (Kylie Stanger, BA Criminology and Sociology - Third Year Undergraduate who worked with Refugee Action RIES Service).

Academic supervisors have noted many impacts of this module for their students with significant proportions of these students awarded a mark above 70% for their Client Report, proving to themselves, their client organisation and the University that they are very credible researchers.

Over the past five years, six students taking this module have won The University of Liverpool Lundy Memorial Prize for best dissertation which they have received at the School graduation party.

The module receives very positive feedback from students because of the camaraderie of the workshops and the sense of being involved in research that will be used and of benefit. However, they also comment on the commitment required and how it can be a very stressful process. A significant proportion move onto research training, professional training programmes, or graduate employment opportunities and the experience gained from the module can provide a helpful springboard to their future career choices.

Feedback from VCFOs is also usually very positive. It's particularly satisfying when organisations talk of how the report has been used, For example, Aintree Volunteer Group (AHVS) is a volunteer scheme run within the NHS Hospital of Aintree, Liverpool and has had a number of students over the last 10 years. The findings from the different research projects related to this scheme have provided the backbone for successfully funding bids to the European Union and the Big Lottery. Last year as an organisation they brought in themselves over £1.2 million. In addition, when community forums have run they have offered opportunities to showcase the work of the students, and they have been presented with certificates from Interchange.

"Independently managing my research project, with support from my academic supervisor and staff within the host organisation, was a challenge, but one I felt that I rose to and which provided me with invaluable experience. Coordinating the project within a busy non-profit organisation, arranging interviews and meetings, taught me a number of skills relating to communication, networking and project management. This busy working environment and the nature of the project also meant that a number of unexpected challenges arose, yet dealing with these in a professional manner formed a key component of the research and contributed to the skills I developed during the process." Laura Donovan, BA Hons Sociology, 3rd Year (2009/2010), at WHISC (Women's Health Information and Support Centre).

"Our organisation is currently working towards Investors in People award and our initial consultations looked at what and how we value people's contributions and develop them for their roles. The research report produced by our Interchange placement, Laura, was fantastic in demonstrating how we 'listen' to people and value their contributions as an organisation. The work that Laura did made everyone feel that they were important and that their views were meaningful." Marie Wheldon, WHISC

The legacy is in the enduring grassroots knowledge exchange between university students and VCFOs on Merseyside. Over Interchange's duration a range of underpinning pedagogic literature has been produced.

Community forum event

Community Forum with Voluntary Community & Faith Organisations on Merseyside

What didn't work well

Lack of funding for the Interchange coordinator role to provide the community support side of the module and short term ad hoc funding from HEIs to support the university administrative side of the placements. This impacted most significantly on the VCFOs as there was limited ongoing support throughout the research process. This will hopefully be addressed by the new funding arrangements. 

Resources required

Interchange has a coordinator who builds up a bank of interested VCFOs and visits them to discuss the logistics of having a research student and what makes a feasible proposal. Where appropriate, the coordinator sets up workshops with the VCFOs to explore how to engage in community research. These are facilitated by academics. At the end of this process the coordinator is in a position to produce a directory of feasible research proposals for students to choose from. Throughout the student placement the VCFO is supported by the coordinator, who helps overcome any obstacles encountered.

Interchange has been funded from the following sources:

  • 1997-2001 it was part of the C-SAP funded (Centre for Sociology, Anthropology & Politics) CoBalt project (Community Based Learning Teamwork)
  • It was involved in, and received funding from, the European Science Shops movement. Interchange benefitted from EU funding schemes for Science Shops (INTERACTS, 2001-2003) to disseminate best practice of Science Shops, and then Training and Mentoring of Science Shops (TRAMS, 2005-2008) to offer research, training, and support to community organisations
  • Up until 2008 The University of Liverpool also gave a grant to cover a coordinator's salary from the 'Reach Out Growth Fund' (HEIF3) and, when this was no longer available, continued to provide ongoing part time administrative support to Interchange from internal funding sources thus ensuring it remained operational for students.
  • Other than these funding sources, Interchange has received one-off grants from community bodies like Liverpool City Council, and the Eleanor Rathbone Trust.
  • In the autumn of 2010, the John Moores Foundation awarded Interchange a grant to employ a part-time Community Worker and The University of Liverpool appointed a part-time administrator for the module. 

Meeting the manager

Meeting the manager 

Top tips

The organisers offer the following tips for anyone contemplating putting on or becoming involved with similar activity:

1. Preparation for host organisations is paramount

2. Highlighting issues of safeguarding, Criminal Records Bureau checks, health and safely, ethical considerations and risk assessments with client organisations before the placement begins

3. Exploring with the client organisation what makes a good research proposal, the kind of methods likely to elicit the type of data desired, and what they might expect from a 10,000 word student report

4. Liaising with and supporting the host organisations throughout the placement process

5. Briefing students about the module in their second year of study to ensure only students that are fully informed and really committed to the requirements of the module register for it

6. Providing weekly academic input to the students


Name: Louise Hardwick and David Whyte

Name of organisation: School of Sociology & Social Policy,