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Manchester Leadership Programme

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This programme is not solely concerned with management or leadership theory: it challenges students' ideas, perspectives and attitudes to give them practical knowledge.

The real development of students' real world knowledge comes through the volunteering side of the programme. This brings students into contact with local leaders (e.g. the chair of a residents' association or community organisation) and local communities in general, as well as giving them the chance to develop their own practical leadership skills.

The location of the University of Manchester (between two deprived wards) and the resulting impact of the University on these communities means that those on this programme play a visible role in the university’s social responsibility commitment. It also improves the perception of students amongst the local communities.

Project description

The impetus for the programme came from the merger of the University of Manchester and UMIST in 2004. The vision of the-then Vice Chancellor, Alan Gilbert, was to create a socially responsible university; his successor, Nancy Rothwell, continues this focus on public engagement. Part of this agenda is the engagement of students with communities: most of the University of Manchester's students live within the same communities to the south of the city, so there is a real need to support students to integrate into these communities. This presents the student cohort in a positive light to the other residents in these communities – hence the importance of engagement through volunteering.

The programme has an academic, credit-based unit, which can be taken through lectures or an online version, along with volunteering activity, which can take up to 60 hours. Students who are successful in both parts achieve the Manchester Leadership Award.

Academic unit

The programme explores the leadership needed to build economic, social and environmentally sustainable communities in the 21st century. Whilst students are given a basic introduction to leadership theory, the main focus of the programme is on the practical ways in which leaders from the public, private and voluntary sectors confront key challenges facing their organisations and which test their leadership mettle. Examples of speakers:

  • David McCullough – Trading Director of Oxfam: How do you make difficult decisions when you're responsible for deciding which communities or victims of natural disasters are most deserving of a finite budget?
  • Ellen Mcarthur: What can you do about sustainability, and how do you start getting people to think differently around issues of environmental sustainability and climate change?

The academic programme also includes cross-functional tutor groups, which help students understand the importance of consensus, resolving issues to satisfy many different backgrounds and disciplines.

Volunteering activity

The volunteering activities help students explore leadership at a local level and to better integrate into the local community, by becoming involved in things such as community allotments, residents' associations or the local youth club.

Size of the programme

The programme started six years ago, with a pilot group of 75. In 2010-11, there were 1,200 on the programme, an increase of 300 from 2009-10. In total, in 2009-10 the students gave around 35,000 hours of volunteering. There are approximately 400 organisations registered with the MLP, although they are not all active at the same time.

Student cohort description

  • Students come from all four of the university's faculties, with the largest single group from the Manchester Business School
  • It's also popular with the schools in Medical and Human Sciences, as it offers a great opportunitiy to ensure that their students leave with soft skills along with their technical capabilities. In fact, they are encouraged to work with vulnerable groups, where experience gained working with children or people with disabilities, for example, will improve their clinical practices
  • A significant number also come from Engineering and Physical Sciences and Life Sciences. Anecdotal evidence shows that professional bodies regulating professions such as engineering or mathematics really support a programme like this, as it gets people thinking in a different way

Reasons for taking the programme

Two students in a radio studio, with the DJ standing behind them

Students regularly volunteer as DJs at a local community centre for older people






Four of the main reasons are:

  • A wish to do something totally different from their main academic discipline
  • A real interest in the political issues of the day or global issues such as sustainability
  • Already volunteering/doing community work but looking for academic recognition for their efforts
  • Employability: it boosts the graduate CV.

The programme helps those already volunteering to get even more benefit by allowing them to reflect on what they learn, rather than it just being an activity for a Thursday evening. Similarly, those who take the course for more 'self-centred' reasons often find that it catalyses a lifestyle change – many continue to volunteer once the course has finished.

Students say they can’t stop volunteering because "I recognise the difference I make." Lindsay Gilbert, Head of Volunteering and Community Engagement

What worked well

The programme has been able to attract new volunteering partners because of its success in managing expectations, keeping the focus on the programme as a partnership, and maintaining a high standard of volunteering. Feedback has shown that the organisations involved find the student volunteers highly committed and intelligent. This has led to new organisations coming on board through word of mouth – recommendations create a powerful snowball effect.


The volunteering side of the programme is designed to meet community needs, rather than pronouncing on what is needed – but the programme design has to be realistic. Organisations may have a wish list, but there has to be honesty around what can be achieved, for example around student availability in the summer.  Initially, some groups or individuals have been quite sceptical about working with students; however, once they had partnered with the MLP, whether on a partnership project or by students volunteering directly with them, they have returned time and again and recommended others to get involved.

"It’s really important just to get on with things sometimes instead of just talking." Lindsay Gilbert, Head of Volunteering and Community Engagement

The programme proves its worth through action rather than talk, making sure of delivery. One of the challenges for us is to make sure that communities recognise when students are doing good things as well, not just bad things.

Top tips

  1. Think about how to meet the needs of all the different groups involved
  2. Take a strategic approach to your programme design: don't wait for people to approach you with possible volunteering ideas. For example, study your city council's strategy documents, to see whether they are focusing on regeneration/sustainability/climate change/education in secondary schools etc, and make sure you contribute in these areas
  3. Determine what students want – run consultation events. At one such event, we discovered that there were not enough opportunities around culture, arts and media. The next year, we went out and found more arts, culture and media opportunties, to help those students
  4. Help students understand how volunteering can help them in their future careers. We created a document that listed volunteering opportunities alongside the most relevant academic disciplines and industry sectors. (e.g. Engineering: Museum of Science & Industry/STEM Ambassador programme)
  5. Whatever you do, ensure that you build in flexibility to your approach, so that people can find something that fits their own interests and commitments
  6. Some of that has been really simple; it's about making sure that when students are out and about, they have University of Manchester hoodies to wear, so that people don't think they're the local payback team. When we first started, that was quite a common perception