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UCL Step Out and other adventures

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Who: The National Beacon for Public Engagement at University College London (UCL) and the Volunteering Services Unit (VSU), UCL’s centre for student volunteering

What: The Step Out programme for postgraduate students, which combines elements of student-led volunteering with a public engagement ethos, creating projects aimed at adult audiences

Why: To help increase the number of postgraduate students involved in the work of both the VSU and public engagement unit (PEU)

Where: Projects have been carried out across London

When: Step Out, the first collaborative programme commenced in April 2010

Project description

The Volunteering Services Unit (VSU) is UCL’s centre for student volunteering. The Unit is now centrally funded by UCL but based within the students’ union, and offers a volunteering brokerage service, a programme of one–off volunteering activities, and a student–led project scheme called The Innovations Programme

UCL – a Beacon for Public Engagement – has also had a Public Engagement Unit (PEU) since 2008. The team champions public engagement within the institution, provides advice to colleagues, runs a variety of funding streams, supports and evaluates projects, and promotes other activities such as Bright Club As two community–facing departments, the VSU and PEU have worked together from the outset. For example, we are represented on each other’s steering committees and grant panels, and have informally shared contacts and information.

In April 2010, we decided to formally collaborate on a programme specifically aimed at UCL’s postgraduate student population, as this group was under–represented in the work of both units.

To this end, we devised Step Out. The aim was to enable and encourage postgrad students to develop their own public engagement projects. Our plan was to do this by:

  1. Offering small grants of up to £750 for activities (funded by PEU)
  2. Provide a staff supervisor to advise and support students (mostly from the VSU)
  3. Provide basic project management training (from the VSU, with input from the PEU)
  4. Create a publicity strategy (jointly)

1. Grants

The VSU already offered a small grants scheme as part of its Innovations Programme. Students wanting to apply for money have to fill in an application (detailing aims, objectives, timelines and a budget) and then present to a panel made up of UCL and UCL Union staff members, a UCLU sabbatical officer, and two student representatives. The VSU’s Administrator minutes the meetings but does not have a vote, and other VSU staff do not attend. The panel meets every two weeks during term time.

We agreed that we would use the VSU Grants Panel for Step Out – it meets regularly and thereby gives students flexibility about when to apply. A PEU staff member now sits on the panel, assessing not only Step Out projects but also other volunteering applications. As with the Innovations Programme, students can apply for up to £750 but, for Step Out, this funding is ultimately provided by the PEU.

2. Staff Support

Each Step Out project leader is allocated a staff supervisor, in line with practice for the Innovations Programme. The supervisor keeps in touch with the students, offering advice and support. This can range from the practical – such as room bookings, providing stationery and photocopying facilities etc – to the conceptual (such as helping students define their aims and think through their project plans). Both PEU and VSU staff have helped students make links with community organisations.

3. Training

Step Out students attend the VSU’s Project Leader training, which covers project planning, needs analysis, volunteer management and problem solving. As such, they are mixing with other student leaders. In addition, PEU staff now deliver a segment on public engagement as part of the training, putting the students’ projects into a broader context.

4. Publicity Strategy

We specifically targeted postgraduate students in the publicity for Step Out – largely through emails via the UCL Graduate School and UCLU Postgraduate Association. The initial emphasis was upon a series of information sessions held in May and June – 37 students attended these brief, 40 minute lunchtime slots where we spoke about Step Out and asked them to share their ideas for public engagement projects.  We followed up by emailing participants, inviting them to training and booking appointments with staff.

Notably, in none of the publicity material did we talk about volunteering, but instead referred to public engagement.


So far, three projects have been funded through Step Out:

  • A Museums Studies MA student worked with the community on a North London estate to create a local history exhibition
  • MSc Human-Computer Interaction student investigated how computer games could be integrated into physical activity programmes for the elderly
  • An Urban regeneration Masters student set up a community creative writing and publishing project in North Lambeth

We have re–publicised the programme in October and November and anticipate that more projects will be forthcoming. 

Results and outcomes

What worked well

New Audiences

The initial response suggests that Step Out could prove to be a successful way of involving under–represented student groups. The three student leaders funded were attracted by ideas of public engagement rather than volunteering, and our information sessions drew students from many of our target departments such as Engineering, the Built Environment, and Fine Art. None of the students attending the information sessions had been in previous contact with the PEU or VSU.

Many of the VSU’s existing projects work with children and young people, usually in a school setting. However, because Step Out is purely for work with adult audiences, it has encouraged students to think beyond these groups and devise projects targeted at new audiences.

"I was incredibly lucky to win the support and expertise of the Step Out Programme for my Broadwater Farm Exhibition Project.

Without the help of Step Out I would never have had the confidence to carry out such a massive project which really pushed me to the very limits of my abilities and pushed the boundaries of what's possible in terms of community engagement with Universities and Museums when it comes to formulating History.

I am eternally grateful for the help and support for a project which has taught me more than I would ever have learnt from a desk based degree, or professionally. Overall the project has been a resounding success for the Borough of Haringey as a whole, and is continuing with a six month exhibition, starting at Bruce Castle Museum in their main gallery from April 2011." Project Leader, Broadwater Farm Exhibition Project

Emphasise a collaborative rather than a service-delivery model.

The programme has made us reflect upon what volunteering is and why we encourage students to volunteer in the first place. Our usual model of student–led volunteering has been around service delivery to meet a specific need in the community – such as education projects in schools, a befriending scheme for refugees, or a gardening programme for older people. Building upon VSU’s focus upon community need, Step Out has encouraged postgraduate students to consider how their research might have an application to wider society, rather than taking the communities’ interest for granted. This has resulted in somewhat different ideas being put forward by students interested in Step Out, in that they invite community collaboration within a cultural setting (for example, an art or history exhibition).  

Broaden services available

We have also been able to engage students who don't need the support of the whole Step Out programme, but have benefited from some advice and access to basic resources. For example, we helped a Planning student deliver a workshop for the community around the use of a public space in East London. They already had most of the resources needed but, in response to one of our Step Out promotions, approached the VSU for some additional assistance and guidance which we were able to provide. Again, this student would not have responded to messages about volunteering.

Additionally, in communicating to postgraduates about Step Out, we have seen a number of students come forward with projects that do fit in with the VSU’s existing Innovations Programme, such as a postgraduate who has set up an initiative sharing children’s stories from different cultures within a local primary school. Again, as a postgraduate student, without a prompt from Step Out, they wouldn't have thought of approaching the VSU.

VSU and PEU’s collaboration

Working collaboratively through Step Out has enabled staff in both the Public Engagement Unit and Volunteering Services Unit to develop a deeper understanding of each other’s work. Bringing together the strengths of the two teams who approach community engagement from different angles within the university. This has been particularly important in adapting the student training programme to meet the needs of Step Out. 

We have had to change it, cutting out some of our content on project planning and volunteer management to allow for a discussion on issues of public engagement. This has been useful, in that it’s enabled us to put volunteering within a broader context of UCL’s activities. As we train both Innovations and Step Out students together, they both benefit from this material, and are also able to learn from each other about the different ways students can engage with the wider world.

It should be noted that Step Out isn’t the only area of collaboration between the PEU and VSU. For example, we have also worked together on UCL’s contribution to Camden Shares, a local resource sharing network. UCL has earned points under this scheme by allowing community organisations to use spare rooms for meetings, training etc. In turn, UCL’s academics will use those points to reward community participation in their public engagement and research projects.

In turn, because of our work with the PEU, new opportunities to work with UCL’s academic departments have opened up, and have enabled us to show the connections between student volunteering and public engagement. 

What didn't work well

  • Take up in term two hasn’t been as immediate as we had hoped. This may have been partly because of the array of other activities that both the VSU and PEU have been promoting – in a sense, marketing messages about Step Out have had to compete with other publicity, whereas May and June (when we first promoted it) are quieter. Also, with the summer ahead of them, some of the students may have felt they had more time to run their public engagement projects then
  • There was some initial confusion amongst members of the small grants panel about the difference between Step Out applications and the usual Innovations Programme applications. In response, we drew up a clearer briefing pack for the panel which has helped reduce such confusion
  • We haven’t conducted an evaluation of the programme yet – it is very much a work in progress – and, as such, a fuller assessment of its successes and failures is yet to come 

Resources required

The resources for Step Out have come from existing capacity within the two units, as the programme meets strategic aims of both. The main input has been staff time to train and support students, with funding for Step Out projects being provided by the PEU. 

Top tips

1. Institutional recognition of volunteering

The VSU’s ability to collaborate on programmes such as Step Out stems from an institutional commitment to student volunteering. Student Volunteering is written into the corporate planning statement and the Teaching & Learning Strategy. The VSU is also represented on the Global Citizenship Steering Committee and Public Engagement Steering Committee.

2. Identify gaps and work across departments to meet them

Step Out arose because our two departments identified a mutual need (i.e. to reach out to postgraduate students) and how we could collaborate to meet that need. But more generally than this, Step Out is recognition of a common purpose between two quite different departments.

3. Think about different student audiences

Step Out has shown that there are groups that may not have responded to messages about volunteering, but can relate to the idea of public engagement. Similarly, some of our work on social enterprise suggests something similar – a student group who may not be interested in volunteering, but who are nonetheless interested in engaging with the broader community.

4. Be alert to new opportunities, be flexible

It can be quite easy to get stuck in one’s ‘silo’ – just be talking to other staff about their work, new opportunities can open up. Both the VSU and PEU have had to adapt their programmes and ways of working for Step Out.