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Working with student volunteers


Working with student volunteers can make your public engagement activity come alive for the people involved. The beneficiaries gain a unique perspective on the subject matter and the students gain the experience of interacting with the public, thereby increasing their knowledge and working understanding of the subject matter.


Student volunteers

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 beneficiaries, student volunteers provide

  • Different perspectives, from an academic member of staff
  • Role models
  • Knowledge and enthusiasm

Getting started

Even though student volunteers will be engaging in public engagement activity for free, the support they require incurs a cost. Volunteering activity isn't a cheap way of using students to promote the university, but an engaged, considered way of utilising the resources in your university for the benefit of all involved (the students and the public they engage with).

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 theire 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. The volunteers will also need to have some form of induction, which will depend on the activity. This generally includes information about the organisation and the volunteer’s role within it, Health and Safety issues, expenses, support, policies, etc.  
  • 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 (this will vary depending on the activity but it would cover risks to the volunteers themselves and members of the public engaged in the activity – more information in the links section) 
  • 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. If the students are going to be volunteering as a one off, a person responsible for the volunteers will need to be identified and be available. If the students are going to be volunteering over a period of time, a coaching/ mentoring support role could work well or a traditional Line Manager role could be equally appropriate, depending on the nature of the role. Whichever approach is taken, 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. This demonstrates a commitment to the volunteer and ensures they are aware of what is required in the role
  • Expenses: People's policies vary – but out of pocket expenses should be covered. It is not considerd good practice to give volunteers a voucher for their time, a token payment or any financial incentive as this could 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. There are certain requirements which will need to be met both in terms of suitability and in terms of type and amount of contact. Criminal Records Bureau 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. Please speak to the Senior Designated Safeguarding Children Officer at your university for more information concerning your University’s procedures in this very important area
  • Development and recognition: It is great if the student volunteers could be given opportunities to further develop skills and knowledge through courses or conferences. This is a great way of recognising the input of the volunteers, and also promoting the public engagement activity in question. 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 (speak to the Student Volunteering Unit with regard to what they do in this) or official thanks

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
  • Don’t duplicate – fit in with current provision, where applicable. Similar to above, but there may certain legal requirements in terms of HR procedures or Safeguarding Children requirements which need to be complied with
  • Refund out of pocket expenses only for volunteers, no additional payments – no not even a £10 gift voucher! This is an essential area that you need to ensure you are operating within the good practice guidance, and legal requirements around the provision of volunteer expenses. There is an information sheet in the links section for more information
  • 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 – the last thing you want is for somebody to complain that another student was favoured in your recruitment of volunteers due to a factor that could have been eradicated by utilising a fair recruitment procedure

External resources

  • Volunteering England have a range of online resources to help with different areas of volunteering, including legal issues and many can be downloaded offline for free and others are available to Volunteering England members. Volunteering England host National Student Volunteering Week. They also have a Further and Higher Education team who support volunteering in universities and colleges and can help point you in the right direction for support and advice.
  • Student Volunteering Network is a mail base for people who work with student volunteers. This peer to peer support network is a great way of getting direct advice from people in the sector. The National Committee works to support the national student volunteering sector, including organising conferences and regional meetings.
  • Value Volunteer Managers campaign
  • Institute for Volunteering Research
  • Health & Safety Executive – Managing Risks