Taking stock 2022: Student-Community Service Learning

The NCCPE and University of Westminster are currently undertaking a collaborative research project to better understand how universities engage with communities through learning and teaching. Find out more about this work and why it matters.

By Andy Pitchford, Head of the Centre for Education and Teaching Innovation, University of Westminster

How can universities support the desire of students to make a positive difference in local communities? To what extent can these solutions also bring together the functions of research, knowledge exchange, and learning and teaching in ways that increase both the effectiveness and efficiencies of the university as a whole?

Over the past decade, there has been a groundswell of universities reconnecting with their Civic purpose and embedding a commitment to being a force for social good at the heart of their strategy. Whether it is social responsibility, public good, transforming lives or making a difference, we have never before seen such commitments to society and social change across the sector.

Yet, to date, the focus in the UK has been largely orientated around research and the impact it can generate through public engagement, knowledge exchange and, to a lesser extent, facilities, procurement and employment practices. The potential contribution of students via the vehicle of education goes, largely, under the radar.

So, we at the University of Westminster have partnered with the NCCPE to explore ways in which communities and students are working together through teaching and learning. Are there imaginative ways that students could engage in learning work with local communities and third-sector organisations -  satisfying their desire to contribute to social change and justice, while simultaneously developing the cognitive and non-cognitive capacities of learners? Can these modes or vehicles sit right at the heart of the institutional offer, carrying credit and being a respected and credible feature of our educational proposition? 

We would like to invite you to complete our short survey, to share examples of modules and courses which actively facilitate student learning in partnership with communities, audiences, and organisations external to the university.

Complete the survey and share your examples

We're looking for work that you find interesting or are particularly proud of. We do not want to restrict the examples that we receive but want to give an indication of the type of work we've come across so far that interests us. For example:

In addition to these modules, we're also picking up how universities embed engagement in the curriculum. For example, some institutions have appointed senior leaders to champion this area of work, and others have developed multi-discipline modules that students can opt into as a part of their degree. 

In terms of our history and practice, the University of Westminster has long been providing education to the working people of London. We started out as London’s first Polytechnic in 1838, and the University has been committed to an approach which reduces inequality and promotes inclusion since then. Although the language and emphasis may have shifted slightly over the years, a concern for social justice has always been a key feature of the institution’s mission and culture. 

Today, Westminster prides itself on providing a transformational experience for its students, many of whom come from disadvantaged communities across Greater London. An education which is largely transmissive and sedentary, where learners sit, listen and regurgitate, will not generate the assets that our students need to be confident, creative, critical thinkers, or to be competitive in the future labour market. We need to facilitate different and more disruptive modes of learning if students are to be able to access the capabilities, capital and access to powerful knowledge that they require.

It is evident that many students want to be more than mere consumers of knowledge. The waiting lists for volunteering opportunities that we are currently experiencing, and the frequent calls from students to find ways to apply their knowledge, to have agency and to ‘make a difference’, are evidence of demand for different modes of learning.

There is a sense that levels of interest in these opportunities are increasing in the light of the environmental crisis and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matters movement, but equally we know that a proportion of students bring with them significant experience and expertise in political action and community development. Many of our students will have positions of responsibility or care in their family or community settings, others will be making active contributions to their neighbourhoods on a more occasional level.

These rising expectations from students, coupled with our own reflections about the nature, mission and geographic position of our University are leading us to explore the different ways in which students might, as part of their accredited studies, have a positive impact on communities in the locality of the University, or on their own community – which may be some distance from the campus where they study.

Westminster’s campuses occupy significant, and some listed, spaces in the West End of London, but also in Harrow which is further to the northwest of Greater London. In the close proximity of each campus there are communities in need, and third sector organisations serving these groups and neighbourhoods in various ways. Aligning the needs of these external stakeholders, with potential learning and developmental opportunities for students, would appear - on the surface at least - to be a sensible step for us to take.

Many of our active researchers are already embedded in these places and communities, developing and applying their knowledge through sophisticated partnerships with local agencies and groups. These relationships also foster knowledge exchange, and although the University is only at the very early stages of understanding these connections through the lens of a Public and Community Engagement Strategy, it is clear that the tentacles of the institution stretch far down the backstreets, alleys and mews of Central London. As yet, students are not part of these journeys, they rarely join research teams in these settings, and, despite our commitment to and expertise in student partnership, they are rarely contributors to these positive stories of impact.

We are familiar with some possible solutions to this conundrum. The continuing success of service learning, in its various forms, at institutions across the UK points to it as one possible mode that Westminster can explore further. It also seems to us that there may be others that could be considered and that the dimensions of place, student numbers, levels, empowerment and intent could provide a framework within which we could imagine new approaches.

However, we are also conscious that others will be further ahead in their thinking, and that our imaginations have become rather stunted after an exhausting few years since Covid first struck. We are therefore launching this survey in the hope that we can identify examples of established practice, and that, while the results of this can help to inform our journey, we can also use them to share ideas and developments more widely.

Ultimately, we hope to find ways of designing learning for undergraduate and postgraduate students that enable them to develop positive, mutually beneficial relationships with local communities and organisations - enabling them to fulfil their desire to contribute to social justice, while developing their own capabilities and credentials.

At the same time, we hope that some solutions will enable us to bring closer together some of those functions of the University that can otherwise seem so disconnected – the realms of outreach, marketing, knowledge exchange and the curriculum for example – in ways that make the institution feel more like a single entity, rather than a constellation of competing interests.

For further information about this project and how your submissions to the survey will be used, please download our Project Briefing.

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