Andrew Smith MP

On your side in Oxford East

Andrew praises student volunteers

Andrew secured a debate this morning in Westminster Hall to draw attention to the dedication of student volunteers and to to mark national student volunteering week, which was last week. You can watch a recording of the debate using the link below:

"As last week was the 15th year of national student volunteering week, I wanted to take the opportunity in this debate to celebrate student volunteering, to thank the many student volunteers in my constituency and to support action by universities and government to build on the enormous contribution which student volunteering makes. I thank both the Student Hubs Network Development Director Francis Wright and the Public Affairs Officer at NUS Alexander Lee for their very helpful briefings for this debate.

I have to say that the value of student volunteering doesn’t often get the credit and attention it deserves. I suppose that’s because good news is never as newsworthy as bad news. So you can bet that any problems wayward student behaviour causes will get a lot more attention than thousands of hours of voluntary commitment by students helping to make our communities better places.

In Oxford, our local community benefits from hundreds of dedicated student volunteers from Oxford and Oxford Brookes universities who give time every week to help meet a wide range of local needs.

The local Student Hub currently supports over 30 student-led volunteering projects working in Oxford to the benefit of local residents.

There are 281 Schools Plus volunteers tutoring in 12 local primary and secondary schools across some 26 projects, helping pupil achievement in areas ranging from literacy to music and GCSE Science.

In many cases of course the student volunteers are only a few years older than those they are helping, and it is a particularly powerful mentoring effect when student volunteers themselves from disadvantaged backgrounds can help raise the aspirations and attainment of pupils in poorer communities.

Another project, Branch Up, does that by running activity days for children referred by social services, supporting 30 young people, many of whom come from Oxford’s more deprived areas, through projects tackling educational and extracurricular disadvantage.

Intergenerational support features too through LinkAges, a student-led project that connects students with older people to tackle social isolation, with a particular strong relationship with Isis House, a care in Florence Park, where around 20 volunteers help to run activity sessions and away days. A number of LinkAges befrienders also support older people living alone.

East Oxford Community Centre is home to Project SOUP, a student-led initiative which runs micro-fundraising dinners for community projects by selling soup and bread that would have otherwise gone to waste. So far, over £1800 as been raised for local projects.

I have for a number of years been in touch with KEEN – kids enjoy exercise now – where students from Oxford Brookes and Oxford University – put on games for children and young people with special needs, providing real enjoyment for all participants and welcome respite for parents knowing that their children are socialising and having fun with others of a similar age. I was privileged to present the medals at the KEEN Olympics sports day last summer, and to see so much joy on the faces of all those taking part was really heart-warming.

That brings home an absolutely crucial aspect of student volunteering. There is a huge three-way benefit. Yes those being helped benefit from the activities the students are organising. The students themselves benefit enormously from the experience, in ways which will help their personal development and often their careers - and the local community and society gains from the social value and and benefits of the voluntary activity.

Let me also praise students’ voluntary political involvement too. I go out nearly every Sunday morning calling round the constituency,talking with residents, taking up their concerns and listening to their views on politics and much else. Along with other local activists and councillors, in term time we are always joined by students from Oxford University Labour Club or the Brookes Labour Society. Getting up relatively early on a Sunday morning to help with community representation is not a stereotypical student activity, but the thousands of hours those student volunteers have put in has enriched our politics locally, and I am sure the same is true of student volunteers for other political parties, those working on important campaigns like the forthcoming referendum, and the enormous amount of work which goes into campaigning on issues like equal rights, the environment and homelessness. Students care, and so many channel that caring into purposeful action, which makes a difference.

Now the experience of student volunteering we are fortunate to benefit from in Oxford is replicated in various ways through every university and college. Across the country there is many a food bank, many a faith group community initiative, many a charity which would founder without their student volunteers. As the NUS briefing for this debate points out, for the volunteering week last week alone over 16,000 students got involved in more than 500 events across 125 colleges and universities. More than 600,000 students will be involved in student societies, clubs and volunteering projects this year.

This student contribution is a huge win-win resource for our society, and it merits support at every opportunity. Student hubs provide invaluable facilities and networking. It must be more than 10 years ago now that I had those who came up with the student hub idea, another Oxford first, sitting in my advice surgery explaining the difference this could make in facilitating and expanding student volunteering, and how right they were. This is a success story, one which commands support across the political spectrum. It’s important that everything possible is done to sustain and build on this support. I’m timing my remarks to allow my Hon Friend for Sheffield Central to speak on points coming out of the All Party Group on Student Volunteering, but there are some points I would like to highlight to the Minister and others.

One is just what a resource student volunteering is for the role of universities and colleges in our communities. Every bit of investment they can make in helping to provide student hubs, and supporting funding and sponsorship for student volunteering reflects well on the role of higher education in the wider community as well as benefiting students’ education. It shouldn’t be seen as an add-on, but a core part of universities’ mission. The training and support which is available for those supervising student societies, volunteering and student projects is very much part of that.

It’s important that the government does all it can to support this, for example through the Cabinet Office and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills making clear to universities that investing in the provision of high quality social action opportunities for their students is expected.

Noting that within 4 years 35 percent of university applicants will be National Citizen Service graduates, we need to look at how NCS can help build bridges to the universities that have invested in community volunteering, for example by showcasing the best examples to graduates thinking of applying to university.

We need to create in the UK a culture where community service is valued, as it is much more in the US, as an indicator of future leadership and taken into account in evaluating applications to university.

We also need to ensure, through universities’ and student hubs’ support for student volunteering that the benefits of its experience do not disproportionately fall to those who are better off at university because their time is less constrained by the need to do part-time work.

Student volunteering does so much for our society. Thanks to all the students and those helping them who make that possible. Let’s do all we can together to make it an even greater success in the future. Everybody benefits."

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