All too often, the value of higher education is assessed solely in economic terms: how much money universities produce for the individual, for business and for the wider economy. Critical though these considerations are, they tend to ignore the huge public good that universities generate, both locally and nationally.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate the economic contribution universities make. Our recent report Driving Economic Growth did just this and the picture is impressive.
But let’s not forget the other ways universities make significant contributions to our society. Universities have a long and proud record of partnering with the charity sector. Volunteering, mentoring, knowledge transfer, and outreach activities are just a few of the areas where universities and charities work together successfully.
The commitment from universities and student unions to charitable activities is undeniable. Every year 67,000 students volunteer, taking part in conservation work, helping the elderly, supporting people with disabilities and working with children.
But there is a cloud hanging over universities’ charitable work. In these straitened economic times, the need to put a monetary value on activities is seen as paramount. The issue with charitable work is that it can be difficult to calculate its worth in pounds and pence. This can lead people to assume that its value is marginal, when it is far from it. Now more than ever, those of us working in higher education and the Third sector need to guard against the possibility that these activities get overlooked, or worse, scaled down because of the lack of evidence on their contribution.
So far, higher education has struggled to put a monetary value on universities’ contribution to society more generally. But the situation is improving. Universities UK released a report last summer that was the first of its kind and attempted to calculate precisely this. The figures are again impressive. Degrees of Value showed that universities bring huge ‘social’ returns for individuals who attend, estimating that this amounts to the value of £212 million from the 1.9 million current undergraduate students and a total of £1.31 billion for all 11.8 million graduates in the UK.
Another positive development is the government’s announcement that allows charities and universities to share services without charging each other VAT. This is a fantastic move in the right direction, meaning that charities and universities will be able to work more effectively to share costs and resources, and most importantly, increase their social value.
But the focus now needs to be on doing more to record and celebrate the collaborative work of the university and charity sector. We should also get better at sharing the lessons from success stories.
Universities UK and National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and National Union of Students (NUS) will be holding a conference to move the debate on. We will focus on how higher education and charities can better work together and we hope that it will provide a platform for discussing how this work can be taken forward.
In the meantime, to start off the converstation here is some advice from one university’s volunteering department about how they and local charities build constructive relationships.
If you have any tips, do’s and don’ts that you want to share, do let us know by posting below!
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Partnerships – some advice
So what exactly are the secrets to a long and successful partnership?
According to Alex Britton of Kingston University’s volunteering department, many charities are aware of the benefits that students bring to their organisation: they are enthusiastic, with fresh ideas and specific skills. Making initial contact is rarely a problem. The next step relies on expectation management: ensuring that organisations have an accurate picture of what a modern student can reasonably offer in terms of time and experience, and that this fits with the students’ needs, skills and aspirations.
Sometimes this can mean working with a charity to adjust a role so that a student can successfully fill it. For example, Kingston’s local Samaritans branch is willing to allow students to do more shifts during term time and fewer during assessment periods. And it encourages students to transfer to their home branch when they go home for the long summer vacation.
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‘Working together: How higher education and charities can deliver social impact’ will take place at Universities UK, Woburn House, Tavistock Sq, London W1CH 9HQ, 27 March 2012, 9.30am – 4.30pm.
Follow #UniConf to stay up-to-date with the conference.