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Student Volunteering

Volume 606: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered student volunteering.

It is good to have you in charge of this debate, Mr Evans.

As last week was the 15th year of National Student Volunteering Week, I am taking 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 the Government to build on the enormous contribution that student volunteering makes. I thank both the network development director at Student Hubs, Francis Wright, and the public affairs officer at the National Union of Students, Alexander Lee, for their very helpful briefings.

The value of student volunteering does not often get the credit or attention that it deserves. I suppose that is because good news is never as newsworthy as bad news. So we can bet that any problems that wayward student behaviour causes will get a lot more attention than the many thousands of hours of voluntary commitment by students who are 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 to meet a wide range of local needs. The local student hub currently supports over 30 student-led volunteering projects in Oxford that benefit 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 to GCSE science. In many cases, of course, the student volunteers are only a few years older than those they are helping, and there is a particularly powerful mentoring effect when student volunteers who themselves come from disadvantaged backgrounds help to 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. It supports 30 young people, many of whom come from Oxford’s more deprived areas, through projects that tackle educational and extracurricular disadvantage.

Intergenerational support features too, through LinkAges, a student-led project that connects students with older people to tackle social isolation. LinkAges has a particularly strong relationship with Isis House, a care home in Florence Park, where around 20 volunteers help to run activity sessions and away-days. A number of LinkAges befrienders also support older people who live alone. And East Oxford Community Centre is home to Project Soup, a student-led initiative that runs micro-fundraising dinners for community projects by selling soup and bread that would otherwise have gone to waste. So far, over £1,800 has been raised there for local projects.

For a number of years, I have been in touch with KEEN—Kids Enjoy Exercise Now—whereby students from Oxford Brookes and Oxford Universities put on games and other activities for children and young people with special needs, providing real enjoyment for all participants and welcome respite for parents who know 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 project brings home an absolutely crucial aspect of student volunteering, namely that there is a huge three-way benefit. Of course, those being helped benefit from the activities that the students organise; the students themselves benefit enormously from the experience, in ways that will help their personal development and often their careers; and the local community and society gains from the social value and benefits of the voluntary activity.

I must also praise students’ voluntary political involvement. I go out nearly every Sunday morning, calling round the constituency, talking with residents and taking up their concerns, and listening to their views on politics and much else. Along with other local activists and councillors, in term-time I am always joined by students from Oxford University Labour Club or the Brookes Union Labour society. Getting up relatively early on a Sunday morning to help with community representation is not perhaps a stereotypical student activity, but the thousands of hours that 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 such as the forthcoming referendum, and those involved in the enormous amount of work that goes into campaigning on issues such as equal rights, the environment and homelessness. Students care, and many of them channel that caring into purposeful action that makes a difference.

The experience of student volunteering that we are fortunate to benefit from in Oxford is replicated in various ways in every university and college. Across the country, there is many a food bank, many a faith group community initiative and many a charity that would founder without its student volunteers. As the NUS briefing for this debate points out, last week alone—the volunteering week—more than 16,000 students got involved in over 500 events across 125 colleges and universities. One way or another, more than 600,000 students will be involved in student societies, clubs and volunteering projects this year. That student contribution is a huge win-win resource for our society and merits support at every opportunity.

Student hubs provide invaluable facilities and networking. It must be more than 10 years ago now that those who came up with the student hubs idea—another Oxford first—were sitting in my advice surgery and explaining the difference that it could make in facilitating and expanding student volunteering, and how right they were. This is a success story, and one that commands support across the political spectrum. It is important that everything possible is done to sustain and build on that support.

I am timing my remarks to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) to speak on points coming out of the all-party group on students, but there are some points that I will highlight to the Minister and others.

The first is to stress what a resource student volunteering is for the role of universities and colleges in our communities. Every bit of investment that they can make in helping to provide student hubs, and in 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. Therefore, volunteering should be seen not as an add-on but as a core part of universities’ mission.

The training and support that is available for those supervising student societies, volunteering and student projects is very much part of that process. It is important that the Government do all they can to support volunteering, for example by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills making it clear to universities that investing in the provision of high-quality social action opportunities for their students is something that is expected of them.

Within four years, 35% of university applicants will be National Citizen Service graduates, so we need to consider how NCS can help to build bridges to the universities that have invested in community volunteering, for example by showcasing the best examples of such volunteering to people who are thinking of applying to university. We need to create a culture in the UK where community service is valued—it is much more valued in the US—as an indicator of future leadership potential and is taken into account in evaluating applications to university. We also need to ensure, through the support of universities and student hubs for volunteering, that the benefits of volunteering 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. The benefits should be accessible and available for everyone. Student volunteering does so much for our society. Let us thank all the students and all those helping them who make that possible. Let us do everything we can together to make it an even greater success in the future, because everybody benefits.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) for providing me with the opportunity to add to his comments. I echo them, because the landscape that he paints of volunteering opportunities and activity in Oxford is replicated in every town and city across the country that benefits from universities and colleges.

I speak as the Member with the highest number of students of any UK constituency. As of last week, I am also the representative of the student volunteer of the year, and I congratulate Liam Rodgers. He is a creative writing student at Sheffield Hallam University. He is the leader and founder of UpScribe, a project that helps homeless people to express themselves through creative writing, increasing their confidence and ability to work with others, as well as reintegrating them into society. That project not only demonstrates the breadth of student volunteering, but the creativity and innovation that students bring alongside traditional volunteering opportunities. Liam’s is a great good news story, and there are plenty like it across the country.

We should put on record our thanks, as my right hon. Friend has, to the almost one in three students who volunteer while they are at university and to the growing numbers in further education colleges who do so, too. Last Tuesday, to mark Student Volunteering Week we held a meeting of the all-party group on students, which I chair. That meeting was not only to celebrate that activity, but to look at the challenges.

As my right hon. Friend said, volunteering is a win-win. Local communities benefit hugely from the thousands of students involved in every town and city where they are engaged, and that is the main motivator for students. Four in five students responding to an NUS survey said that it was why they got involved in volunteering, but they also benefit, developing skills and improving their employability. We all know that in a competitive graduate market employers are increasingly looking for graduates-plus. Employers do not simply want a good degree, but experience and skills, too, and volunteering helps facilitate that. It is therefore doubly important that volunteering opportunities are available to everyone.

A joint report by Universities UK and the National Union of Students found that not having enough time is cited by students as the main reason why they are unable to volunteer or to volunteer as much as they would wish. The main pressure on time, apart from academic work, is paid employment. Research shows that 77% of students work to help fund their studies. The pressure to earn while studying is increasing with the cost of university. I worry that that pressure will increase further for the poorest students with the abolition of maintenance grants. If we limit volunteering to those who do not have to take paid employment to see themselves through university, we tilt the playing field—it is already tilted towards those with advantages—even further in their favour and in the wrong direction. We would be giving extra opportunities to those who already have an edge in the graduate market, while those from lower income families risk falling further behind. I am keen to get the Minister’s views on how we can ensure that volunteering opportunities are available to all, so that in future Student Volunteering Weeks we can celebrate moving from the basis of strength that we have now to having even more people engaged with an even greater impact on our communities.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, I think for the first time. May I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing today’s debate? This is an important topic, as he laid out in his comments. I know what a strong advocate he is for student social action. In some ways, how could he be anything else, representing the constituency that he does? Also, many years ago he went to Reading School in my constituency. It is a top-performing academic school, but it is keen on the wider individual and ensuring that young people give something back to society for the great education they get at that school. I understand where his core values come from on this particular subject.

I am delighted to reiterate the Government’s commitment to encouraging young people to get involved in all forms of social action. I will take “student” in its wider context, and not just talk about university students, who we have heard a lot about in the comments so far. Youth social action is close to my heart, so I am delighted to be the Minister leading on this agenda for the Government. We want to see all young people having the opportunity to take part in social action and to go on to form what should be a lifelong habit—it should not just be for a few years when they are young; the habit should be embedded so that all through their life they are always giving something back to their communities. One of the ways that we as the Government want to achieve that is through the National Citizen Service. More than 200,000 young people have taken part in NCS since 2011, and the NCS Trust estimates that graduates have delivered more than 8 million hours of volunteering time already. Consecutive independent evaluations demonstrate that NCS delivers more confident, capable and engaged young people, and it continues to represent impressive value for money.

I want to expand the opportunity to every young person who wants a place on an NCS scheme, making it a rite of passage that young people look forward to. In January, the Prime Minister set out his ambition that 60% of all 16-year-olds participate in NCS by 2021. To achieve that, we have committed more than £1 billion of funding over the next four years to grow the programme to 360,000 places by 2020. NCS will become the largest programme of its kind in Europe. I am particularly proud of that, and all the young people who have been and will be involved should be, too.

We have already seen NCS graduates go on to achieve great things in continuing their social action journey. One such NCS graduate is now part of the Points of Light team at the Cabinet Office. He works as part of a small team identifying outstanding volunteers right across the country to receive recognition directly from the Prime Minister for their work. NCS graduates from across the UK are celebrating all things social action this Saturday. It is a chance for them to showcase their social action activity and to promote the causes close to their hearts. NCS is all about giving young people the tools, opportunities and respect to achieve amazing things in their community, so the NCS social action day will be a fantastic way to do that.

NCS is not the limit of our ambition in government. We believe in creating a social action journey pre and post-NCS. We want to encourage all forms of youth social action, and the Government are committed to continuing our support of Step Up to Serve’s #iwill campaign. That campaign is supported by all parties in the House of Commons. It aims to increase the number of 10 to 20-year-olds taking part in youth social action by 50% by 2020, because we recognise the importance of social action for young people. We know that participation not only develops vital skills for life and work, but helps young people to feel connected to the communities in which they live. Participation in NCS and Step Up to Serve helps to break down social barriers and adds to social cohesion in our communities. It enables young people to meet and work with others from different walks of life.

As part of the Government’s continued commitment to all forms of youth social action, the Cabinet Office has invested more than £1 million to grow youth social action opportunities across England, which has been generously matched by the Pears Foundation and the UK Community Foundations. The national fund is working with nine successful applicants to increase opportunities for young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or rural areas. The local fund concentrates on optimising opportunities in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge: areas previously identified as having low youth social action participation rates.

We have also seen other fantastic results through funding social action. Through our uniformed youth social action fund, Youth United has created 20,000 new places for young people to join groups in disadvantaged communities across the UK, and 90% of the units created are still running with no further funding from Government, which is a great example of sustainability and a really fantastic result, so I congratulate Youth United on doing that.

Part of the fund is to support innovative approaches to reaching the most hard-to-reach young people in our communities. The Boys Brigade has struggled to recruit adult volunteers in some of its more rural locations owing to the timings of meetings, but what is so great about this story is how recruiting NCS graduates as volunteers is really showing how this very natural social action journey can fit together between NCS and other organisations. This part of the uniformed fund is also enabling the Scout Association to be more accessible to young people with disabilities; the Woodcraft Folk to meet refugees and other young people with English as a second language; and the Volunteer Police Cadets to run a pilot programme working with young offenders.

Reports will be published later this year in relation to the fund, and I am sure everyone here will agree that this will be an exciting piece of research that we can learn from. It really shows the diverse range of social action projects that young people get involved in, and the Government are committed to supporting that journey.

I agree with what the Minister is saying in this happily consensual debate. Has he had or will he have discussions with the Minister for Universities and Science, his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), to ensure that every opportunity is taken to make the most of the potential to link together the broader social action initiatives he is describing with the opportunities that can be available through universities and colleges, which need to be encouraged by those universities?

Yes, of course. I am in discussions with not only the Minister responsible for higher education but with the Minister responsible for apprenticeships, the Minister for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), as well. We want to ensure that we have joined-up Government and that the social action journey continues through life and gives every young person the opportunity to take part in things that they want to do in their local community. I have seen at first hand the great work being done by young volunteers in a variety of sectors and communities. I was particularly impressed to see the huge contribution that young people can make in the health and social care sector, for example. I visited the Royal Free young volunteers programme, where young volunteers supported patients, staff and visitors primarily in two roles: as satellite navigation guides around the hospital and as mealtime experience volunteers. The young people I spoke to aspired to have a wide impact in society, beyond the hospital, to inspire positive engagement throughout their communities. It was clear to see that those volunteers brought energy, enthusiasm and heart to everybody they interacted with.

The latest youth social action survey demonstrated that 42% of young people between the age of 10 and 20 years old have participated in meaningful social action in the past year. This demonstrates that young people have a real appetite to play their part. In January this year we published the outcome of a highly significant new study conducted by the behavioural insights team, which demonstrated a link between social action and improved educational attainment as well as enhanced employability skills, which is something that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned in his comments. The study indicated that people who engaged in volunteering were up to three times more likely to get invited for a job interview than people who did not volunteer.

The Government are committed to supporting young people, giving them the power and opportunity to play a real part in their community and to build important skills for life. I am keen that the habit remains through adult life. The Government also support young people to have a say in the community and voice their opinions on issues that are important to them. Some of this work is delivered through a grant to the British Youth Council for youth voice activities. Last year, as I am sure hon. Members are aware, the BYC’s Make Your Mark ballot, the largest annual ballot of young people’s views, culminated in a record-breaking 970,000 votes cast towards key topics for young people to focus on. That is a remarkable achievement that would not have been possible without all those young people actively getting involved. That sum of nearly 1 million votes means that 16.5% of the nation’s 11 to 18-year-olds had their say. That is a great demonstration of young people’s interest, and a great vehicle for the collective voice of young people to be heard.

It is therefore even more important that we listen to the voice of young people who can bring a fresh perspective and innovative ideas to many of the challenges that we face. At the annual sitting of BYC’s Youth Parliament in November, I was impressed by the level of commitment and enthusiasm shown by the members of the Youth Parliament who want to make a positive change in society. It was truly impressive to watch young people debating important issues such as mental health and the living wage. Colleagues in Parliament have frequently expressed support for the UK Youth Parliament. As hon. Members may be aware, in June 2015 Parliament resolved that the UKYP should continue to use the House of Commons Chamber for its annual debate for the remainder of the current parliamentary term until 2020. In light of that, I decided to offer BYC a grant agreement to support it to deliver its youth voice activities for the remainder of the Parliament.

Last week we celebrated, as the right hon. Member for Oxford East said, the 15th anniversary of Student Volunteering Week. Delivered in partnership between student hubs, the National Union of Students and the student volunteering network, the week is used to discuss the challenges and opportunities in student volunteering. I had the pleasure of being involved in the celebration event where Liam Rodgers, a constituent of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, was presented with the student volunteer of the year award. As the hon. Gentleman said, Liam founded UpScribe, a writing project for homeless people to express themselves through creative writing. Liam led on the creation and publication of a book created by people who participated in the project, many of whom are now published writers. It was impressive to hear that Liam had donated a third of his £1,000 award to a fellow shortlisted student of the year volunteer. This demonstrated his commitment to the widest elements of youth social action.

During Student Volunteering Week, I also visited one of the successful organisations under the national youth social action fund. Through the fund, an organisation called Whole Education plans to use its network of schools across the country to work with students who implement their own community projects and embed the culture of social action in their schools. I spent time with a small group of young volunteers who were developing an online platform for students to share their youth-led social action ideas, as well as designing a virtual social action badge, which I look forward to seeing later this week. I want to encourage more universities to harness the power and positive outcomes of student volunteering. I am keen to explore how to engage more vice-chancellors to support the growth of student volunteering, and I will speak to my colleague in higher education to see how we can do that. There is a great deal to do if we are to make social action a part of life for 10 to 20-year-olds under this Government, but I am firmly committed to making that a reality.

I will end by thanking all the individuals and organisations that support youth social action for their commitment and dedication. I also extend my thanks again to the right hon. Member for Oxford East for initiating this debate today.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.