System shake-up needed to spark student social action

New research published by Student Hubs finds that action is needed in order to increase the number of young people engaging in social action projects. Adam O'Boyle, co-founder of Student Hubs and social enterprise restaurant Turl Street Kitchen, summarises the key findings in the Students, Volunteering and Social Action in the UK: History and Policies report. 

In order to fundamentally change a broken system we need to enable students to start driving social change while they are at university, so that they continue to be powerful and active citizens throughout their lives.

This is a crucial time for the student social action sector. After decades in which we’ve navigated cycles of funding and cuts, boom and bust, we are now entering a new era of investment in the youth social action movement.

For example, Step Up To Serve, a charitable organisation set up by HRH the Prince of Wales, was established in 2013 by request of the prime minister after government commissioned research found that more high quality social action opportunities needed to be available through formal educational settings and in other youth settings such as after school-clubs.

It has committed to double the number of young people involved with social action in the UK by 2020. Working with students at the top end of the initiative’s 10-20 age range, our activities at Student Hubs such as leadership training workshops, conferences and organising voluntary placements are tied up with this ambitious pledge.

To achieve such a positive level of youth social action is going to take serious commitment over the next six years. And no more so than in the higher education sector, where support for student volunteering and social action has been a tale of highs, lows and treading water.

Student Hubs inspires, connects and supports a network of 30,000 students to shape a better world. Over the last seven years, we have grown our student-led model in 10 universities – opening our latest Hub at Kingston University this September. Emboldened by the need for a serious shake-up of our sector, we have produced our own study of student social action – summarising the valuable lessons we’ve learned and outlining our manifesto for meeting the ambitious targets set for youth social action.

As a relatively young organisation, we're standing on the shoulders of giants. With decades of research and knowledge in existence, it is fascinating to look back and review the pieces of the puzzle which have fed into our culture and ethos, inspiring our model of student-leadership and critical engagement.

In 2010, the Bursting the Bubble: Students, Volunteering and the Community report stated: "The past decade saw significant policy and funding interventions, with substantial resources committed through HEFCE and then vinspired to support new initiatives, create new staff posts and support the movement's development. 

However, we’ve also learnt implementation is the curse of our sector. While there is much analysis, discussion and dissection of policy recommendations, it has done little to increase the proportion of student volunteers in the UK above more than 30%. This in comparison to the US, where figures estimate that between 45 and 70% of young people undertake some form of formal volunteering during their time at university. This level of student participation also positively correlates with higher proportions of adults who continue to volunteer throughout their lives.

We need to combine this level of participation with the critical engagement which will equip students to graduate as citizens of the world with a mission to change it for the better.

The work of Step Up To Serve and also the organisation Generation Change – which brings together leaders in the UK youth social action sector and is creating infrastructure to increase the quantity and quality of social action taken by young people –has created a set of quality principles which are to be the hallmark of all effective youth social action going forward. These will ensure that ‘double benefit’ becomes reality rather than rhetoric.

Double benefit is more than students clocking up community volunteering hours in exchange for coveted CV points. It is about giving students the opportunity to critically engage with the issues they are tackling through their action and to use this awareness to effect sustainable change for their causes and formulate their own social action identities for life. The double benefit model puts people and impact at the centre of all social action.

Our study is a call to action to entrepreneurialism, innovation and collaboration in our sector in order to reinvigorate a strong, sustainable and dynamic student volunteering and social action landscape which delivers this model of meaningful and impactful student social action.

Key recommendations in the Students, Volunteering and Social Action in the UK: History and Policies include:

  • Support for student social action should not be beholden to boom and bust. We need to hold a cross-sector review of how national support can be sustainable and reliable long into the future.
  • National infrastructure and frontline delivery organisations should exist to guide, support and incubate student leadership in social action. A tri-annual audit of the state of student-led volunteering should be conducted both locally and nationally.
  • A review should be conducted to look at barriers to the uptake of ‘service learning’ in the UK.
  • To encourage more students to volunteer, we need to appeal to their interests, skills and desire to make a difference. Even if enhanced employability can be a positive outcome of volunteering for individuals, these messages should not be overemphasised to increase levels of involvement.
  • A range of tailored approaches should continue to be supported. No one-size-fits-all model can be adopted but setting more common standards of impact measurement would help raise the quality of provision at different institutions


Student Hubs was founded in 2007 by four students from Oxford University with the aim of coordinating the social action, community and voluntary activities that were already happening in the University. It is now a national organisation with a membership of 30,000 students and works to promote the student social action agenda in a number of ways including its annual Emerge conference, talks and voluntary projects.

Photo credit: Student Hubs