How student volunteering is leading the way

Simon Blake OBE is chief executive of National Union of Students (NUS). Prior to NUS, Simon was chief executive of Brook, the young people’s sexual health charity; and assistant director at National Children’s Bureau. He is also deputy chair of Stonewall.

megan-dunnMegan Dunn is currently serving as the 57th president of the National Union of Students. She is a former president of Aberdeen University Students’ Association and also vice president of education at Aberdeen.


It’s becoming increasingly obvious that our ancestors’ actions have created problems. Current and future generations have a responsibility to solve these environmental, social and economic challenges we face – which may seem unfair, but is an unavoidable truth.

A little less conversation, a little more action

The inspiring thing is that today’s students want to face up to this responsibility. Over the past five years, 80% of all students across the UK have consistently reported that they want their university to actively incorporate and promote sustainability (PDF, 764KB) and over two-thirds believe that sustainable development should be incorporated into all university courses.

Even more exciting is the fact that this drive is coming from a proactive group with a strong conscience (PDF, 1.56MB). Over 60% of students volunteer through their university and 95% of these are motivated by a desire to improve things or help people. In fact, students are so driven that two-thirds of them would be willing to take a £1,000 pay cut (PDF, 764KB) on their graduate starting salary to work for a company with a positive social and environmental record!

A barrier for students

Students’ main barrier to volunteering is that their course demands limit their time. As fees increase, lecturers and course leaders seem to be packing more and more into a degree in order to make it worth the students’ effort and eventual debt. This means that students have less and less free time in which to do this work and make a difference.

At NUS our work is shaped by the students we represent and responds to the issues they raise. This means we have a responsibility to work on sustainability and to ensure that students can still have an impact on the big issues that they care about.

One in ten of the current world leaders have studied in the UK so it is clear that the UK higher education system has a particular role in teaching about sustainability.

Dissertations for Good

We are currently working on several sustainability projects, both in our dedicated Department for Sustainability and through our clothing company Epona, which offers alternative, ethical, Fairtrade clothing.

One of our next steps is to use the driving force of students to push sustainability onto the curriculum and allow them to make a difference as part of their course. Dissertations for Good partners students and organisations to develop and complete projects in sustainability.

Crucially, Dissertations for Good gives students the opportunity to improve things and help people as part of their degree, instead of in their diminishing free time. Meanwhile, the organisation can conduct research that otherwise may not be possible.

Already, students have done so much through Dissertations for Good. Plymouth University students have investigated factors affecting food access in hard-to-reach populations across the region.

At University College London, a student is evaluating how activism has affected the housing movement in Madrid and what we can learn. Students from the University of West London are even helping CIBSE to investigate the usefulness of their weather data in relation to building performance.

The possibilities are endless – and with over 2.3 million students in higher education in the UK, the potential scale is massive.

Following the example

The most important thing for our planet now is to stop talking and start doing. It is exciting that our future leaders are already leading the way, but current leaders need to follow their example.

These students are taking real and tangible actions that have an impact – they aren’t just talking about their values, they are living them.


New adventures in social action

Find out more about different approaches to social action and volunteering in our Annual Conference workshop where you can also see how to make initiatives work in your organisation.

Find out more about NCVO Annual Conference 2016


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