David Harper, Principal of Van Mildert College, Durham University, UK
Prior to my arrival three years ago in Durham, I had studied and worked in six European universities and currently hold visiting appointments in two others. None of them are collegiate organisations but of course provide a high-quality academic education with many extra-curricular opportunities. It became very clear, from my hitherto rather narrow perspective, that the collegiate system supports not only a nest of both developing and some mature scholars, as it should, but more importantly hosts model transitional communities between school and the work place. Each College is a microcosm of reality where students can pursue, outside their studies, their own interests in classical or contemporary music, the fine and performing arts and sports or commit to a range of committee and leadership activities.
A particular challenge, however, for any world-class university is its engagement with, and relationship to, a very different hinterland. Additional economic prosperity through consumption and employment is often taken for granted, whereas inconvenience to a resident population by vibrant student cohorts is always going to provide an active focus of debate. In a region such as County Durham where, given the effects of deindustrialisation and associated unemployment (exemplifying the two-nations Thatcherite politics of the latter part of the 20th century), the contrast between Town and Gown could not be greater. One very concrete form of engagement involves outreach and volunteering in the surrounding community, one which requires no particular talent but some leadership and organisation skills and a commitment and willingness to help others.
A recent survey of such activities across the Durham Colleges has indicated increasing numbers of students participating in a wide range of projects at the college level. This aspect of college life has proved particularly popular and rewarding in my own college, Van Mildert. Over the last 10 or so years, the College has developed and expanded five outreach projects: Community Visiting Scheme (CVS), Carers’ Respite Committee (CRC), Primary School Project (PSP), Prison Project (VMPP) and the Young Person’s Project (YPP) while strongly supporting Durham University Charities’ Committee (DUCK) and Student Community Action (SCA).
In any one year, up to 200 students are involved in these projects. Why are these opportunities so eagerly exploited in the current economic and social climate? There is of course an acute need for them in the community but also students with a real social conscience have a unique opportunity to engage and make a difference. The collegiate system in many respects is fertile ground to grow such projects and County Durham a receptive partner.
How does it work? Colleges can establish a particular ethos, for example social responsibility, demonstrate a tradition in this area, build a supporting infra-structure, develop key and lasting contacts in the community and finally encourage and support fund-raising strategies. College communities are relatively small and can respond effectively and rapidly to challenges. The projects are student led, potential candidates are rigorously interviewed and there is often competition for places. Outreach becomes very much part of the fabric of the college community with many of the students and members of the Senior Common Room having some involvement in the programmes, if only supporting some of the many fund-raising events and the very popular outreach formal dinners. In short it is an inclusive pan-college activity.
College-level outreach and volunteering can make a real difference to the lives of its partners; it provides too a valuable additional dimension to the student experience of a transitional community, but moreover has the potential to inform and influence the social values of new, well-educated generations of already privileged citizens of our islands. That can’t be a bad thing.