Research commissioned by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) was conducted by Dr Eric Jensen at the University of Warwick working with Nicola Buckley of the University of Cambridge and explores the role of university students in festival-based public engagement. The report was launched 12 July 2011 at a well-attended event at the University of Cambridge.
Results show that the remarkable growth and increasing popularity of science and arts festivals around Britain is only possible with the help of an army of willing, but unpaid university student volunteers. The research reveals that despite the lack of remuneration, 92% of students surveyed say that they would volunteer again and 75% believe that the skills and experience they got from volunteering will benefit them in their future careers.
The findings show that UK universities are active supporters of science and arts festivals for the public. Festival organisers reported that the enthusiasm and expertise of volunteering students and staff comprised the most valuable aspect of engaging with universities in delivering their festivals.
Two-thirds of festival organisers work with universities and more than half (56%) are given access to university premises free of charge. For 60% of festival-organisers the benefit of working with a university includes access to a wide range of expert speakers and artists, and for the majority (69%), the primary benefit is access to human resource in the form of unpaid student volunteers.
The majority (55%) of festivals surveyed operated with just five paid members of staff. Seventy-five percent of the jobs performed by student volunteers provided some interaction with the public such as meeting and greeting, manning stands or discussing science, art and other topics with publics.
Sophie Duncan, Deputy Director, NCCPE said: “Festivals are an excellent introduction to public engagement for university students and offer experiences and skills that will benefit them throughout their careers. The majority of volunteers in our sample are post-graduate students, some of whom will go on to be researchers. With impact now part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the value of publicly-funded universities in the spotlight, it is increasingly important for academics as well as universities to embrace public engagement. Hopefully what we are witnessing is a new generation of researchers, lecturers and future vice-chancellors that are introduced to public engagement early in their careers and remain open and enthusiastic about the mutual benefits it can bring.”
The most challenging aspect of using student volunteers in festivals is the high level of training required. A number of festival organisers have had to adjust their expectations of student volunteers’ prior practical knowledge, and now provide training at a fundamental level.
Lead researcher Dr Eric Jensen at the University of Warwick commented: “It is important for both universities and funding bodies to understand that the provision of volunteering opportunities within festivals is resource-intensive. Despite how it might seem, student volunteers are not free labour. If they are to be used most effectively staff time, training and resources are required and these activities require funding and careful planning and attention.”
The research report can be accessed here.