How to revitalise student knowledge exchange with local communities

As institutions increasingly develop civic charters, the exchange of knowledge with the local community is becoming more important. We are also increasingly seeing amazing student-led engagement with businesses and charities as part of a more general trend toward authentic learning in higher education.

Queen Mary University of London, for example, is located in the heart of Tower Hamlets and other East London boroughs and is home to tens of thousands of individuals, diverse citizens and a wealth of small business owners, charities founders and the like.

But, although these universities may be located in the middle of an urban community, they are not always the easiest place to reach or feel a sense of belonging – especially if you are not a student or a member of staff.

Sometimes this helps to improve the reach of an overarching brand, so the university can make sure it targets the right audience and presents a clear path for engagement. As such, we have established SKETCH (Student Knowledge Exchange Through Community Centers) to host a range of knowledge sharing activities led by our students from different schools. SKETCH emulates a student-led professional services organization that provides community support by offering workshops, training, counseling clinics, consultancy-style projects, and investment services to local businesses, individuals, and community partners. Here are some tips based on our experience managing a SKETCH project.

Find best practices and partners for your canopy display

There are likely to be hotspots for significant student-led engagement and related innovations scattered around your institution. As a result of the applied, outward-oriented nature of their curricula, business school, law school, and professional teams are often great places to start when finding active student-led knowledge exchange programs.

Legal advice clinics and business advisory services are some of the most popular student-led external engagement programs. They have likely worked for years and built a good practice model, strong partner networks, great processes, additional learning and improvements over the years.

Putting all of the different best practices together in a matrix helps build a big picture of how different programs interact with students, clients, mentors, and other stakeholders. This is the “how”. But an interesting process of “why” can also begin, which some programs have not asked themselves for a long time. The institutional matrix approach provides a refreshing opportunity to be able to re-evaluate and benchmark with other programs and learn from each other across normal institutional boundaries.

In addition to the opportunity to provide new energy and appreciate the programs that are already running, it also helps to step back and ask some other comprehensive questions. What is missing? Is there anything else we could do differently or collaboratively, such as cross-disciplinary projects?

Create new initiatives to meet the evolving needs of society

In line with our values ​​of social justice and institutional sustainability, we discovered an opportunity to supplement student-led counseling clinics and consulting projects with an actual investment fund. A company that invests only in responsible local institutions founded by London students. The Queen Mary Social Venture Fund was established in August 2020. This fund is the UK’s first student-led venture capital fund to invest in student-led ‘startups for good’. In its second year, the program has fostered knowledge sharing by building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the local area, including students, startups, mentors, investors, and local government. The fund not only invests £30,000 in two student-led social projects annually, but also hosts a series of public engagement events and podcasts to encourage conversations about how to build a better future through entrepreneurship and impact investing.

Develop a “home style” presentation for students and the community

You want to be able to offer students clear opportunities to develop and enhance their learning, while also adding value to the community. In complex organisations, nothing exactly fits all needs, so there will be a need for constant negotiation, compromise, flexibility, reorganization, etc. The principles followed in the SKETCH experiment, for example, are as follows:

  1. Align your results directly with the university’s strategy and values
  2. Offer something that has not already been offered at the school or university level
  3. Add as much value as possible to your existing partnerships.

We used several standard mechanisms to support students in their engagement with external partners and to make a clear presentation to the partners themselves:

  • Clear structure – a schedule of activities for both parties, especially to anchor students and provide a starting point for proactivity and self-regulation
  • Student Training – A structured program on how to work with others, solve problems creatively, build and manage relationships with external partners, reflect on experience and learn.
  • Mentoring – Semi-structured sessions with industry mentors, with whom students also build relationships
  • Team composition and life cycle – Where possible, project teams have a multidisciplinary composition and work according to a defined term. For example, our Social Enterprise Fund immerses the team in a 12-month program
  • Healthy competition – the arrangement of team tasks in separate but similar areas, including incentives for those who engaged in the most purposeful work.

Finally, enjoy your early trial years. Being in the first two years of the new program means that you can really try new things and make some innovations in the great practice that is already there. Go for it!

Patrick McGurk is Reader in Management Practices and Associate Dean of Education, Joanne Zhang Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship, Fazan Ahmed Business Development Project Officer, and Olivia Reed as SKETCH Project Coordinator, all at Queen Mary University of London.

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