Glasgow Caledonian University

Staff present at a project meeting

Helping students and universities connect with their local communities

Scottish students have been helping their university forge better links with its local community thanks to Erasmus+ funding.

Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) set up the Strategy for Change project, alongside partner higher education institutions from Ireland, Portugal, the Netherlands and Sweden, with the backing of a €365,000 grant from the programme.

With social innovation - new ideas that meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations - at its heart, the three-year initiative established a formalised transnational training programme to teach students how to carry out effective projects in their local communities.

“Universities have an awful lot of resources and knowledge to do good but there’s a gap in them actually connecting with their communities and transferring that knowledge,” said project coordinator Rose Cawood.

It was felt that this was very much the case at GCU and the chance to learn from partner universities with better local links was a key factor in the project.

“For example, our partner University of Aveiro, based in Portugal, have very strong links with their community," she said. "But the town and the local area is not so large.

A3 paper showing students' project plan

“I think, in some way, that makes it easier to connect with the local community than in larger cities like Dublin and Glasgow.”

Networking and collaboration

Training was developed and delivered to students at each partner institution, introducing them to social innovation and how to manage projects and build community engagement, which they in turn passed on to their peers.

Each partner identified specific needs, based on the character and the networks of their university, and tailored the training appropriately with students ultimately delivering projects which addressed issues specific to their local communities.

They were encouraged to work in small teams and given the autonomy to go out and develop their projects themselves, from start to end point.

“The students did quite a bit of independent working that they might not have had much opportunity to do, to the same extent, either in coursework or volunteering on campus," said Rose.

It’s all about how we can learn from each other and what we can learn from people in different countries and different backgrounds. I think that’s completely unique to Erasmus+ and one of the real strengths of the programme.

A range of IT tools were also developed, and were designed to be easy-to-use and accessible to all students, including an online information and collaboration space.

“It’s a platform where students can start their project and it will be visible to other participants doing similar projects," said Rose.

“They can interact with each other, send messages or documents and showcase what they’re doing. They found it quite a useful tool to be able to look for lessons learned or to speak to other students.”

Stronger development and connections

As well as benefitting the communities helped by the projects, participation in Strategy for Change also had a considerable positive impact for the students and universities involved.

GCU noted that students had developed vital skills such as leadership, project management, cultural understanding, resilience and strategic thinking. All of which can help boost learners’ employability once they graduate.

“To be in a work setting where you can do presentations and public speaking isn’t something students were always taught or maybe not given the opportunity to practice as much as they’ve been able to do in this project," said Rose.

“Often it takes a long time to work your way up to a management position once you have graduated from university. If you have had that opportunity as a student to develop those skills already, to some extent, it's really valuable in terms of employability.”

Social innovation is now a stronger focus for both the university and its students, with GCU's own Students’ Association also being involved in the partnership.

“The project’s been really successful in bringing social innovation to the forefront of the student population’s minds. There’s now a culture of students becoming very interested and really wanting to be very involved.

“GCU’s Students’ Association have very much got social innovation in the centre of their strategy now, encouraging the students to get involved. It is really positive for the university and student population that this has become a core strategy and mission.”

While communities are ever dynamic and changing, engagement is a continuous process. However, with Erasmus+ funding, Rose feels GCU has certainly strengthened its link with the local community.

“There are networks there now for GCU and for the Students’ Association that were not there before and those are ongoing relationships.

“It's all about how we can learn from each other and what we can learn from people in different countries and different backgrounds. I think that’s completely unique to Erasmus+ and one of the real strengths of the programme.”

Check out our dedicated webpage to learn more about strategic partnership funding opportunities in higher education.