The National Union of Students

How students are helping universities meet their social and environmental responsibilities thanks to Erasmus+ funding

The social responsibility of universities has increasingly become a factor for students when making their choice of higher education institution (HEI) with many keen to attend those actively seeking to have a positive impact on their communities.

This phenomenon was recognised by Professor Mary Bownes, Senior Vice Principal at the University of Edinburgh in 2013/14, when she said: “A socially responsible university would understand its impact on the world. It would consider issues of justice and accountability, locally and globally, in creating a community that contributes to society.” 

The ESSA Project

Given that early understanding of the issue it is no surprise that Edinburgh has a key role in the National Union of Students' (NUS) European Students, Sustainability Auditing (ESSA) Project, which is backed by €290,000 of Erasmus+ funding.

Audience listening to a speaker give a presentation

The NUS partnered with three universities for the initiative - Edinburgh, University of Porto in Portugal and Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) in Lithuania - along with four student organisations - Edinburgh University Students’ Association, European Students’ Union, Association of Students of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of the University of Porto and KTU Students’ Union.

Sixty students from the three participating universities are being trained as Social Responsibility Auditors in a student-centred programme, delivered in blended mode, culminating in four cross-national student audits of different European higher education institutions.

Making the world a better place

Project coordinator Rachel Drayson said: “NUS has a strong sustainability presence in the HE sector in the UK and runs a number of programmes and projects that engage students, their students’ unions and their institutions in taking action on the topic. 

"We want students to leave tertiary education with the knowledge, skills and understanding required to make the world a better place. To achieve this, we’d like to see students routinely provided with learning opportunities that are interdisciplinary and enquiry-based, exploring grand challenges and global citizenship perspectives, developing critical thinking skills and political agency. The ESSA Project is an example of this type of learning opportunity.

It’s great being part of a transnational European project with multiple partners - we are learning from it every day

“Our aim was to create an innovative approach to the recognition and validation of knowledge, skills (including soft skills) and competences. We are producing a significant Open Educational Resource (OER) for an ECTS 5 Credit Certificate in Social Responsibility Auditing (EQF Level 6) and are contributing to the wider process of developing alternative models of curriculum development.

"Students involved have been able to further develop their understanding of sustainability and social responsibility, gain practical experience of professional skills, such as auditing, and complete an assessment to gain ECTS credits.

"The project partners have designed two in-depth training programmes, one for facilitators and one for students, who will be participating as auditors in the project, once trained by the facilitators. The audit reports developed by the student auditors provide each institution with a useful and relevant set of recommendations and opportunities for improving sustainability and social responsibility performance.

"The project has received overwhelmingly positive responses from participants, in most cases even exceeding expectations, with one participant describing the ESSA experience as the best of their university career so far!"

Project participant listening to a presentation

Auditing: real-world learning

To date, three audits have been completed, with 40 students participating and gaining an understanding of how social responsibility issues are prioritised and implemented.  Each audit is conducted by students from the partner HEIs who are not hosting the audit, for example students from KTU and University of Porto travelled to Edinburgh to complete an audit. 

The trained students work in teams to complete documentary reviews and interviews and run focus groups with relevant stakeholders within the institution being audited. The visits contribute towards students’ understanding of how the universities’ work on social responsibility issues compare against the Benchmark Standards for University in Social Responsibility.

The project is providing real-world learning to students who have reported an increase in levels of confidence in a range of soft skills such as leadership, communication, and goal setting and enables them to gain experience in something not necessarily covered in their current course.

“It helped me with methods that are not used in my field (Law) and paved the way for a comparative perspective in my dissertation," said one.

Building teams and skills

The cross-national nature of the project is not only providing different perspectives to concepts of sustainability and social responsibility for the staff and students, but it is also helping to develop important teamwork and language skills.

"Working in a multi-lingual group required developing teamworking skills but also gave a cross cultural perspective to university, CSR and sustainability which I found highly valuable," said another student participant.

Participants taking part in project activityStrong working partnerships have been developed, involving both institutional and student representative organisations. The audits involve engagement from a broad range of stakeholders within the institution, including senior management and academics, and the project partners have benefited from cross-cultural, national and European collaboration.

Among the partners from students’ unions, the co-ordinators report that it has provided them with opportunities to be involved with the planning and delivery on an equal footing to academic and professional staff, improving their personal and organisational capabilities.

From an institutional perspective there are also multiple benefits, including paying more attention to implementation of social responsibility policies and practices, greater collaboration between different parts of the organisation (such as between academic and estates) to facilitate the project and audits, and to showcase the multiple benefits of the approach to learning adopted within the project. 

"It’s great being part of a transnational European project with multiple partners - we are learning from it every day," said a representative of one project partner.

Find out about applying for a Key Action 2 Strategic Partnership funding for your institution.