Big Ideas for Society

Prof Helen Higson, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor for External Relations

Prof Helen Higson
“The value which universities bring to their local community is not often at the fore, but it certainly is something for which there should be a big fanfare.  Volunteering is, for example, a major part of life at Aston University. It isn’t just a way of making a difference to society; staff and students gain a great deal from their volunteering. For example, developing new skills which will enhance their employability or making new friends and contacts within and outside of the university. Aston’s Centre for Staff and Graduate Development organises a range of staff volunteering activities from gardening to providing help with reading in local schools.

“Our students are even more active. Aston Ambassadors and Aimhigher Associates contribute in a number of ways to local school and community projects. Volunteering Week, organised jointly with our Students’ Guild, is a highlight of the year and 1,700 of our students are involved in mentoring activities. Perhaps the crowning glory, however, is Aston RAG (Raise and Give) which manages to raise one of the highest amounts of money, per head of our student population, in the country - how proud we should be of our students!”


Unifest is a four day residential summer school hosted by Aston for 55 year 10 pupils. The programme is an annual event which started in 2000. The aim of the programme is to inspire pupils who have the ability to study at higher education but have not considered going to university. The programme provides pupils with an insight and opportunity to experience to university life. The students take part in exciting team activities and experiments, working alongside academics, to learn areas such as science, maths and business. The pupils stay on campus in student halls and engage with current Aston students to learn of their student experiences. Employers are also invited to meet with pupils to discover different career paths and options available to them after secondary school. Evening activities are also arranged for the pupils off campus, such as bowling and eating out, for the chance to go into the city centre. The programme finishes with a disco for the pupils held at the university. 

How did Aston University make this happen?                                   

Aston expressed interest to get involved in the scheme when it was first initiated and held their first Unifest in 2000. Staff at Aston organised activities and accommodation for the pupils over the four day period and arranged for employers and current Aston students to engage with the pupils. The university also liaised with schools and their parents to ensure they were informed of the scheme and the order of events; it also gave the parents and schools a point of contact within the university.  

What is the impact?

Quotes from Summer School pupils:

‘I now feel confident to go away without family and friends. I also have a better understanding of what university is like’

‘A good experience. I learnt a lot and would recommend it to anyone who wants to make more friends, understand more about Uni life or have an enjoyable out and about.'

‘It was useful in clearly showing how different skills and ways of studying affect us and finding out about the different skills needed at university’

The programme provides pupils with the opportunity to gain firsthand experience of student life, from living on campus, taking part in student socialisation and partaking in learning activities with academics. It is the one scheme available where pupils have the chance to interact to stay on campus and interact with current students in their student environment.

Student Tutoring

Aston University students volunteer for four hours a week over a ten week period in secondary school classrooms. The purpose of the scheme is to raise attainment and to encourage youngsters from non-traditional backgrounds to apply to university. Students share their experiences and interests in their subject areas to motivate pupils to learn. 85 students volunteered this year in primary and secondary schools and post 16 schools and colleges throughout Birmingham. In primary schools students help raise pupils literacy, reading and numeracy skills, while secondary level tutors have helped prepared students for their GCSEs.

How did Aston University make this happen?

The University pioneered the scheme and it is now nationally recognised and implemented in universities in different forms. The scheme has been running for over seven years.

What is the impact?

The scheme has had a great beneficial impact for students and the staff and pupils from the schools involved.

“Being given the opportunity to volunteer as a student tutor was a fantastic chance to gain experience, particularly working with children were severe learning disabilities. I was able to really help the children in communicating and developing their skills, whilst at the same time learning myself. By the end of my time there, I could see how much I had accomplished and how much I had enjoyed the experience and what I had taken from it. I was most proud of the relationships I developed with the children, as well as being given the opportunity to take more responsibility as my time there progressed.” Laurette Siddell, Aston University student tutor

“I believe my greatest successes came when working with some of the weaker students.  I was able to hold their attention, keep them on task and in some cases get them excited about what they were learning. This opportunity has allowed me to work on my leadership and teaching skills.”
Dupinder Singh, Aston University student tutor

The scheme is a massive help to the teachers as volunteers assist under the teachers direction. It enables pupils who may be struggling in the classroom to have further support and in turn raise their attainment.  The students are also volunteering their own time purely for intrinsic satisfaction and their desire to want to help the community.  Thanks to the volunteers help the students have witnessed pupils skill level, ability and confidence in the classroom increase.


The purpose of this scheme is to bridge the gap of numeracy skills in primary schools by developing practical math skills through fun activities. The scheme is for year 4 pupils and will provide positive role models for the pupils and also help develop the pupils’ confidence. 20 Aston students volunteer, over the course of five sessions, in five primary schools within the Nechells area.  The students underwent two days training to gain the competences to deliver the programme to pupils.

How did Aston University make this happen?

The scheme was completely initiated and implemented by the university’s Volunteering Activities Officer from realising the need for students to develop greater numeracy skills in primary education. Aston University students would be trained in delivering a numeracy programme and with the Officers guidance to develop a programme of activities which would engage young people in numeracy by making it fun and improve basic numeracy skills. The Officer liaised with local schools within the area to implement the programme in schools were pupils would benefit the most from the programme.

What is the impact?

Aston has strong ties with the local community and worked with local schools to bridge a gap in numeracy skills in local primary schools. When Aston was approached by a local school to ask if they can help resolve numeracy skill problems in schools the Volunteers Officer at Aston developed the scheme so student volunteers could work with primary school pupils to increase their interest and attainment in numeracy. The result of the scheme has seen pupils showing greater enthusiasm in numeracy and the improved ability. The scheme has also helped to further build relations with the community and created more opportunities for Aston to work with schools to raise attainment in education.

The outcome of the scheme has shown an increased interest and attainment in the pupils’ numeracy skills. It also created better links with the university and community, with Aston helping to resolve a problem and showing willingness to want to help the community.

Kilimanjaro climb to raise £50,000

20 Aston students will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in June in aid of Childreach International.

The team, being lead by final year students Alexander Woodcock and Ria Jocye, is set to raise £50,000. This has been raised over the year though a number of organised events, including cake sales, charity bag packs and a calendar involving Aston’s sports teams and not many clothes.

The charity organising the project, Childreach International, works in Tanzania, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Occupied Palestinian Territories, China, Peru and Cambodia. Working with the local communities to ensure children have access to healthcare, education, protection and their basic rights.

The group has a diverse selection of individuals from a number of backgrounds and a range of courses. Apart from the team leaders the group consists of; Courtney Kobylanski, Leanne Holman, Krishna Kataria, Justyna Zybaczynska, Carys Smith, Benjamin Haughton, Lauren Mitchell, Lucy Eastlake, Neil Gulrajani, Jack Williams,Jack Hooker, Steve Rosenthal, Michael Tomlinson, Helene Catel, Jonathan Willatt,Kimberley Fowler and Sally Gittings.

Departing on 21 June the group will fly overnight to Nairobi, before continuing onto to Moshi in Tanzania. They will then spend a day at a local ChildReach school where, with the help of the children, the team will be planting trees to offset their carbon footprint.

Courtney Kobylanski told Aspects: "I went along to the presentation about the trip back in September and I was so touched by what the charity does for children all over the world and instantly wanted to get involved. Especially as it meant pushing myself physically and mentally, to not only to raise the money, but to reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. I really feel like I’m doing something good, making a difference. I’ve never done anything like this before but it’s not every day you get the chance to do something like this. Seven months later here I am, the least fit person in Aston University, taking the stairs instead of the lift and actually exercising! I’m so excited about the adventure that lies ahead."

For further information please contact Alexander Woodcock. To make a donation visit: www.donate2rag.tk