April 25, 2024

Extracurricular investment will pay off

Extracurricular activities are an important part of student life. Some, such as the University of Exeter’s Hide and Seek Society and the London School of Economics’ Hummus Society, are just a bit of fun. Some, controversially, serve to enhance elite networks, such as the University of Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon dining club, attended by former UK prime ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

Others, such as the University of Cambridge’s Footlights drama society and the University of Manchester’s Mancunion student newspaper, have inspired notable careers. Nobel Prize winner and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz credits the debating society at Amherst College for helping him discover public policy.

Indeed, extracurricular activities are becoming an increasingly important way for students to gain workplace skills such as teamwork, communication and leadership, and set themselves apart from their peers in an environment of academic grade inflation. Hackathons, for example, are a great example of learning by doing for entrepreneurial skills, which are greatly valued by employers. For universities, therefore, the extracurricular activities offered by academic departments and student societies are an increasingly important component of their student offers.

Such activities are also an opportunity to network with those from other courses, while course-related extracurriculars or co-curricular activities can help students apply knowledge learned in classes without the constraints of assessment. Makerspaces and living labs are a great way for students to experiment in groups – again, without the pressure of assessment, allowing students to take more risks and express their creativity. And giving students more access to equipment and technology they might not have access to during their undergraduate courses can boost technical skills that are of high importance to employers of STEM graduates. It can be relatively simple to upgrade machine tool spaces in engineering departments to accommodate this with 3D printers and electronic equipment, and they can be used quite flexibly to host demo days, poster sessions or other events.

A new report reveals that nearly half of postgraduates don’t feel a sense of belonging within their student communities. Meanwhile, current undergraduates did much of their secondary schooling online. This heightens the need to promote in-person activities that give them a sense of belonging and ease loneliness: especially first-year males, among whom suicide rates are highest. With the academic jump from school to university a major triggering factor, along with social isolation and increased alcohol consumption, getting these more vulnerable students involved in extracurricular activities could bring positive benefits, especially with increasing debate around universities’ duty of care for students. A range of recent academic research suggests that students who participate in extracurricular activities show greater persistence in pursuit of goals, which is strongly associated with emotional well-being and academic success.

There is a need, though, to ensure inclusivity for all. Several studies have found that older and ethnic minority students generally spend less time on university extracurricular activities, being more likely to pursue family, religious and solitary activities instead.

Students from a lower socio-economic status, meanwhile, spend more of their time working, and the Sutton Trust has noted an increase in the number of them living at home, from 41 per cent in 2019 to 64 per cent in 2021, a situation exacerbated by Covid. These students are much less likely to fully integrate into university life, the report found.

One solution might be to offer more personal help to access extracurricular activities through students’ academic advisers. More could also be made of online “bite-sized” activities: short courses that often lead to certificates in a variety of interesting topics not covered in the curriculum, which might be a first step towards a new hobby or interest.

In my own experience of running extracurricular activities, there is great interest from overseas students, who see them as opportunities to gain better value for their fees. With the pressure to recruit international students to fill funding gaps, universities should therefore make more in their marketing materials of the extracurricular activities they offer and the ways they can complement their students’ studies.

Nurturing this feeling of belonging brings material benefit to the universities long after fees have been paid, too. A recent study found that participation in extracurricular activities was much more strongly associated with alumni making donations than even the degree classes they obtained. The more involved a graduate had been with these activities while at university, the more likely they were to donate. Roughly 10 per cent of those involved in one or two activities went on to make donations, rising to 22 per cent among those who were involved in three or more activities.

In short, any investment in extracurricular activities by universities is likely to be repaid many times over.

Robert Phillips is senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester.

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