Student start-up culture has hit new heights in pandemic

Unsung efforts to help out in the community have also showcased outstanding student entrepreneurialism that must be further encouraged, says Robert Phillips

August 20, 2021
Source: istock

Students have had some bad press over the pandemic, with negative headlines about illegal “super-spreader” parties, “lockdown flouting” snowball fights and, most recently, significantly higher rates of vaccine hesitancy. Even when student social lives were reduced to a few online gatherings, their classroom tutorials substituted for less-than-ideal Zoom seminars or they had to pay for accommodation they never used, sympathy was still in short supply.

Maybe that is understandable in a pandemic that has not affected the health of young people to the same degree as it has older age groups. But it seems unfair given how many students have mobilised to tackle Covid.

Take medical student volunteers, for instance. At my university, more than 450 medical students volunteered at vaccination and testing centres and for admin roles in the NHS to free up front-line staff. A popular job has been “donning and doffing” – helping NHS staff put on and remove PPE in a safe way.

Non-medical students have had roles, too, acting as vaccination centre stewards. With the student population covering diverse backgrounds, their language skills have often been useful in helping to reach all sections of the local community to explain and reassure about the vaccine process. Skills have been leveraged elsewhere in universities; volunteers at the University of Bath’s engineering department produced more than 100,000 face shields for the Covid effort and at Cardiff University, hundreds of volunteers signed up to help prepare Covid diagnostic testing kits.

Outside these structured activities, many students are participating in more ad-hoc volunteering such as shopping for vulnerable people in their local neighbourhood, working at food banks or tutoring disadvantaged children via Zoom. A volunteer hub at the University of Manchester allows students to search for opportunities and log hours completed, but many others are volunteering via the network of National Council for Voluntary Organisations centres throughout the UK.

Others have gone further, showing admirable leadership by creating their own social enterprises that either address Covid itself or help communities where the pandemic has magnified existing problems. Delikart began at the University of Manchester delivering from small independent shops without their own delivery service to vulnerable people housebound due to Covid, while Mask Bros, created at the University of St Andrews, sources and sells masks and other PPE at cost price from quality suppliers, having been moved to act by counterfeiting, poor quality and overcharging seen in the industry.

This is certainly reflected in the figures. Social Enterprise UK reports that there has been a marked increase in social enterprise company registrations during the pandemic, and indeed the University of Edinburgh recently stated that it had created a record 100 student start-ups in the past year despite the pandemic, with 21 of them social enterprises. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor has also found an increased interest in social enterprise – particularly among young people who have often proved highly adaptable to change in these difficult times.

Existing social enterprises have also been coming into their own, addressing issues that have become even more serious because of the pandemic, including mental health, physical health, loneliness, food and plastic waste, and helping vulnerable communities such as the elderly and refugees. Farm Urban (University of Liverpool) has begun to grow healthy food in urban environments such as rooftops with a focus on sustainability, MetMUnch of Manchester Metropolitan University aims to improve nutrition, sustainability and well-being in the community.

Students’ reasons for getting involved can be more than just philanthropic. Traditional term-time jobs such as bar work have been in short supply, with stories of hundreds applying for each position, and summer internships have also been badly affected by lockdowns. Covid Interns, a social enterprise from Imperial College London, is helping to match students looking for a work placement with businesses in need and has so far placed more than 200 students.

There are numerous benefits to these activities for the students and their institutions; medical students have suggested that volunteering has been a valuable learning experience and an insight into what they can expect as a junior doctor. For other students, it’s been great for adding soft skills and work experience to the CV, meeting new people and an opportunity to feel valued. It should also benefit the university, not just in deeper engagement with their local community but in their showing in new indicators, such as those used by Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings, which rightly seek to assess this kind of activity not picked up by bibliometrics.

Student start-ups and entrepreneurialism have been a growth area for at least a decade, but its moment truly arrived in the pandemic. With government, local authorities and society likely to look to higher education as the long-term economic recovery from Covid begins, there has never been a better time for students get involved in social enterprise. Universities should double down on student access to funding, mentoring and incubators in this area, as well as encouraging internships within social enterprises and worldwide non-profit youth enterprise associations such as Enactus.

With more than one in five students already interested in volunteering coupled with this increase in student social enterprise, this is a positive force to cement relations with the local community and maintain this lasting sense of social responsibility among the student body, even when lockdowns and the pandemic are, hopefully, a distant memory.

Robert Phillips is senior lecturer at Alliance Manchester Business School, part of the University of Manchester.

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