Students working with Communities – a significant curriculum initiative in Irish Higher Education


Mary-Liz Trant, HEA with Dr. Tommy Cooke, DIT Community Links, and Lorraine McIlrath, NUIG, at the Students Working with Communities Seminar in DIT Aungier Street

14th January 2011

  • Significant growth in civic engagement at third level
  • ‘Engagement in meaningful projects improves retention’
  • Communities becoming part of graduate development

A seminar jointly hosted by the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) took place in Aungier Street on 6th January to consider the impact of ‘students learning with communities’ in Ireland and to discuss the potential for its future development in Irish higher education.  Over one hundred educationalists from universities and colleges across Ireland gathered to hear how the concept of ‘civic engagement’ has been developed as a core element in higher education in the USA, and how it is being adapted in the Irish context. 


Mr. Tom Boland, Chief Executive Officer of the HEA, speaking at the Seminar

The opening address at the Seminar was given by Mr. Tom Boland, Chief Executive Officer of the HEA.  Urging institutions of higher education to engage directly with communities, he said: “Service learning, as part of necessary curriculum reform, can re-invigorate both students and teachers; encourage students to become more enquiring and self-reliant; provide a basis for keeping the higher education curriculum up-to-date, interesting and relevant and benefit directly the communities in which a higher education institution is located”.

The keynote speaker for the seminar was Dr. Saul Petersen, Executive Director of Connecticut Campus Compact.    The Campus Compact organisation is a coalition of more than 1100 college and university presidents in 35 States in America, and it aims to fulfil the civic purposes of higher education by educating students for civic and social responsibility, and forging effective community partnerships.


Niamh Godley, HEA, with Ciarán Nevin, DIT Student Union President, at the Students Working with Communities seminar

DIT and NUI Galway have been active in developing the concept from an Irish perspective, incorporating it into the curriculum across a wide range of programmes, from tourism to engineering to business.  The projects have worked extremely well and as part of the programme for the seminar, Dr. Catherine Bates, DIT  Coordinator of ‘Students Learning with Communities’, and Lorraine McIlrath, NUIG Coordinator of ‘Community Knowledge Initiative’, gave excellent accounts of the experience for students, their academic mentors, and for communities.

Dr. Tommy Cooke, Head of Community Links in DIT, who has been instrumental in the development of  ‘Students Learning with Communities’ and believes strongly in its benefits for students, academic institutions and communities, said:   “Our experience with this programme in DIT has been entirely positive.  Over 1000 DIT students participated last year in a range of community-based projects, bringing their theoretical learning to bear on real-life challenges in communities and community organisations.  It is very evident that the students gain in confidence and motivation; they learn from the community partners they work with, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to reflect on the effects their chosen profession can have on society.  Engagement in meaningful projects improves retention and academic staff find that projects can r e-invigorate classwork and can lead on to further interdisciplinary projects.”   Dr. Cooke also believes that the concept can be extremely beneficial to communities.  “Communities identify projects that will build on strengths or meet specific needs, and the students and lecturers bring great enthusiasm to the challenge.  Through this engagement, communities can become part of the learning and teaching process, and can help to shape the graduates of the future.”

Civic engagement is a key proposal in the HEA submission to the Higher Education Strategy Review Group.  Recommending a reform of undergraduate education, the submission states ‘Critical thinking, adaptability and creativity are key characteristics required of graduates by the labour market.’  In seeking ways to increase these characteristics, the submission goes on to suggest that: ‘One such step is the universal adoption of service-learning components in all undergraduate qualifications. This would help to incorporate generic skills into the curriculum while advancing the civic engagement aspects of the higher education mission.’  ( )

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