Localise Youth Volunteering was joined in the Talent Garden in the DCU alpha campus by a very illustrious panel to discuss Alternative Pathways to Continuing Education and Employment through youth volunteering.

The panel consisted of Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, Professor Daire Keogh, President of Dublin City University and Professor Anne Looney Executive Dean of the Institute of Education at DCU. Also in attendance were a number of Localise Youth Volunteers, members of DCU RAG society, DCU Student Volunteer Coordinator and members of various other volunteer societies. The panel discussion was live streamed. The event was chaired by Derek Cleary, Director of Localise Youth volunteering.

In discussing how volunteering has shaped their careers Professor Looney said “I would say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the skills I gained working with young people were essential to how I taught. I trained as a teacher and it taught me how to teach. I learned how to connect with different kinds of people with volunteering work”.

Minister Harris spoke of how his volunteering “dragged him into politics” he explained how on a dreary February night in 2002 in a church hall in Greystones, where he called a meeting for anyone living with Autism. From this meeting a group called the Triple A Alliance came into being to support people living with Autism, ADHA and/or Asperger’s syndrome.

Professor Keogh recalled his earliest experiences of lining the football pitch in his school, he wasn’t “much good at sport”, which he viewed as analogous to his role now as President of DCU saying that he sees his job as lining the pitch – putting the conditions in place where others can flourish. He went on to describe volunteering as a disposition, a way of seeing the world that helps to advance others.

When discussing Senior Cycle reform, the panelists were in agreement the pathways to education should include other elements than CAO points alone. While Minister Harris praised the Leaving cert at being good at certain types of assessment of certain types of knowledge, he was also quick to point that such a system doesn’t capture the variety of abilities and attributes that young people have, that are relevant to later life success.

Exams, as Professor Looney pointed out, are a social construct based on what we deem to be important and that what we view as important has changed. Transversal skills, she went on to say are anything but soft and their criticality has been highlighted by the pandemic and by climate change in that we need to be teaching young people how to be resilient.

Professor Keogh summed up this point succinctly buy saying that DCU wants to be “… defined by the people that are included, not by the people we exclude” he also noted the importance of volunteerism as a way for young people to disentangle themselves from the idea that they don’t belong, what programmes like Localise do for young people is to create an environment where people can be whatever they wish to be.

Looking to the Future Professor Looney spoke about cutting edge Human Capital Programmes happening through the world, these are multi-disciplinary, transversal skills focused where the onus is on all the skills you would expect to find in a portfolio of volunteerism and informal learning.

Minister Harris spoke about the role of universities in developing the whole of the person, and that as thought leaders in this space, they should reflect broader society. He used the analogy of two job candidates with equal qualifications, the one with the volunteering background is most likely to secure the position because they have the transversal skills that benefit organisations. He went on to say that when we look at any aspect of society it should reflect our society. When we look at professions like medicine, engineering or law backgrounds tend to be similar, and when that happens we don’t get diversity.

When pushed on a timeframe for when these pathways might be in place, he cautioned that complex problems need complex solutions, but he added, that there is no reason we can’t have these access routes up and running in 18 months.

Professor Keogh also sounded a note of caution, if we take these attributes, skills and achievements gained through volunteerism into account when accessing higher education, we need to be sure that it is not misrepresented. He feels that it is important for such an initiative not seen a dumbing down of the current system.

He went on to outline how Localise programmes are not just about volunteering, but ate about leadership through volunteering. These programmes are a safe space to learn and to flourish and to access opportunities based on merit.

Minister Harris rounded out the conversation by outlining how we find ourselves at a moment in time where there is a lot of cynicism, opportunism and populism, there many people that try to come up with simple solution to complex problems. There is no panacea for accessing Higher Education. It is encouraging and vitally important to see so many young people involved in civic society, young people that want to volunteer show leadership and to get involved.

Localise Youth Volunteering had been empowering young people to be of service to their communities since 1972. Our Youth Volunteering programmes provide a liminal space that amplifies personal, social and economic outcomes for young people. Localise hopes the proposed reforms to the Leaving Certificate will address barriers to education for those who excel in ways other than in exam-like conditions.

There are many shared educational aspirations between youth volunteerism and formal education. Recognising youth volunteerism in the way in which we do academic performance creates alterative pathways by which young people can evidence skills and attribution that better inform access to tertiary education.