Matt Hyde, who is leaving the NUS in April to become chief executive of the Scout Association, said the typical support offered to students by universities in the form of CV writing workshops or mock job interviews was “outdated” and did not address the current needs for undergraduates.
Speaking at a Westminster Higher Education Forum conference, titled Higher Education Student Experience Beyond Study, in London on 7 February, Mr Hyde said tutors and career advisers should seek to direct first-year students towards extracurricular activities that would enhance their CV, rather than take action in final years of study.
“Students should have interviews early on to help alert them to the plethora of opportunities available to them,” he said.
“We do not have enough discussion with students about how they are going to make their life journey and what they should do at university to get where they want to go.”
He added: “I learned about leadership and management by captaining a football team that lost every game than I did by studying [French sociologist] Pierre Bourdieu.
“People tend to focus on people in student unions who go into politics, but the chief executive of Vodafone has said his life as a businessman started when he was head of Teesside Students’ Union.”
Mr Hyde said universities needed to explore how student engagement with extracurricular activities helped to improve their academic performance, improve student retention and boosted satisfaction levels.
“Those students who get involved in leadership roles find it accelerates their learning in an amazing way,” he said.
“In the US, there are all sorts of master’s courses about student union development. We do not seem to understand [its importance] in the same way.”
Ruth Farwell, vice-chancellor at Bucks New University, told the audience that she felt student activities should be viewed as “co-curricular”, rather than “extracurricular”, given their central importance.
“It is all an aspect of learning – social life, work, volunteering, sport. It is all part of the engagement process,” she said.