A bid to bring a sense of community to American students could work well in the UK, writes Gordon Marsden.
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." President Kennedy's famous exhortation to America's youth has its latest novel spin-off via a New Jersey university - an experiment that could have resonance for the UK as the debate about citizenship in education gathers pace.
Rutgers University's Citizenship and Service Education (Case) programme aims to match a student's course experience and, in particular, harness their information and communications technologies skills to the needs of groups in the central New Jersey community that Rutgers serves. Case's genesis was a 1988 speech by former Rutgers president Edward Bloustein, who was concerned about "mission loss" in American universities - the sense that campus learning had become cut off from the community at large. It struck a chord with politicians and policy-makers, alarmed at the disengagement of students and young people from current and social affairs, and influenced by the new communitarianism picked up both by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. It was Rutgers that Clinton chose, in 1993, to launch his "national service" initiative, endorsing the Case programme as a countrywide model.
More than 12,000 Rutgers students have been through the Case programme - delivering more than 500,000 hours and $3 million (£2.1 million) worth of community service. In many ways, the university was well placed to deliver the outreach initiative Case represents.
Rutgers is spread across three campuses between Philadelphia and New York City, with about 34,000 undergraduates on US-style broad-based, four-year degree courses. The New Jersey hinterland experienced the decline of old industries, skills shortages and the early 1990s recession sharply. As a state university, Rutgers is less susceptible to ivory tower isolationism. It has a substantial number of adult students and 50 per cent of its intake is made up of first-generation university students.
Today, New Jersey is beginning to flourish, with new knowledge and leisure industries developing - and Case's character locally shares some of the gritty, down-to-earth approach that has primed the state's revival. Case's director, political science professor Michael Shaffer, oversees a programme that enrols 2,500 students in more than 90 courses at Rutgers. He is emphatic about the "hands-on" approach required of Case students, which nets them credits towards their degree, and about the need to avoid pigeon-holing as part of a vague "moral mission". Case aims to create circumstances in which its students acquire some of the "soft skills" employers are increasingly demanding from graduates.
How does it work in practice? Students are placed with "community partners" for whom they volunteer. A key part of Mike Shaffer and his team's job is to dovetail their skills to their partners' needs. Many of these will be not-for-profit groups and community organisations near Rutgers' campuses.
The sorts of skills students offer include writing, research, office management and teaching - but one of the biggest demands is for their ICT skills. Web design and internet programing are particularly attractive to organisations whose older volunteers may lack such skills. A striking example of what can be achieved can be seen at www.njserves.rutgers.edu. The site is designed by Case students and staff and offers a user-friendly "point and click" website for civic sector information across New Jersey.
Shelters for the homeless, legal aid clinics and support programmes for social inclusion are other initiatives benefiting from Case students. Students are required to sign a service-learning contract, outlining what they hope to get out of the placement, and are then assessed with input from their server on completion.
Shaffer says 50 per cent of students continue to do work with their organisations after the programme ends - something he regards as a sure sign that they feel a continuing commitment. He parries concerns about job displacement by saying that most students work with groups that rely on volunteers anyway. Experience through Case arguably strengthens commitment and academic performance on and off campus. One student wrote that their placement with a community disabilities group had encouraged thinking about the needs of disabled students and faculty at Rutgers. Others, doing management or economics programmes, found that running volunteer organisations on a shoestring brings into sharp focus academic concepts learnt in class.
Case's success has spawned similar campus compacts in more than 20 universities across the US. Could it be exported to Britain? Our undergraduate courses are less freewheeling and initial university scepticism might prove an obstacle. But emphasis on citizenship and community courses in schools, in the wake of the Crick committee's work, and the enthusiasm of education secretary David Blunkett, provide an encouraging backdrop. Pilot initiatives from enterprising faculty staff, particularly perhaps in the newer universities, which already have broad degree programmes and a strong community involvement, might well be worth a try - especially if linked with locally based further education colleges already offering higher education courses. How about some thought, and possibly money, being forthcoming from government and/or the funding councils - plus, perhaps, a sympathetic glance from Peter Lampl's Sutton Trust?
Gordon Marsden is MP for Blackpool. South and a member of the Commons select committee on education.