The concept behind Interchange was originally conceived in 1993 by two academics, David and Irene Hall, working at the University of Liverpool and Liverpool Hope University, respectively. They were interested in the potential of community-based learning that would both provide students with a learning experience as well as offer community organisations something in return.
Based on the science shop model, Interchange initially engaged a small number of Masters students to undertake collaborative projects for a number of local community organisations.
Interchange was set up as charity in 1994 and over the years, it has developed extensive relationships with many different community organisations across the Greater Merseyside area. Interchange now primarily works with undergraduate students undertaking social science degrees, providing them with the opportunity to conduct applied social research as part of their degrees. Modules are undertaken as part of the University of Liverpool’s courses but it also has close links with Liverpool John Moores University and is discussing the possibility of setting up a module with them. Its relationship with Liverpool Hope University is currently less active.
Business model and organisation
Interchange is registered as a charity (No. 1038129). Over the years, its funding has come from a variety of sources, including one-off project grants from community bodies, involvement in two EU-funded projects (INTERACTS 2001 – 2003 and TRAMS 2005 – 2008), the John Moores Foundation, the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) and one-off grants from the University of Liverpool. In 2017, it secured permanent funding for two posts from the University of Liverpool.
Interchange has offices at the University of Liverpool within the School of Law and Social Justice and the university provides them with facilities, including office space, as part of their funding agreement.
Additional external funding is sought for other events and activities, such as an annual Community Symposium and its 21st anniversary celebrations. There is no cost to community organisations participating in the programme.
The two members of staff, who work at Interchange, are the Project Coordinator and Project Administrator. Interchange also has a Management Committee consisting of academics from the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University, representatives from community organisations, as well as student alumni. The Management Committee acts as a legal and advisory board. The chair of Interchange also acts as academic coordinator for the modules.
The research process and relationship with stakeholders
Projects are embedded in the undergraduate curriculum of the University of Liverpool in the form of community-based learning modules undertaken during the third year of studies, which are assessed for academic credit. Each module involves double credits and lasts one academic year, starting in September and ending in May.
Each year, during January and February, Interchange invites local voluntary community organisations (VCOs) to submit proposals for projects. This is done through their own mailing list and the networks of other community organisations. Interchange usually receives interest from between 50 to 60 VCOs and contacts them individually to help them shape a research idea into a suitable project proposal and to ensure that they understand the process. The summer term is spent identifying around 25 students who want to undertake the modules during the subsequent academic year. Students are briefed to ensure that they are fully committed and informed about what the modules entail. Students are welcome from a range of disciplines but must have previously completed a module on quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. All the project proposals (around 40) are compiled and students are invited to select the project they wish to undertake.
Each student is allocated an academic supervisor at the university as well as a Link Worker, who is the main contact for the student at the community organisation. The Interchange coordinator also provides support to both the student and community organisation for the duration of the project and manages any problems that may occur. A drop-in facility is also provided, where students and VCOs are welcome to come to the Interchange office to discuss any issues or concerns.
Students undertake two different types of projects. Either a research project that results in a 6000 word Client Report, in which they present and analyse their findings for the VCO, or a work project, which involves different types of outcomes and for which students are expected to write an accompanying policy analysis or reflective analysis for academic assessment. Learning agreements are set up at the start of the project with the community organisations, which outline requirements, such as acknowledging the student’s contribution in published reports. Once the report has been handed over, further dissemination may be carried out by the VCO, if applicable, and students are sometimes invited to present their research at conferences on the VCO’s behalf.
Following a pilot in 2013, a short one-term module is also on offer to a small number of postgraduate students.
Examples of research projects
Students work on a wide range of different subjects, including domestic violence, homelessness, mental health and dementia. Projects take the form of evaluation reports and studies, documentaries and oral histories, feasibility studies, case studies and other community activities. Due to positive experiences, many VCOs return in subsequent years with new projects and some submit proposals to update data and information gathered in previous years, which they use to inform funding proposals.
Here are a few examples of projects: In 2014, Merseyside launched a partnership strategy for tackling hate crime involving a wide range of public, third sector and private organisations. On behalf of a local charity dedicated to tackling hate crime, an Interchange student undertook an evaluation of the impact of the strategy. The student found that the strategy was working but also identified a number of areas for improvement. Their recommendations were subsequently taken on board and the student was invited to join the Committee. Other students had worked with the charity in the past undertaking projects such as an evaluation of the sustainability of their hate crime hotline in order to secure additional funding.
As part of another work-based project, an Interchange student was asked to help raise the profile of a small non-profit organisation, which provides wellbeing activities to adults with special needs living in Merseyside. The student collaborated with the organisation to produce a promotional video to showcase its activities via social media.
Interchange supports a collaborative process between students and the community organisations throughout the research process built on mutual benefit, openness and on-going communication. Given the nature of many of the topics covered by the projects and the people that the community organisations work with, all projects must go through a thorough ethical review process. Issues relating to ethics and safeguarding are discussed with community organisations at the initial proposal stage. An ethical review process has been developed specifically for Interchange, involving an initial collective application for the whole programme followed by individual reviews of each project.
Impact and evaluation
Evaluation is conducted at the end of the academic year. Both the VCOs and the students are asked about their experiences via questionnaires. In addition, the Interchange Coordinator has on-going contact with the VCOs throughout the year, through which they get verbal feedback.
In 2015, a Social Return on Investment Report was undertaken for free by a then trustee working at a partner organisation. The report followed three cohorts of students and found that 70% of students went on to further study e.g. a PhD or graduate position following participation in an Interchange project.
No formal evaluation is undertaken to assess the long-term impact of the work undertaken, however, due to on-going relationships with many of the VCOs, Interchange knows that in the majority of cases, the reports are used by the VCOs to inform their work.
Thorough preparation with the community organisations is key. The Project Coordinator spends a lot of time working with the VCOs to develop good research proposals and formulate expected outcomes that meet both the needs of the VCOs and the students. On-going communication and support provided by Project Coordinator throughout the process to everyone involved in the research process ensures that any issues are dealt with immediately.
Balancing the expectations of the community organisations, who rely on the project results, with course work requirements is a key challenge. Projects are being undertaken for free by students as part of their course. There is no guarantee that the end piece of work will completely meet the VCO’s needs. Merseyside has been particularly hit by austerity and welfare cuts over the past few years, which has directly impacted the funding and capacity of VCOs. Many VCOs use the evidence produced by the student reports for securing funding or the future sustainability of their organisations, which in turn can put huge pressure on the students.
Funding is an on-going challenge for Interchange. Their funding is currently reliant on one partner and they are keen to diversify their funding sources to provide more security for the organisation in the long term. At the same time, a growth in student numbers at the university also means there is increased pressure to involve more students and undertake more projects. This would greatly increase the workload of the current staff and would most likely require additional resources.
In response to demand from the universities and the community organisations to undertake more projects, Interchange considers introducing a lighter (one term) version of the module. This would enable smaller projects, such as policy analyses and literature reviews to be completed within shorter timescales. Interchange organised a Community Consultation in January 2018 to seek the community organisations’ feedback on this proposal.
- Claudette Graham, Coordinator