This month ushers in the new academic year. With it the launch of our latest cohort of students participating in our ParliaMentors programme. This is the tenth year of the programme. Through training and support and access to Westminster, ParliaMentors gives university students of different faiths and beliefs the networks and skills they need to affect real change in their communities, in their careers and in the political arena. And it has never been more important.
At a time when media channels confront us with, amongst other things, the horrors of war, the uneasy ethics of football, the changing face of party politics, increasing refugee flows, and rising hate crime, both identifying the change you want to bring about and effecting it is a daunting task. It is daunting not only for the students who participate in the programme, but also no doubt for the MPs and community leaders they engage with.
We might expect the younger generation to throw up their hands in exasperation at the inability of those in positions of power and influence to push through solutions to the problems they see around them. However, it is heartening to know that there remains strong commitment to making the world a better, fairer, more inclusive place. The high numbers of students applying for the ParliaMentors programme bears this out, as does the quality of their social action projects.
Indeed, while we might detect a degree of cynicism, Britain’s youth are not disengaged from politics. Cynicism may rather be frustration with the current political system and how to access it. ParliaMentors is one effort to find new ways of accessing and developing political and civic leadership that can affect change. It harnesses the wisdom of those in Westminster and local communities to support university students in their search for ways to improve the world they see around them.
More broadly, and over the last ten years, citizen and community involvement in governance has become a key component of government policies to tackle poverty and social exclusion, modernise services, renew democratic institutions and build social cohesion (JRF, 2009, Citizen Involvement in Local Governance: Roundup Reviewing the Evidence). However, these developments have taken place in a context of reduced turnout for elections and concern over civic engagement more generally. Furthermore, austerity measures and cuts are seen to have eroded avenues for community participation and involvement. Despite some progress then, there are conflicting views about how far communities and citizens can exercise influence over decisions that affect the quality of their lives.
Given this picture it is more important than ever that students are given the kind of opportunities that the ParliaMenors programme provides. 50 students expressing different faiths and beliefs will this year receive training and mentoring to help them work together to make significant contributions to improving the lives of those in their varied communities. The diversity of the group promises to generate creative ideas and forge new connections, partnerships and understanding which the students will put to good use in tackling an array of different societal issues. This is inclusion to tackle exclusion. We wish them well and look forward to supporting them both this year and beyond, as they continue their lifelong journeys of discovery and change.