A social history of student volunteering

Telling a good story

This important new book by Georgina Brewis on the history of student volunteering does what all good history should do in both telling a good story and shedding light on issues of current interest.

It certainly tells a good story, from the birth of student volunteering with the Settlement movement in the 19th century, to its refocusing as community action in the 1960s and 1970s, and in between taking in some of the key events of the twentieth century.

And throughout there are some great vignettes and some unexpected revelations.

I had no idea for example that the Rag tradition in British universities goes back to the late 19th century,  starting in Scotland, Ireland and the north of England as often riotous celebrations, and not assuming a charitable focus until after the First World War. And George is good on the radicalisation of the student movement, moving from enthusiastic strike breakers during the 1926 General Strike, to providing support to the Hunger Marchers in the 1930s, in less than a decade.

History repeating itself

But the other thing the book does is remind us that history does indeed repeat itself and that many of the volunteering issues currently being hotly debated have their antecedents well and truly in the past.

Take just four examples

  • First the debates within the student volunteering movement in the 1940s and 1950s about whether the state was crowding out voluntary action and what role volunteers should play in the new mixed economy of welfare. Big society versus Big State?  It has all been played out before.
  • Second, George draws attention to concerns within the student movement in the 1970s that the language of volunteering was outdated, reeking of charity and noblesse oblige, and that to be relevant for a new generation it needed to be replaced with the language and mores of community action and participation. Sound familiar? A very similar case is being made today in some quarters for volunteering to be replaced by social action which is held to have a more vital, modern feel, as I have argued elsewhere.
  • And then there are the issues of infrastructure and funding which have remained a constant throughout the century. The book is good on the formation of the NUS which grew out of the need for a single body to represent diverse student voices, and I particularly liked the quote from the Treasurer of the International Student Service, speaking at a conference in 1950, who bemoaned the fact that ‘while government leaders stress incessantly the importance to society of voluntary work’ it is rarely matched by financial support. Now why does that sound familiar?
  • Or fourthly, and my favourite, how about the Prince of Wales in 1932 launching a public campaign to get more students involved in voluntary action. Fast forward to 2013 and we have the current Prince of Wales launching Step up to Serve to double the number of young people engaged in social action.

History repeating itself.

Moving forward

So an excellent study, well researched, well written, and with significant relevance for today, as the new Student Hubs report, Student Volunteering and Social Action in the UK: Histories and Policies, makes clear.

Just one word of warning about rushing to judgement too soon.

In the conclusion George notes that student volunteering has grown up and that the bad old days of sexist and racist rag-mags are now thankfully behind us.

Try telling that to the volunteers at the LSE Rugby Club!

But, hey, isn’t that one of the delights of history, and indeed volunteering, that we can never predict what is going to happen next.

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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