Five lessons for student volunteering from historical research

In 2010 Georgina Brewis (then based at the Institute for Volunteering Research) and Adam O’Boyle (Student Hubs) began a collaborative project investigating histories and policies of student volunteering in the UK. Georgina is currently a John Adams Fellow at the Institute for Education.

To mark the launch of Georgina Brewis’ history of student volunteering 1880-1980, Student Hubs has produced a report arguing that we need to approach the support of student volunteering in a radically different way to ensure that future approaches do not face similar challenges to the past.

Our top-five lessons for student volunteering

1. Support is important but has typically been fragile and unsustainable

National coordination to promote and support university-based, local-led activities has existed in some form in all decades of the past century. This has included the Student Christian Movement’s Social Service Committee in the Edwardian era and the NUS Student Community Action programme in the 1970s.

In recent decades, national support has faced perilous funding commitments and patchy support from national university and voluntary sector institutions, and from government.

If more students are to engage in volunteering and social action in the future, then a more sustainable form of national infrastructure will need to be created.

2. Students must carry on having the freedom to tackle social needs

Students are able to rapidly respond to changing social needs. This has made student volunteering and social action very resilient. Often students have led the way in responding to social needs that the voluntary sector has taken up more widely later.

During the Depression students across the UK set up a large scale programme of workcamps for unemployed men. Hardship among the student community inspired a student self-help movement of loan schemes, cooperative buying and subsidised travel.

In the 1970s the Student Community Action movement mobilised successfully on issues of homelessness and housing.

However, responding to new needs has often meant that each generation of students has dispensed with the work of the previous, sometimes sacrificing wisdom entirely for innovation. Each  generation of student volunteers must approach their voluntary action with enough humility to realise that they will not have ‘solved’ the issues taken up by previous generations.

3. Students do their best work in the community when it is linked to their academic skills and interests

As yet, very little student volunteering and social action in the UK happens alongside students’ academic courses, despite the best attempts of various student groups over time.

In 1917 the Student Christian Movement appealed to the universities for citizenship education to form part of the college course of every student. In 1943 by former NUS president Brian Simon  called for social study to be integrated into all university courses.

Yet, often students have found themselves in the right place at the right time. During the Second World War, students conducted surveys of conditions in London air raid shelters to help other cities prepare. There is likely much that could be learnt from service learning initiatives in the United States and Canada.

4. Students must be the leaders and decision makers for student volunteering to be popular and effective

Full-time workers can add value in supporting student volunteering and social action but the leadership of students should never be taken away. A driving force behind student voluntarism over the past 130 years has been the leadership that has come from students themselves.

During the 1980s students were heavily involved in setting the agenda for the national SCA movement and in directing the work of the SCA Development Unit (later Student Volunteering England).

Following substantial investment through HEFCE, there was a trend to more staff-led volunteering during the 2000s. Students themselves are those who have best responded to changing social needs and remain strong advocates for volunteering amongst their peers.

5. Students are more effective when they can understand social issues through proper social education

Students have been very keen in successive decades to take a rigorous approach to analysing whether they were tackling symptoms or causes.

In the Edwardian period educationalists came to recognise that the value of voluntary service depended on how well students had been prepared through social study and this led to the widespread development of social study groups.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a strong push towards social education and consciousness-raising among students.

Each generation must continuously be asked whether students are doing enough to understand the issues on which they are working.

Taking stock

The history shows some of the challenges and opportunities for student volunteering today. It shows especially that student volunteering, as with many other voluntary sector activities, has often been beholden to boom and bust.

The Step Up to Serve campaign is aiming to increase social levels of youth social action, including amongst university students. Considering historical trends can make policy making more robust. We don’t always learn the lessons that history should teach us, but proper research at least allows us the opportunity.

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