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SVW: From service to action

Posted on 9 Feb 2015

Raechel Mattey, VP Union Development at NUS, shares her reflection on the history of student volunteering and her thoughts for the future…


Student Volunteering Week is more than a celebration of the ways students contribute in society today. By taking the opportunity to reflect on volunteering’s history, we can prepare for the future of our whole student movement.

  • How has the nature of volunteering changed from community service to social action?
  • What challenges does the current environment pose for student volunteering?
  • What does this mean for students’ unions over the next 20 years?

Pre-1910 student volunteering was mostly philanthropic – students and young academics, with valuable skills and knowledge, created volunteering associations to reach outside the walls of their institution and help those in need. This community service, often facilitated by Christian groups, was considered to be an essential part of a student’s citizenship education exposing them to unfamiliar conditions, introducing them to society’s issues.

Post-war student volunteers in the 1920s and then again in the 1950s found themselves taking a leading role in the efforts to rebuild Britain. As the state was reshaped and priorities were set in sending international aid abroad, students were increasingly involved in setting the agenda. Student volunteering developed a new social consciousness – an understanding of how problems are caused and how they might be fixed with new policy and different priorities. A new ‘student popular front’ worked for the common good in society, combining traditional fundraising activities (shake a bucket for RAG, RAG, RAG) with forms of political action such as boycotts and protests.

By the 1970s students were becoming increasingly familiar with action – influencing change on the issues they cared most about. Volunteers opposed the US war in Vietnam, challenged fascism across Europe and supported civil rights struggles at home and abroad. Organisations like Student Community Action were set up to coordinate volunteering and fundraising activities.

Opposition to student activism and unions, now a powerful force in society, inevitably followed. The attack by John Major’s Conservative government resulted in the Education Act 94 (although we won major concessions). Since the 1990s, a complex web of regulation affects our organisations, and the landscape of UK education has been shaped as a marketplace – where degrees are retailed like package holidays, motivations have become competitive and students’ unions have found a path of least resistance being pushed towards becoming service providers and elaborate customer feedback providers.

This market has encouraged the language of employability to dominate today. Volunteering is pitched as a way to secure your investment in education – to get a job faster than your peers and command a higher salary after graduating. Universities and students’ unions compete today on how much their students volunteer – introducing timesheets and reward-driven milestones.

Our recent work with Universities UK has shown how this perception can be problematic – limiting participation to those with an interest in boosting their CV, or full-time undergraduates with plenty of time on their hands. Positioning volunteering as a way of boosting the economic worth of a qualification also excludes those who value volunteering differently - somewhere on a wider spectrum of being intrinsically good, educational, socially valuable, or just fun to do.

We know that students volunteer for a number of reasons in their masses. In higher education around a third of students do and upcoming research suggests that this could be nearly double for students in sixth forms and colleges.

The role that students play in their community is considerable and we must strive to see that it remains valuable, exciting and inclusive for all students to participate in.

For the next 20 years, students’ collective platform for voluntary action should be students’ unions. Together we must be understood as a force for the common good in education and society.


Click here for more information about the history of student volunteering and the state of student social action in the UK today

Raechel Mattey

NUS Vice President (Union Development). NUS has been one of the delivery partners for Student Volunteering Week since 2013, alongside Student Hubs.

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