robJackson

Why are we requiring would-be students to volunteer?

The voluntary and community sector is known for its commitment to fairness and social justice. When it comes to volunteering, the sector has long been concerned about anything that might undermine the accepted core principles of volunteerism – time given, of someone’s own free will and without concern for financial gain, in order to make the world a better place.

It is this concern with ‘pure’ volunteering that leads to campaigns such as Keep Volunteering Voluntary that continues to lobby hard for charities to avoid taking part in what they see as forced volunteering in return for welfare benefits.

I was somewhat surprised at the absence of critical sector response to the announcement last month that university and college applicants should list the volunteering they have done on their Ucas applications. A large part of my surprise was because this very guidance has been written by a sector body, the Charities Aid Foundation. In fact, many bodies were involved in drafting the guidance, including the National Union of Students, Step Up To Serve  and the National Citizen Service.

“But that’s not forced volunteering,” I hear you cry.

In comparison to people being forced to give time or face benefits sanctions, I’d agree that we are talking about two different things. But let’s be clear, requiring students to list volunteering on a UCAS form means forcing students to do some form of volunteering in order to have something to list.

CAF says in the Third Sector article that “including references to social action in the personal statement section of applications could make applicants more likely to catch the eyes of admissions tutors”.

Ucas is quoted as saying: “Linking volunteering and leadership in extracurricular activities to an area of study might strengthen an application.”

In other words, if you put volunteering on your Ucas form your application will be viewed more favourably, and, if you don’t do any volunteering your application will be viewed less so. The bodies involved have, in effect, conspired with Ucas to ensure that students are required to volunteer if they want to go to college or university.

I have an 18-year-old stepdaughter who is, hopefully, going to university this autumn. She has been compelled to volunteer already if she wanted to gain an advantage in the Ucas process. It hasn’t been a great experience for her and this new guidance adds to the pressure young people will face as they apply for higher education at a time when many volunteer-involving organisations continue to under-invest in giving volunteers a great experience and meaningful work.

If we are against forced volunteering as a sector, then we should be against it in all forms – and not just those that suit our political ends. The new CAF guidance seems to suggest that we can play fast and loose with such principles because, when it suits the sector, forced volunteering is actually OK.

  • In my experience, students have been guided to donate service as a way of looking better for college since I went to college, a mere 40 years ago – I realize that you feel the volunteering isn’t pure but everybody gains from serving, there’s a payoff to each of us; some payoffs are different from others. and the irony is, I’ll bet your step daughter admits to liking at least one or two things she learned from volunteering, eh?

    • Rob Jackson

      I actually have no problem with students volunteering Sarah. My issue is the position of organisations who claim to hate forced volunteering but then only seem to pick the kind of mandated service that suits them.

  • Mark Restall

    This is really problematic – as with unpaid internships this is something which unfairly biases things towards the better off. For some young people a part time/Saturday job to accompany their study is going to be a more pressing use of their spare time.

    Sadly I think you’re right. Many sector bodies are happy to give up on one of the elements of volunteering (freely entered into, unpaid, for the benefit of others) when it suits either themselves directly, or a particular government agenda that they don’t want to be seen to critique. But give some people a chance – I imagine less people will be aware of the Ucas issue (I’d missed it until I saw this blog), and the kind of groups that would be more supportive of volunteering like AVM don’t have the resources of CAF or NCVO to bring out quick responses.

  • Tracey Le Gallez

    We take Duke of Edinborough Award students as volunteers as it is necessary for them to carry out volunteering in order to achieve the award and the cachet that goes with it. Do we beat ourselves up about the fact they are compelled to do this? Or do we encourage our youth to actively get involved in something that is a worthwhile meaningful activity? We pat ourselves on the back as parents that they are doing it. Why would we want to flagellate ourselves for compelling students to do something positive that will enhance their chances of success, give them a meaningful experience whilst helping others? Do we as parents and citizens moan that youth are not actively involved in such worthwhile activities? Its wasn’t like that when I was young I can hear the cry along with get out of bed during every school summer holiday and weekend. Of course we compel our kids do some volunteering, God forbid that a student might have to demonstrate that they want a career in nursing and they do that by exposing themselves to doing a few hours a week in a care environment. Most kids would love the opportunity to go count elephants or insects in some remote part of the word and yes employers or universities will be impressed that they have done it and shown character and commitment. I say I hope we as a society keep compelling our children, step children and youth to” have a go” do some volunteering and see what is feels like to make a difference not only to others but your own life and well-being

  • “If we are against forced volunteering as a sector…” I’m not. It seems that most people are in the UK. But here in the USA, requiring community service – to fulfill a court order or for a class or for high school graduation – is common, and I’m not against requiring community service at all. HOWEVER, I think nonprofits/charities need to be in on discussions regarding the setting of policies. Schools that set a policy for students to have a certain number of hours volunteering, without talking to local nonprofits, are setting those students up for failure. And requirements that are only about number of hours make volunteering just something to do aren’t creating a culture of civic-minded students. Courts that are requiring people to volunteer (work unpaid) for a certain number of hours at a nonprofit, without talking to local nonprofits, are setting up those people for failure as well. Yes, virtual volunteering can help accommodate people with work or study or family schedules that prevent them from volunteering onsite, but not everyone has the skills and mindset needed for virtual volunteering – what about people with low-literacy skills? Also, virtual volunteering isn’t easy for everyone to find – here I am, Ms. Promoter-of-Virtual-Volunteering, and for every organization that accepts me as an online volunteer, there are AT LEAST a dozen that have turned me down. If schools, courts and governments expect nonprofits to create volunteering activities for those required to do community service, fine: let’s present them with a bill for how much it’s going to cost in terms of staff time to create assignments, and to screen and support these volunteers.

    • Mark Restall

      I’m pleased that we have a sector that broadly stands against forced volunteering. If we didn’t I think it would be time for me to leave it.

      There are actually two issues here. What is volunteering? And what are the ethics of compulsory work or other forms of volunteering that are either coercive or are more accessible to certain people?

      The usual definition of volunteering is that it is unpaid, freely entered into and carried out for the benefit of others. Therefore there is no such thing as forced volunteering. paid volunteering etc. Enforced community service is simply that – enforced community service. Now I think compulsion is wrong, but that’s a separate debate.

      What Rob brings up is volunteering that is indirectly rather than directly forced. Now, there are problems with this alone, but the more important issue for me is its similarity with unpaid internships. Here someone could get a material benefit from working in a full time unpaid role at a fashion house, city firm or voluntary organisation head office, but it’s clearly something that only certain people will be able to afford to do. It’s clearly, nakedly discriminatory. I think internships are more clear cut than Rob’s example, but it’s still worth having the debate.

  • IAS2011

    From the outset, would I suggest that when it comes to Fairness and Justice I would imagine that many would feel that ‘community’ sector organisations don’t always or usually support or ‘fight’ for those who have experienced an injustice – especially if it is connected to paymasters or centralised policy-makers. Thus, it’s seldom a principle that is being wholeheartedly locally to address the sorts of failings that not even the news media wants to discuss.
    With regards to volunteering, and students – even former graduates – as a mentor of former graduates and NEETs, it is obvious that they are job seekers whom seek the opportunity to train as volunteers, but who, ultimately, want jobs in return. There doesn’t seen to be a discussion about data that suggests that volunteering does, in fact, lead to successful jobs for that Charity or Social Enterprise. This is unfortunate.