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.