Here is a piece of writing that I did recently that ambitiously I was hoping to turn into a research paper and send to an academic journal. My PhD supervisors’ feedback was that the scope was too broad and I should refine it. Since that conversation, I have taken those words on board and I’m currently developing a more focused research plan, which will potentially spin-off a number of pieces of research from this initial idea. I wanted to investigate where students’ awareness of austerity is motivating them to volunteer in the new era of Higher Education tuition fees.I thought I would blog my original writing as it will prove a useful reference point as my ideas and writing develops on this subject area. Obviously I’ve made it blog friendly and cut some details around data gathering and methodology out – oh and there’s no findings! On the other hand, it does present the notion that somewhere within this subject matter, there is an opportunity for further investigation.
There is a long history of students volunteering during their time at university. Such activity has become a significant part of the package of opportunities offered to undergraduates to enhance their skills and make a difference in their community during their time studying (Darwen and Rannard, 2011). Motivations for students to volunteer have changed over the years as different drivers have emerged in both higher education and wider society. These motivating factors have been wide ranging, from an individual’s personal altruistic desires to help others, to the need to prepare themselves for a demanding jobs market that places great emphasis on relevant experience or skills (Holdsworth and Quinn, 2011). Successive governments have positioned volunteering as a positive way to support communities (Howlett and Locke, 1999) (Rochester et al, 2010). The current United Kingdom (UK) Government is still pursuing a “Big Society” agenda launched in the Conservative Party Manifesto of 2010 and then the Coalition’s Programme for Government and was part of the Tory party’s election winning manifesto of 2015. A key strand of the agenda is social action – encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society (Woodhouse, 2015) through volunteering. Young people aged 16-25 years old currently occupy the largest demographic undertaking monthly volunteering (National Council for Voluntary Organisations, 2016). In the UK the proportion of 16–25 year olds saying they volunteer once a month is up by more than half (52%) since 2010, (NCVO, 2016) showing a clear trend of recent growth in regular volunteering in the age range typically occupied by the majority of undergraduates.
Over the same period, the UK government has introduced a package of measures to reduce the country’s deficit caused by the financial crisis of 2007, which developed into the deepest recession experienced in the UK since the great depression caused by the Wall Street Crash in the 1930s (Seldon, et al, 2015). The measures have impacted many areas of everyday life in the United Kingdom. It has been consistently argued by charities, campaign groups and academics that the majority of the austerity measures affected the poorest and most vulnerable members of society most (Beatty and Fothergill, 2013; O’Hara, 2014; Hastings, 2015). Moreover, these have driven people from traditional support services provided by the state to other local providers and charities. Many of these organisations have been put under increased pressure and have needed to recruit more volunteers in order to meet demand (National Children’s Bureau, 2012). In 2012, two years after the introduction of austerity measures, a new era of tuition fees was introduced in UK universities forcing those who wanted to attend university to spend £9,000 a year to attend undergraduate courses (Social Policy, 2015). The introduction of fees further increased the marketisation of Higher Education, creating a new landscape for universities where students could expect added value from their degree courses, including improved employment prospects, unique learning opportunities and an enhanced student experience (Higher Education Academy, 2014) at a time when the United Kingdom was feeling the affects of service cuts and recession. The new era of fees has brought new challenges to institutions with enhanced expectations on staff to meet new targets and fulfill requirements of their roles and come under greater pressure to treat students as consumers and to be more available and accessible (Bates and Kaye, 2014).
There is also an argument that universities now have a greater responsibility to improve employability prospects for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds to challenge an ability bias that favours other graduates (Institute of Fiscal Studies, 2016). Beyond demands on academics’ time, volunteering can help to address some of the new challenges by bringing university students into contact with the wider community, giving them the opportunity to work on real-world challenges, understand more about their course, build skills, employability, improving personal development and, as a result, strengthening employability, experience and their ties with their institution (VInspired, 2010; Braime and Ruohonen, 2013). These views however are contested as the benefits of student volunteering are assumed rather than proven (Holdsworth and Quinn, 2010). However, such activities are perceived have a positive impact on universities establishing community links and engagement in local issues (CoBaLT, 1999).
In the current jobs climate, employers are unlikely to take on graduates who have had no previous work experience at all and those without it have little or no chance of receiving a job offer (High Fliers Research, 2016). Volunteering is however regarded as a good way of getting this experience. (Business, Innovation and Skills, 2015).
In this writing, the relationships between students volunteering, volunteering organisations, universities, tuition fees and the economic landscape is reviewed to identify whether traditional motivating factors for participating in volunteering are being influenced by new external drivers. Little has been documented about a connection between the increase in tuition fees, the jobs market and the current rise in young people volunteering. Previous research has identified students’ desire to help others as the number one factor for participating in volunteering. However there are no studies to explore whether awareness of austerity measures affecting poor and vulnerable groups is prompting undergraduates to give their time to help others, at a time when they are under pressure to gain experiences that will increase their employability to pay back their tuition fee loans. This leads me to wonder whether it is worth investigating the experiences and motivations of students who are engaged in volunteering at a United Kingdom university in 2016 to identify whether there is a link between payment of tuition fees, enhancing employability and the desire to help others in an era of highly-publicised austerity.
Volunteering and Higher Education
Student volunteers have a lot to offer their communities through sharing their social capital and expertise, forming two-way relationships that can benefit others, enrich their personal learning and be a way of improving their employability (Robinson et al, 2012). Students have a long history of volunteering during their time at university and the activity has become a significant part of the package of opportunities offered to undergraduates to enhance their skills and make a difference in their community during their time studying (Darwen and Rannard, 2011). There is no clear-cut definition that encompasses all aspects of volunteering exists, however generally, volunteering is described as an unpaid activity where someone gives their time to help an organisation or an individual who they are not related to (Handy, et al, 2000) (Volunteering England, 2009). While this definition could relate to students giving time to run clubs or societies at their university, this research is concerned with undergraduates who volunteer their time to work with individuals, groups and charities beyond the campus and within the community.
Data suggests that the appetite for volunteering is growing amongst students with young people aged 16-25 years old currently occupy the largest demographic undertaking monthly volunteering (NCVO, 2016). In the United Kingdom (UK), the proportion of 16–25 year olds saying they volunteer once a month is up by more than half (52%) since 2010 (NCVO, 2016), showing a clear trend of recent growth in regular volunteering in the age range typically occupied by the majority of undergraduates.
Motivations for students to volunteer have changed over the years as different drivers have emerged in both higher education and wider society. These motivators have been as wide ranging as individuals’ personal altruistic desires to help others to a demanding jobs market that is placing great emphasis on relevant experience or skills, alongside academic qualifications (Holdsworth and Quinn, 2011). The most frequent reasons given for volunteering were to improve things and help people, or that the cause was important to them. Less frequent mentioned reasons included: to get on in my career (8%); feeling there was no one else to do it (9%); and to get a recognised qualification (2%) (NCVO, 2016). The main reason that respondents gave for not formally volunteering on a regular basis was work commitments. These statistics suggest that students who volunteer are more driven by working to benefit others than a long-term goal of enhancing their career prospects despite the emphasis put on the link between volunteering and enhanced employability. Undergraduates’ attempts to gain extra experience to challenge any perceived ability bias through volunteering is also not recognised in the literature with finding only a minority of volunteers stating potential employability-related gains as a motivation for getting involved and only a minority recognise it as a benefit (Ellis Paine et al, 2013).
Successive governments have positioned volunteering as a positive thing to do for the community (Howlett and Locke, 1999) (Rochester et al, 2010). The current Government is still pursuing its “Big Society” agenda launched in the Conservative Party Manifesto of 2010 and then the Coalition’s Programme for Government. A key strand of the agenda is social action – encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society (Woodhouse, 2015). The Big Society agenda remains controversial and there have been accusations that the agenda is cover for cuts. So much so that in February 2011, the then Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in which he responded to criticisms:
“It [the Big Society] is not a cover for anything. It is a good thing to try and build a bigger and stronger society, whatever is happening to public spending. But I would make this argument: whoever was standing here right now as Prime Minister would be having to make cuts in public spending, and isn’t it better if we are having to make cuts in public spending, to try and encourage a bigger and stronger society at the same time?” (Cabinet Office, 2015)
Given the significant growth in volunteering since the introduction of austerity, it could be argued that volunteers are filling gaps in services created by austerity measures. There is evidence that many charities and voluntary organisations have been amongst the worst affected by funding cuts. Other organisations and resources have seen an increase in demand, for example food banks led by local organisations. Demand for voluntary organisations’ services has grown significantly over this time (O’Hara, 2014).
There is a strong argument that students who are supported by their university to volunteer report better experiences of volunteering and reflect more positively upon the benefits that they gain through volunteering than student volunteers who are non-supported. Studies have shown many more students may be involved in volunteering than their universities are aware of (Brewis and Holdsworth, 2011) (VInspired, 2010). Young people need support within a volunteering placement in order to be able to maximise their contribution (Commission for the Future of Volunteering, 2008). Universities can act as a hugely important platform for creating a taste for volunteering (NCCPE, 2008), but at the same time without adequate institutional support, management and opportunities for reflection and placing volunteering in wider social context, student volunteering can fail to benefit any of these groups it seeks to help (Brewis and Holdsworth, 2011).
During the period in question there has been continued interest in how universities contribute to society (Watson, 2007) (Goddard, 2009). This is not solely due to the introduction of tuition fees or austerity, but many societal challenges. Therefore there is a strong argument to suggest there could be an opportunity for universities to strengthen their relationships with their local community by offering greater institutional support to enhance social, intellectual and cultural life in the UK through their engagement with the public.
The era of austerity
In 2010, the UK government introduced a package of measures to reduce the country’s deficit caused by the financial crisis of 2007, and other factors, which developed into the deepest recession experienced in the UK since before the 1930s (Seldon, et al, 2015) and impacted many areas of everyday life in the United Kingdom. It has been consistently argued by charities, campaign groups and academics that the majority of the austerity measures affected the poorest and most vulnerable members of society most and have driven people from traditional support services provided by the state to other local providers and charities. Many of these organisations have been put under pressure and have needed to recruit more volunteers in order to meet demand (NCB, 2012).
English local authorities, responsible for services such as delivering cultural programmes, maintaining the environment, planning, social work and social care, saw their spending cut by 27 per cent in real terms, with 11 per cent reduction in Scotland between 2010 and 2016. While these cuts were driven primarily by reductions in central government funding, a partial freeze on Council Tax in both countries also contributed to the reduction in funding (Hastings, 2015)
It is argued that generally the most deprived local authorities across the UK are hit hardest by the reforms, (Beatty and Fothergill, 2013) (O’Hara, 2014) with strong evidence to suggest that demand for voluntary organisations services has grown significantly in austerity (Saxton et al, 2015)(Hastings, 2015). Voluntary organisations are working hard to generate more of their own resources. The ‘frontloading’ of spending reductions onto local authorities at the beginning of 2010/11 meant that organisations that were more reliant on local government funding saw bigger losses of income. This has particularly impacted on small and medium sized charities (NCVO, 2015).
At the broadest level, public-spending cuts, during a time of economic hardship, have created increasing demand for services (NEF, 2015). Charities have stepped into the gap left by the state, working to offset the impact of cuts in housing, welfare and other key public sectors. There has also been a significant expansion of specific volunteer- led services such as food banks in direct response to welfare changes (Saxton et al, 2015).
The consensus view seems to be that more third sector organisations need extra support and the social capital of volunteering. Universities, as potential partners to these third sector groups, can plan a new role to play in supporting these local organisations. By offering additional support, higher education institutions could fulfil some of their commitments to encourage people from underrepresented backgrounds to further study, create new opportunities for service learning, where the students share the skills and knowledge of their specific undergraduate courses, or promote volunteering to students to give them good experiences for their future employability (Robinson et al, 2012). Student volunteers make an important contribution to the work of voluntary organisations ranging from small community groups to national charities, as well as to public sector bodies such as schools, prisons and hospitals (VInspired, 2011). Volunteer-involving organisations place great value on higher education students and see universities as valuable sources of talent, time and enthusiasm. It is worth noting that this view is countered by arguments that the impact that student volunteering has on disadvantaged communities is insufficiently evidenced (Holdsworth and Quinn, 2010).
The majority of volunteers give their time to the voluntary and community sector (65%), followed by the public sector (23%) and 11% gave time in the private sector (Office of the Third Sector, 2007) and this has been a consistent trend.
With an estimated 725,000 students volunteering annually (NUS, 2014), a third of the student population, it could be argued that there is a potential to grow the numbers further and fill some of the new voluntary roles created in charity and community sectors. Universities are under new pressures to deliver unique learning experiences and enhance undergraduate skills (HEA, 2014). Therefore a more strategic approach to managing volunteering activities could offset some of those challenges and provide local groups and organisations with an intelligent social capital resource they need to meet their present demands. At the same time, this could also reposition the university as a force for public good in its community enabling institutions to answer some of the questions around how universities contribute to society beyond learning, teaching and research. Within the literature, there is little research to suggest students are now taking on roles created by charity and community organisations affected by austerity measures or whether such groups have identified university students as a potential resource to fill such gaps. Given the growing number of student volunteers and financial cutbacks in communities, there is a strong argument that this could be the case.
A new era of tuition fees
Two years after the introduction of austerity measures, a new era of tuition fees was introduced in UK universities requiring those who wanted to attend university to spend up to £9,000 a year on tuition fees for undergraduate courses (Social Policy, 2015). The decision to increase fees followed The Browne Review of higher education that set out three core aims – to increase participation, improve quality and create a sustainable long-term future for higher education (Browne, 2010). This had followed The Dearing Report (Dearing, 1997) a decade earlier that that ended the era of universal free higher education tuition by introducing a new fee structure for students and identified undergraduates as the principle customers of universities.
The introduction of higher fees in 2012 further increased the marketisation of Higher Education, creating a new landscape for universities where students could expect added value from their degree courses including improved employment prospects, unique learning opportunities and an enhanced student experience (HEA, 2014).
As a result, universities have become increasingly subject to commercial pressures to attract people to study with their institutions (Bunce et al, 2016). The new era of fees has brought a shift in the traditional scholarly relationship between academic and student, with greater emphasis on the university providing greater employability provisions to enhance employability skills (Bates and Kaye, 2014).
Many universities are encouraging volunteering, and helping students to recognise the value of developing their skills and experience during their studies as a method of enhancing employability, whilst bringing additional benefits to the local community (Universities UK, 2015). There are many perceived benefits to volunteering. Studies have found that volunteering brings university students into contact with the wider community and strengthens their ties with their institution. It gives them the opportunity to work on real-world challenges, understand more about their course, build skills, employability, and improve personal development. (Braime and Ruohonen, 2013) In the current jobs climate, employers are unlikely to take on graduates who have had no previous work experience at all and those without it have little or no chance of receiving a job offer (High Fliers Research, 2016). Volunteering is however regarded as a good way of getting this experience (BIS, 2015). Two-thirds of HR professionals who ask potential employees about volunteering experience at some point in the application process believe that candidates with volunteering experience are more employable than their competitors. (CIPD). There is also research that indicates that volunteering readily relates to academic learning and the development of undergraduate’s professional skills (Weston et al 2013).
While pressures to gain new skills may have been amplified by external societal challenges, higher education has always been about much more than simply getting a degree and universities have a role to play in supporting social, intellectual and cultural life in the UK through their engagement with the public (VInspired, 2010). Student volunteering can support the core purposes of higher education.
Universities are also recognised as having large numbers of students who can offer a large, accessible pool of potential volunteers with willingness to improve their CVs with extra-curricular experience by using use their existing knowledge and skillsets effectively (Saxton et al, 2015).
Within the literature it is clear volunteering is now being used to enhance learning and give undergraduates skills for future careers. The increase in tuition fees, coinciding with an era of austerity, is presenting an opportunity for universities to collaborate with communities to enhance students’ learning experiences, as well as benefitting society. This presents the notion that there are greater opportunities for students and academics to work with communities and create new interfaces between the public and higher education.
From the data there is a clear indiction that volunteering is hugely popular amongst student-aged young people and seen major growth since 2010. This has coincided with the Government’s austerity programme and endorsement of voluntary activity in communities. Charities that rely on volunteers have also seen their need for assistance grow significantly in the same period. Within the same timeframe, there has been increased interest in how universities contribute to their communities as well, as a transition for institutions to charge increased tuition fees, further marketising the higher education landscape and growing expectations of undergraduates in terms of teaching and learning, experiences and employability. Many universities have identified volunteering as an opportunity to increase their offer to students to meet some of these emerging factors. It would be interesting to identify whether there is a clear link between student volunteering and helping people in austerity, or whether the seemingly altruistic act of helping others is actually driven by the ambitions of the individual to maximise potential for future employment pressured by tuition fee expenditure.
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