Rag weeks used to be more about fun for students than funds for charity. That has all changed. Elaine Williams reports
It is the time of year when student fundraisers dress up and meet the people. The rag tour, often held in the spring and characterised by rattling tins and silly costumes, is one of the most public aspects of a tradition fast becoming a multimillion-pound business. But traditionally it has been a mixed blessing. Along with the commendable amounts of cash raised for good works through street collections and organised events comes drink-induced high jinks and toilet humour.
Popular myth about the origin of rag revolves around Oxford University students in the early 19th century dressing up in rags and processing to raise money for the poor. Since then, the term has come to stand more generally for students raising and giving money. In the 1960s and 1970s, it developed in many universities into an annual week-long event marked by processions and balls and the production of magazines to exchange for donations. At some point in the week, there would usually be a drunken raid on the town's traffic cones when many a signpost would go walkabout.
Rag nearly died out in the 1980s, but it re-emerged in the 1990s, initially as a backlash against political correctness, but later reinvented as a more professional, effective and focused charitable operation.
Today, student collectors maintain a liking for pantomime costume and flamboyant cross-dressing, and some rag mags still take pride in the ritual of being banned by the university authorities on the grounds of bad taste and risque jokes. But the shower-room humour is becoming a thing of the past, according to the key sabbatical officers and fundraisers involved.
David Eder, student programme manager for Help the Aged and former rag sabbatical officer at Southampton University, believes students are now far more determined to raise funds than raise fun. "In the bad old days, rag students were out to have a laugh, and if they raised some money for charity in the process, all to the good," he says. "These days, students don't have so much free time, so they want to make sure that whatever they do, they do well. Professionalism is the buzz word." He feels that most students want to be good citizens - they do not want to give offence, so raising donations through rag mags full of cheap jokes is no longer the core of their activity.
This has not stopped the cheap jokes altogether. Earlier this year, Carolyn Roth, a lecturer at the St Bartholomew School of Nursing and Midwifery at City University took exception to the school's rag mag, which she said demeaned women by depicting them as sexual objects - for example, it labelled the picture of a naked, headless and armless female as "the perfect woman". Roth has publicly called on students and academics to challenge the sexism and misogyny that "permeates such publications". Student leaders at St Bart's have responded by highlighting the Pounds 130,000 of charity funds raised in rag week and have argued that the magazine is intended as light-hearted, medics' humour and that it does include explicit warnings about the adult nature of some jokes.
The school's authorities are caught in the middle, approving of the money raised and not wishing to censor students but disapproving of the rag mag contents. Brian Colvin, assistant warden at the school, says: "I don't think there has ever been a dean of a medical school who felt the students behave impeccably at all times. They do let their hair down fairly enthusiastically and we do want to preserve freedom of expression. But it's time to move away from the traditional rag-mag culture to something socially more acceptable." It is hoped that before next year's rag, a group of students and academics will meet "to consider a way forward".
Fuss over rag mags is not confined to St Bart's. Rag students at Queen's University, Belfast, found themselves the object of tabloid outrage when their publication of a joke student card bearing a mocking picture of Princess Diana coincided with her fatal accident. Some student rags believe that their mags must be at least a little irreverent to catch attention. London University's Royal Holloway "raggies", for example, have exposed vast swathes of flesh in this year's publication, perhaps taking their cue from the Women's Institute.
But at many universities, rag has become a serious, year-round activity. The National Union of Students estimates that it raises Pounds 5 million for charities nationally, and some believe this is a conservative figure. In any case, the sums are large enough for charities to have started appointing officers such as Eder, whose sole job is to work with rag groups. Acknowledging students' desire to improve their fundraising efforts, Help the Aged has produced a student fundraising handbook and holds training events. A London Underground event, which the charity runs every year in June, attracts about 150 raggies from all over the country to spend a day with Help the Aged staff, attending workshops on team-building, project planning and PR. They spend three days putting what they have learnt into practice and collecting on the Underground for the charity. Two years ago, they raised nearly Pounds 40,000 and last year Pounds 35,000.
"Students make brilliant fundraisers," Eder says. "They listen to what you have to say as a charity. They want to know about the issues. We see them as ambassadors. They are good at talking to the public about what we do." He says that charitable fund-raising is now at the forefront of student activity, which has begun to favour "good" rather than political causes. "The issue of social welfare and social care is very much on the agenda, and students want to work towards this, but in an apolitical way."
The flip side to some of the more questionable activities associated with rag in the past is the high energy and general good humour with which students tackle fundraising. Charities see they can gain much by channelling students' enthusiasms into a more positive image. In terms of charitable events, students have always been prominent. They were bungee-jumping and fire-walking for charity long before others, and these days they have taken to "catapulting" - being launched into the air at high speed. They also use events as a way of highlighting issues. For example, wheelchair basketball games have been staged not only to raise funds, but to highlight the plight of disabled groups. Sleep-outs are popular for highlighting the conditions faced by the homeless.
There is also a degree of self-interest driving much of the current activity. Rag provides the opportunity for students to become event managers, to control finance, arrange publicity, market a product. Eder believes students are waking up to the opportunities it presents for gaining "CV points". In addition, charitable fundraising has also become a respectable career in its own right, and that, he says, has also had an effect on the nature of rag.
Caroline Woodisse, Bristol University rag chair - a sabbatical post for the first time this year, has managed to quadruple the amount that Bristol rag raises to more than Pounds 80,000 a year. Her post is funded half by the student union and half by sponsorship. Students, she says, appreciate the chance to gain skills they can use later in the workplace. Rag involves a lot of "blagging" (getting money and equipment out of companies and corporate institutions for free), and that, says Woodisse, "requires confidence and skills". She accepts that the "fun element is still there" - there are still parties and beer festivals - but that the "stupidity" has largely gone. "Rag went too wacky, and students don't want that any more," she says. "They don't want to run about and be stupid. Universities such as Bristol, Bath and Loughbrough have moved away from joke mags, they're more into promotional material, telling the public what we're about."
Rag, Woodisse says, is moving away from being a separate society to being "the charity wing of the student union", advising students on fundraising. Ben Smith, the sabbatical chair of Loughborough University rag, has at his disposal a full-time administrative assistant and a fleet of mini-buses. Loughborough rag raises more than Pounds 120,000 every year and no longer relies on selling rag mags. It is much more into organising events such as its community bonfire, which draws 16,000 local people. Smith says: "We have turned our mag into a recruiting tool fit to be read by everybody, even children. The social element of rag is still important. We still want to organise the best parties, but what does a rude mag with excruciating jokes have to say about charity fundraising? It gives out all the wrong messages."
He says they receive lots of support from Loughborough's vice-chancellor. "He sees us as a powerful promoter of the university."