Students help to help themselves

January 17, 1997

Hardship is changing the nature of student voluntary work.

It is not making students less altruistic but it is making them more serious about gaining recognition for their efforts. And the recipients of their assistance are increasingly fellow students, particularly mature students struggling to raise families.

The National Centre for Student Volunteering in the Community, known as Scadu from its former title, Student Community Action Development Unit, has around 15,000 students on its database, participating in 130 separate voluntary community projects.

An independent charity coordinating student community action groups, Scadu says that the number has remained roughly constant despite the time constraints created by semesterisation and the increasing need for students to do part-time paid work.

Scadu figures do not cover all the voluntary work undertaken by students. National figures are hard to obtain. The most recent figures available from the National Centre for Volunteering are for 1990, when 460,000 students did some form of voluntary work - 2 per cent of the national figure of 23 million.

Rising pressure from employers to have evidence of extracurricular interests is one reason why voluntary work continues to be popular. But Kelly Drake, the director of Scadu, says: "The time constraints faced by students have meant that students are less likely to be able to offer their services to long-term projects."

The pressure of trying to finance a degree course in the 1990s has also provided new areas of volunteer work - catering for the needs of other poverty-stricken students.

At Swansea University, student volunteers from the student community action programme do shopping for students with disabilities. At Birmingham University, students work with the wives of international students, helping them with the difficulties posed by their new environment. Babysitting for mature students with families is also a popular activity.

HIV/Aids projects have also become a focus of student voluntary activity. Students have become involved with befriending groups dealing with patients who have Aids as well as working in Aids hospices. Ms Drake pointed out that befriending groups are one of the longer term projects that students could find increasingly difficult to offer their services to.

Working with children remains the most popular form of voluntary work. Students frequently work for social services, for instance with children on the "at-risk" register. Setting up social clubs for elderly or disadvantaged people is also a popular activity, as is work with the homeless. Environmental projects such as cleaning up urban parkland also remain a common area of student volunteer work.

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