Are student volunteers part of Cameron’s Big Society?

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Posted on 06 September 2011

Though nearly two-thirds of students are involved in some form of volunteering activity, the way that it takes place reveals some fundamental limitations in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society project, according to research presented to the international conference of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) by Professor of Social Geography Clare Holdsworth, of Keele University.

The research, carried out with the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) for the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), surveyed more than 4,000 students and 6,000 graduates. Key findings include:

  • Sixty-three percent had taken part in some form of volunteering, but less than a third of these (20% of all students) do regularly (at least once a week)
  •  The most important reason for volunteering was to improve things or help people (95%), but developing skills (88%) and work experience (83%) are also important
  •  More than half (51%) of young graduates (under 30) said that volunteering had helped them to get a job
  • Of those who had never volunteered, a majority (70%) said they had not done so because of lack of time due to study pressures
  • Volunteering is more common within higher ranking universities, and amongst those from non-traditional backgrounds, including ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, and mature students

Commenting, Professor Holdsworth said: “Volunteering is becoming a popular and mainstream activity for students in Higher Education which would appear to support the Big Society project approach that volunteers should be able to combine self-interest with responsibility for their communities.
“However, the nature of student volunteering exposes some of the key challenges and limitations. Lack of time is the main barrier to either students volunteering in the first place, or the amount of time they then spend doing it.”
The research found that only just over half who volunteer at university continue to do so after leaving.

Furthermore, the way in which universities promote volunteering increasingly emphasise to students how they would personally benefit from volunteering – mainly in relation to their increased employment prospects.

Professor Holdsworth said: “The student experience of volunteering challenges Big Society assumptions that community action can be mobilised by individuals alone. Students are often expected to volunteer with disadvantaged groups outside university, often exacerbating the divide between the students and the wider communities they do not feel part of. The student volunteering experience is found to be most effective at bridging this gap where there are organisational structures from third sector organisations to support students in communities.”


Notes to Editors

1. Professor Clare Holdsworth’s presentation “Student volunteering and the big society: building communities or reinforcing social distance” took place at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference, London. To see more details about the session, see: Emerging Geographies of the Big Society

2. For further details contact the media and communications office on 020 7591 3019, 07719 712 978, or email

3. The annual International Conference is the largest gathering of academic geographers in Europe, with more than 350 sessions, featuring more than 1,300 speakers from more than 35 countries. Delivered over three days, almost 1,500 delegates will attend sessions on topics as diverse as localism and big society, health and quality of life, energy management and low-carbon initiatives while artistic performances and plenary speakers will explore the conference theme ‘The Geographical Imagination’. Chaired by Professor Stephen Daniels from the University of Nottingham, the conference is 15% bigger than 2010 in terms of sessions, papers and attendance. Delegates and speakers represent a variety of disciplines both inside geography and from across multiple fields including economics, history, art, philosophy and public health. One third of delegates are postgraduate researchers, while one quarter are from outside the UK (predominantly Europe, North America and Australasia). 

4. The Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) is the learned society and professional body for geography. Formed in 1830, our Royal Charter of 1859 is for 'the advancement of geographical science'. Today, we deliver this objective by developing, supporting and promoting geography through research, expeditions and fieldwork, education, and public engagement, while also providing geographical input to policy. We aim to foster an understanding and informed enjoyment of our world. We hold the world's largest private geographical collection and provide public access to it. We have a thriving Fellowship and membership and offer the professional accreditation 'Chartered Geographer'