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Looking for new (volunteer) faces
11 March 2008
by Debbie Andalo

Donald Ndhlovu, who came to the UK from Zimbabwe six years ago, spends two hours a week helping pupils at an after school club in inner city Bristol get to grips with the nuances of the English language and their new life on this side of the world.

Ndhlovu, 23, who is in the final year of his forensic science degree at the University of the West of England, believes sharing a similar background means he can bring something extra to his volunteering role. He can be more open minded about pupils' problems and the issues they face integrating into a new society.

Gabby Brent, who is studying life skills courses at a further education college in Islington, north London, signed up to volunteer for different reasons. The 20-year-old, who spends Friday afternoons data inputting and doing other administrative tasks at the headquarters of the charity Scope, says the chance to volunteer has given him valuable work experience as well as the opportunity to help others.

Brent says: "It's giving me experience and making me feel more confident about my skills in the future and I enjoy meeting other people."

Both Brent and Ndhlovu are helping to break the stereotypical image of the student volunteer who has traditionally been white, middle class and more often than not, female. The need to attract people from more diverse and under-represented backgrounds into volunteering was highlighted last month by the influential commission on the future of volunteering, headed by the Liberal Democrat peer Rabbi Julia Neuberger.

The commission's report, Manifesto for Change, acknowledged that asylum seekers, refugees, disabled and homeless people and those with mental health problems are under-represented in volunteering. The commission called on the government to establish a £1m access to volunteering fund to target these groups and make volunteering more inclusive.

Professor John Annette, from Birkbeck College in London, was a member of the commission and is chair of the higher education community partnerships - a national network to encourage more university students to volunteer. Historically, volunteering has attracted white middle-class students who grew up surrounded by a family ethos of volunteering, says Annette, who is pro vice master for widening participation and community participation.

"Middle-class students don't need to work as many part-time hours as students from lower income families. It's tough to have to find time to volunteer if you are studying and working part time to fund your degree as well," he says.

He believes that students from diverse backgrounds, especially former refugees or asylum seekers, can make valuable volunteers because of the understanding they have of their own communities. But he says lack of investment in volunteering generally by universities has made it more difficult for disabled students to get involved.

He says: "The university volunteering programme has not had the resources to establish the sort of internships for these [disabled] students to enable them to volunteer. They are excellent volunteers but it's just the extent to which universities invest in supporting volunteers."

Adrian Middleton, who runs the inclusive volunteering programme at Scope, works to break down the barriers to volunteering for students like Brent.

"The barriers are about attitudes as well as physical barriers. It's about people's misconceptions - the belief that it's going to be more work and more trouble. They are often perceived barriers, and there are simple solutions like putting in a higher desk if somebody is a wheelchair user or getting a different kind of computer mouse or keyboard. They are small changes but often the perception is big."

One issue is lack of investment in promoting student volunteering, essential if these under-represented groups are to be persuaded about the value of giving up free time to help others.

Between 2002-06 the government, through its higher education active community fund, made available £37m for universities to spend on setting up infrastructure to support student volunteering. When that funding dried up it was replaced by a total of £15m - available until 2009 - set aside in the Higher Education Funding Council for England's (Hefce) teaching quality enhancement fund (TQEF). Universities can apply for a grant of between £15,000 and £279,000.

Mary Ingleby, who runs the student volunteering service at Aston University in the West Midlands, has around 200 student volunteers who reflect the mix of its 7,000 population, which has 58% from ethnic minorities.

She says: "We don't target a specific group of students, but we do monitor who volunteers and make sure it reflects our student population."

Aston's volunteering services, which benefited from a Hefce grant and money from the TQEF, are part of its outreach and widening participation department.

"We took the view to put that money into a university office for sustainability reasons because for us continuity was important. We are constantly looking for our next stream of funding but we feel comfortable that it would be underwritten by the university because volunteering and community support is something which the university has been committed to for a long time," adds Ingleby.

Volunteering England, the organisation which that promotes voluntary work, is hopeful that next week's national student volunteering week (February 25 tmto March 2) will help raise the profile of volunteering and persuade more students from all backgrounds to sign up.

Its head of student volunteering, Lizzie Cole, says: "The whole benefit of volunteering is that you give the gift of your time and any particular background you may have and personal skills. You don't need qualifications - it's about what you bring personally to the role.

"It's important to engage all different types of groups and we want to see more opportunities for volunteering for students - whatever their background."

But for Annette the solution to increasing the diversity of student volunteers is a step beyond national publicity campaigns. He wants to see students given a financial incentive or reward in exchange for volunteering.

He says: "The simple solution is not to call it volunteering but something like civic or public service and in return offer students further education scholarships or financial credit towards helping to pay off their student loan."