Over the past 10 years we’ve learnt a thing or two about facilitating impactful and sustainable student social action. But we wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for all the volunteers, fundraisers, protesters and campaigners who came before us. These extracts are taken from the study by Dr. Georgina Brewis – A Social History of Student Volunteering: Britain and Beyond 1880-1980.




Before 1880

Higher education students in the UK have a long tradition of voluntary action. The roots of this movement lie in the religious societies formed at universities during the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century, some of which organised volunteers to visit sick people and prisoners. In the early nineteenth century overseas mission work was supported by missionary associations started at the Scottish universities, Oxford, Cambridge and London medical schools.

During the 1870s and early 1880s several Oxford and Cambridge colleges founded ‘college missions’ by sponsoring a curate based in a poor parish in South or East London. These missions grew to have considerable institutional presence and offered a wide range of social, recreational and religious services. Students were encouraged to visit and help out at the college mission during vacations and annual visits to Oxford or Cambridge were arranged for clubs, youth groups and sports teams from the mission districts.


Toynbee HallEarly residents of Toynbee Hall with Samuel and Henrietta Barnett. Reproduced with kind permission of Toynbee Hall Archives

1880s and 1890s

From the 1880s students were increasingly receptive to new ideas about social problems and social service that were being put forward by a range of writers and thinkers, and the universities became important pools of volunteers for many social institutions.

Most famous of these was the university settlement movement – founded in 1883 by Anglican clergyman Samuel Barnett – which drew strong support from students at Oxford and Cambridge, but also in university cities including London, Glasgow, Manchester, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Bristol. The model relied on long-term residence of recent graduates in a settlement house supported by a pool of volunteers who helped keep clubs, classes, services and programmes of visiting running. Students spent vacations volunteering on summer camps, Christmas treats and sports tournaments. In addition to delivering services to local people, settlements and college missions served a wider function of providing social education and training to students.

Women were particularly involved in the movement, and several women’s colleges founded their own settlements. While relatively small numbers of students actually took part in practical activities at a settlement there was wider support for the ideals of university settlements and pride in the possession of one. Student philanthropic societies also flourished in the Catholic women’s colleges in Ireland, where for instance, the Sodalities of the Children of Mary became a significant part of college life.


1900 – 1914

Although representative student politics was in its infancy, social service and social study were central to the emergence of a vibrant associational culture at universities and colleges before 1914. A key force that helped channel student volunteering was the Student Christian Movement (SCM) founded in 1893. With branches in 130 colleges and universities and a membership of more than 5,000 students by 1908, the SCM began to see itself as a national student body with responsibility for the wider social education of students.

In 1909 its Social Service Committee began promoting and coordinating social service in colleges and universities across Britain; it published textbooks, study outlines and training materials and issued advice pamphlets to volunteer student secretaries. In several colleges joint social service committees were formed by the SCM, Christian Social Union branches, Fabian societies and suffrage societies. Social service also served an important function as a common point of contact between British students and students internationally, in North America, Australia, New Zealand as well as in India, China and Japan.

Social service became one of the most popular topics addressed at international student gatherings. For example a 1912 SCM conference in Liverpool on the theme of ‘Christ and Social Need’ attracted 2,000 students and was accompanied by a touring exhibition on social and missionary service.


The First World War

Rebuilding EuropeFront cover of Ruth Rouse’s history of European Student Relief.University students, particularly women, played a part in the significant increase in volunteering on the home front during the First World War. Although student numbers declined heavily as both men and women joined the armed forces and auxiliary services, students were involved in providing support to refugees from Belgium, first aid training and volunteering with the Red Cross, on farm labour camps during college vacations and in extensive fund-raising for war charities.

The war opened up new opportunities for women’s leadership in student clubs and societies, helping to raise the profile of social service in many universities. Students were closely involved with post-war relief efforts for central Europe and Russia through a special Universities’ Committee of the Imperial War Relief Fund which channelled aid to a new body known as European Student Relief (ESR). In Germany and Austria, for instance, ESR set up pioneering student ‘self-help’ schemes such as canteens, print-works and cooperative buying schemes. By the late 1920s and early 1930s similar activities were also being trialled in colleges in Wales and the north of England, where economic distress was beginning to affect students; and these gradually evolved into the activities of students’ unions we recognise today.

The formation of the National Union of Students of England and Wales (NUS) in 1922 was in part an outcome of this post-war movement for cooperation and reconstruction. Another important feature of student voluntarism in the 1920s was the development of fundraising for local hospitals and medical charities associated with rag weeks. Both European Student Relief and rag helped strengthen student identity in what remained a fragmented higher education system.



Ram NahumCambridge student Ram Nahum protesting against the non-intervention policy during the Spanish Civil War, c. 1938. Reproduced by kind permission of the Institute of Education Archives, ref SIM/4/5/1/22In the 1930s student voluntarism was tested as never before. Students were keen to distance themselves from the perceived escapism of the previous generation and the decade was marked by increased social and political activity, including a noticeable surge of left-wing action on campus. The universities and colleges were a source of funds, gifts-in-kind and volunteers for a wide range of domestic and international causes and campaigns.

The Depression led to a renewed interested in social study in the universities while some students became involved with innovative workcamp schemes and on residential camp programmes for unemployed men and women. International concerns such as the rise of fascism impinged increasingly on student life, and students were closely involved with extensive fundraising for refugees fleeing Nazism, the victims of the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) and students affected by Japanese aggression in China.

Traditional methods of fund-raising and collecting gifts-in-kind continued alongside new forms of student social and political action such as boycott of Japanese goods and protest over the government’s non-intervention policy in Spain. Students from a range of different religious and political traditions collaborated with others on social action, forging what might be seen as a ‘student popular front’ by the end of the 1930s.



Student Contribution to VictoryReproduced by kind permission of the National Union of Students.Once again, the outbreak of war had a major impact on the universities. While thousands of students immediately joined the forces, those returning to college faced the multifaceted challenges of evacuation and Air Raid Precautions (ARP) as well as uncertainty over their very future as students.

Student ambivalence towards the war came to a head during the 1940 NUS conference at which a majority of students passed an anti-war motion. However, during the Blitz attacks on UK cities later in 1940 students organised themselves to help in air raid shelters, in first aid posts and at rest centres. Gradually, most universities introduced schemes of voluntary ‘war work’ including making camouflage netting, running activities for evacuated children, helping in hospitals and canteens and providing educational or recreational activities for locally stationed troops. The NUS took on a role in helping co-ordinate the student contribution to the war effort, publishing pamphlets detailing how student volunteers could help out, as well as organising agricultural aid camps.

British students also supported the work of World Student Relief, an extensive relief programme for student victims of the war. Students played a part in post-war educational reconstruction in Europe and the Far East through sending food, books and study materials, providing hospitality to student visitors from liberated Europe, exchange programmes and a range of schemes to bring the German universities back into contact with the rest of the world. A 1944 NUS report explored ways to break down the barriers that existed between students and the outside world, concluding that such problems of integration might be better solved by drawing university students from a wider section of population than had previously been the case, rather than through increased social service schemes.



OU Refugee CommitteeThe post-war years marked a period of rapid expansion in higher education and student numbers. The rag tradition was revived with increasingly outrageous fundraising stunts that were raising around £200,000 a year by the mid-1950s. The decade also marked the beginning of a new wave of student social action on a range of international and domestic issues, including juvenile delinquency, apartheid and antiracism, refugee students, and the antinuclear movement.

Older models of student social service—such as clubs, camps and settlements— gave way to new-style youth clubs and university social service groups. Workcamps at home and abroad grew in popularity. Events in Suez and Hungary in 1956, H-bomb tests and growing awareness of apartheid in South Africa led to renewed discussion of social and political questions in the universities, and although activism on any issue was confined to a small minority of students, activities to aid Hungarian refugee students, high-profile campaigns such as World Refugee Year (1959-1960) or solidarity with students worldwide through World University Service succeeded in drawing larger numbers of students into voluntary action.



From the early 1960s student support was a vital force behind the rapid growth of a range of new voluntary and campaigning movements in Britain including Voluntary Service Overseas, CND, Amnesty International, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Child Poverty Action Group and Shelter.

By the mid-1960s students at some universities had become dissatisfied with the traditional models of student community engagement and rag fundraising and began to press for more effective involvement of students with community problems, marking a transition from traditional social ‘service’ to community ‘action’, and giving rise to a new, national Student Community Action (SCA) movement. In 1969 a new association called Third World First – an offshoot of Oxfam started by Oxford students – emerged to channel funds to development NGOs and raise student awareness of issues of overseas aid and development.

Both SCA and Third World First should be seen as an alternative approaches to protest, different to but in many ways aligned with the wider questioning of the values of higher education in the late 1960s. Perhaps even more than many of the sit-ins and protests of the 1960s and 1970s, SCA had a lasting impact on national student politics. For example a motion passed by NUS conference in November 1969 decried a lack of student activity in wider communities and urged unions to make community action a “majority activity” of students.


NUS You Could HelpReproduced with kind permission of NUS.


Student Community Action NewsletterReproduced by kind permission of NCVO. Student Community Action Newsletter. In the 1970s volunteering, fundraising and campaigning came to be seen as mainstream activities of students’ unions and university clubs and societies. From 1970 to 1978 the National Union of Students ran a Student Community Action programme, enabling the development of a national network of Student Community Action groups across colleges, universities and polytechnics.

The activities of these groups varied from ‘volunteer’ or ‘service’ oriented work such as decorating, putting on entertainments, teaching immigrants, mental health projects, work with older people, support for Shelter or the Samaritans to more radical campaigns on such issues as alternative education, housing, squatting, radical media, anti-racism and tenants’ rights. The SCA movement was highly self-critical in its early days and its leaders determined to mark a break with a ‘do-gooding’ past. Students also increased their activities on a range of social, political and moral questions including anti-apartheid, feminism, gay rights and the environment.



SCADUSCA Development Unit Annual Report, Reproduced by kind permission of NCVO. Student Community Action remained the dominant model of student voluntarism through the 1980s and into the 1990s, although its influence on national student politics began to wane. In 1981 a new Student Community Action Development Unit was set up with funding from the Voluntary Services Unit of the Home Office. In the mid-80s there were SCA groups in 90 universities, colleges and polytechnics involving 15,000 students a year.

As in previous generations, students modified their models of voluntary action to meet changing social needs. With unemployment growing in the early 1980s, students became involved supporting centres for the unemployed, particularly the young unemployed. Student Community Action Groups also lobbied for ‘community access’, aiming to make colleges and student unions more accessible to local people.

In this climate too there was increased recognition of the skills students themselves gained from involvement in volunteering and the potential of SCA involvement for influencing career choices. In addition SCA groups began to place greater emphasis on training for students volunteers. A further interest was in problems faced by disabled people living in British society while other campaigns focussed on anti-racism, women’s issues and how to involve more black students in SCA.



'Sod it' posterImage credit: People & Planet (previously Third World First).The 1990s saw continued changes to student volunteering connected to changes to higher education funding and students’ union reform. A growing emphasis on student volunteering for skills development and enhancing employability was part of the response to such challenges. In the 1990s youth and student volunteering were issues high on the policy agenda through John Major’s Make a Difference Strategy (1994-1997).

There was a further shift in the recognition of the role that student volunteering and community action could play in improving a university’s relations with its local community. The national infrastructure to support local groups (now renamed the National Centre for Student Volunteering) offered advice on training and good practice in volunteering, and worked hard to promote the benefits of student volunteering.

The 1980s and 1990s also marked the rebirth of student rag. Having survived the criticisms of the SCA movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, rag groups continued to raise large sums of money for charity, although the carnivals and processions, sexist and racist ‘rag mags’, and beauty contests which characterised rags in mid-century had largely disappeared. Student began to redefine rag as ‘raise and give’ and a number of post-1992 universities embraced it as an important aspect of student culture.



In the 2000s there was a clear shift away from students accessing volunteering mainly through SCA or rag groups to a much broader platform of opportunities through university employability units, students’ union voluntary service units or as part of an academic module. Significant government investment in the student volunteering sector was channelled through the Labour government’s Higher Education Active Communities Fund and the youth volunteering charity v. Other changes included the launch of a new network of ‘Student Hubs’ at several Russell Group universities; these aimed to be a focal point for all charitable, volunteering and campaigning activity within participating universities.

A wide range of actors on all sides of the political spectrum stressed the transformatory potential of volunteering for students, as for young people more widely, leading to the incorporation of volunteering into the ‘student experience’. This has raised questions about students’ freedom of choice and the potential downsides of choosing not to get involved.

Over time student voluntary action has shown remarkable resilience, continually being reinvented by new generations of students and reflecting changed social conditions. A central tenet that cuts across the different periods is the idea that university students have special responsibilities to the community and the nation, and that through fulfilment of these obligations students can help demonstrate the wider social value of higher education in modern Britain.


Student HubsStudent Hubs inspires, connects and supports students to engage with social action during their time at university


This overview is summarised from Georgina Brewis, A Social History of Student Volunteering: Britain and Beyond, 1880-1980 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).


On the more recent decades see:
Clare Holdsworth and Georgina Brewis, ‘Volunteering Choice and Control: A Case Study of Higher Education Student Volunteering’, Journal of Youth Studies 17 no. 2 (2014): 201-219.

Georgina Brewis and Clare Holdsworth, ‘University support for student volunteering in England: Historical Development and Contemporary Value’, Journal of Academic Ethics 9, no. 2 (June 2011): 165-176.


This research helped inform our study: Students, Volunteering and Social Action in the UK. Discover our key recommendations and read the full report here.


Further reading

Below are links to PDF documents detailing more of our research on the history of student volunteering with Georgina. These documents are taken from Student Volunteering History, a website run in collaboration with Georgina Brewis that has now been closed down.

Website purpose

Detailed timeline

Seminar Transcript

Website bibliography