The 1994 Group of universities advertises for graduate volunteers – if you’re not happy about it, don’t volunteer!

York University, a member of the 1994 Group
York University, a member of the 1994 Group

– noun
a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking               .
2. a person who performs a service willingly and without pay.

A significant feature of volunteering is the element of choice: to volunteer or not to volunteer –that is up to you.

Whether you are volunteering at an orphanage in Uganda, in the county’s animal shelter, or with your local MP, the assumption would be that you are volunteering because you choose to, you want to, and you appreciate the greater value of the unpaid experience.

Online Guardian article; The 1994 Group of universities advertises for graduate volunteers, however, questions whether it is a good idea for the 1994 Group of universities to “seek unpaid ‘volunteer’ graduates for admin jobs”.

Ben Lyons, co-director of Intern Aware, accuses the 1994 Group of failing graduates overall as “working for free is impossible for the majority of graduates”, whilst Heather Collier, director of the National Council for Work Experience, questions whether the successful graduates can really be called ‘volunteers’, arguing that “if an intern is required to attend work on particular days, and perform particular tasks, then they are a worker and not a volunteer, which means they should be paid.”

Lyons and Collier both make valid points. But then couldn’t their responses be applied for all volunteer opportunities?

It doesn’t matter if you are working in a charity shop, helping to conserve reefs in the Philippines, in the offices of an international NGO, or at your regional radio station; you will have had to organise your time and funds appropriately to partake in your chosen volunteer opportunity – even if that does require taking on a second job or saving up beforehand (and not just dipping into ‘The Bank of Mum and Dad’ as is so readily accused and yet so often not the case.)

It will also rarely work as a “drop in when you want – do whatever you want” – free for all. Usually there will be an organised structure to your working day with set shifts (like bedtime in the Uganda orphanage), and of course it will require helping out and working – why else would the organisation require volunteers?

A spokeswoman for the 1994 Group defended their volunteer scheme: “The 1994 Group believes in providing worthwhile opportunities for graduates, which enhances their learning of work place practices. The group does so in the form of internships, which are undertaken by the individual on a volunteer basis… and is fully compliant with Volunteering England’s code of practice.

“Our volunteers lend their time for a few days a week over a short period of time with all out-of-pocket expenses paid. The 1994 Group universities have a proud public record of supporting student volunteering and continues to support this.”

Interestingly (and notably an important element that has been evidently missed by Janet Murray, the author of the article), are the comments (volunteered…) from previous interns at the 1994 Group universities. Hayley01 believes she wouldn’t have achieved her current employment without the internship, and acknowledged the scheme as career building, “The 1994 Group offered internships focused on policy and communications – both competitive sectors where an internship is the recognised route to full employment,” she explained. “In this sense you could see the 1994 Group and its universities as supporting graduates at the beginning of their careers.”

And whilst MarioCreatura found his internship at the 1994 Group challenging, he maintains that the experiences and skills gained were valuable ‘real life’ lessons, and significantly, that it was “far from” slave labour; “As a graduate, much maligned by the state and society as a whole, it was refreshing and downright encouraging to be finally working in an organisation that truly valued your work,” he commented. “We weren’t there to make tea and coffee; we were there to learn and work as if we were professionals within the sector.”

JustinBJacobs further defended the scheme, “My time at the 1994 Group was an extremely productive and educational one and I was fortunate to work with great colleagues who were all dedicated to advancing the aims and profile of higher education in the UK. As my time and involvement in the Group’s projects gradually increased it felt good knowing that I was playing my own part in helping them communicate their members’ messages and achievements to a wider audience.”

Of course, the challenges of living on a considerably reduced income were broached within the intern’s candid comments, with often a second job or strict personal budgets having to be upheld.

Despite financial setbacks however, the overall indication was still that no-one regretted their internship decision. Instead, they appreciated the scheme as a unique graduate opportunity, and were enjoying the longer-term benefits it had created for them individually, like in JDuggie’s case: “As a direct result of the 3-month internship I was able to bypass entry-level positions and start on a higher salary,” he wrote.

JDuggie continued, “For those organisations, such as the 1994 Group, offering internships out of a genuine desire to create opportunities for young graduates where otherwise no role would exist at all, the alternative is to narrow opportunity by offering nothing and in turn increase competition for other internships.”

The notion behind the ‘volunteering scheme’ is that it is justified because it is usually seen as meaningful work, and again, importantly, has that element of choice. It should always be a mutually equitable arrangement with clear objectives to benefit both parties, that are clearly set out before commencement of the internship.

The central point is that ultimately how the experience is organised, and what you make of it is up to you. As Peetm nicely reiterated, “it’s up to the individual to assess whether or not they feel there’s a benefit to working as an intern. End of story.”