If you've ever been approached on the street by a group of young people in fancy dress thrusting buckets into your face and requesting loose change, then you've probably witnessed a "RAG raid", one of hundreds of activities that students get involved with to raise money for their "RAG" (or "raising and giving") committees.
It is estimated that these student-run university organisations raised between £6m and £9m for charity last year. While for some people the term RAG still summons up scenes of drunken students causing havoc around university towns, today's bright young things insist that is very much an outdated view.
Student RAGs have been around since the 19th century, with medical students originally being the most enthusiastic supporters. Traditionally, universities held their own RAG weeks, which saw various fundraising activities take place over seven days, and produced RAG mags, often rude and humorous booklets.
But RAG activity has evolved over the years. Nowadays, it is much bigger business and fundraising usually goes on throughout the entire academic year. "The idea of a RAG week has sort of been inherited but it's no longer the extent of our activity," says Archie Dallas, who looks after the RAG at Durham University. "There are still some smaller university committees who might raise a couple of thousand pounds a year for charity so they will focus on a week. But bigger ones like us or Loughborough or Nottingham run throughout the entire year and include international expeditions and huge events, but we keep our RAG week out of tradition."
Sarah Musgrave, head of RAG at Loughborough University, which last year raised a staggering £1.2m for charity, agrees that keeping a RAG week is important for many students. "If I turned around and cancelled RAG week there would be uproar, even though RAG events take place throughout the year. Now RAG weeks are primarily organised to create awareness of charity and fundraising at the university and to showcase all of the fantastic opportunities available to get involved with," she says.
Each university decides where its money goes, with thousands of charities – both national and international – benefiting each year. Some, such as Sheffield University, prefer to keep things local. "Last year we raised £202,400 and the students voted to give 85 per cent of that to local charities," Emma Damian-Grint, a community fundraiser at Sheffield University RAG, says.
So what else do the students do to raise money? One of the most popular activities is called Jailbreak, for which you give students 36 hours to get as far away from their university as possible. They are not allowed to spend any money on transport, instead merely rely on their powers of persuasion. By hitchhiking and blagging, students get sponsored depending on how far they manage to get. While it is usually considered an enormous triumph to reach mainland Europe, Dallas shares a story of two Durham students who ended up in Sydney, Australia, texting their location back to the organisers three minutes before the deadline. It transpired that they had guessed the email address of Richard Branson, who was impressed enough with their initiative to offer them return flights. Jailbreaks can earn a huge amount of money; Cambridge RAG alone made £40,000 last year with 121 teams taking part.
Other ways to raise money include blind dates, throwing parties, sponsored skydives and mountain climbs, firework displays, and assault courses. The general message seems to be that whatever it is you want to do to raise money, if someone will sponsor you, then go for it. Theodore Willison-Parry, president of Guy's, King's and St Thomas' Hospitals RAG at King's College London (which is celebrating its 100th RAG anniversary this year), says that people will go to extraordinary lengths to raise money.
"One of the more unusual things we have this year is a student getting a tattoo of the hospital crest," he says. "Hopefully that will raise about £1,000."
Universities can get quite competitive about how much money they raise and committees are constantly stealing ideas from each other and students look for increasingly crazy ideas to impress their peers, as well as other universities.
Of course, RAG activity isn't without its detractors. Some believe that RAG promotes excessive drinking, a complaint most prominent in smaller university towns. Others dislike being pestered for money from the ever-present RAG raiders.
However, it is certain that RAG activity was far more out of control in the past. Dr Phil Hammond, a general practitioner and comedian, recalls that his RAG week in the 1980s understandably rubbed people up the wrong way: "St Thomas's Hospital used to have a 'hit squad'. You would donate money for the person – from mighty professor to irritating fresher – that you would most like to see 'hit'. The poor sod attracting the most money each day of RAG week would be aggressively ambushed and covered in shaving foam on paper plates by a team in theatre greens and masks. Generally, the people hit were taken completely unawares and often shocked and very angry. If the victim was quite senior and the attacker was unmasked, it could have a serious affect on their career. I left St Thomas's with a reference that said, 'this student refuses to take medicine seriously and does not deserve a house job'. There is no harmless fun in a hierarchy."
Sadly, there is still the odd horror story that tarnishes the good work of others. Last year 30 students were arrested in Galway, Ireland, after police received numerous complaints of property being damaged, residents being intimidated and drunk and disorderly behaviour during NUI Galway's RAG week. Organisers insist that this sort of behaviour is rare and student unions now monitor events closely so the chance of them spiralling out of control is slim. Punishment is also severe for those who step out of line.
"I think the general public has quite an outdated view of RAG," Dallas says. "Back in the Sixties and Seventies, it was just about getting drunk, having fun and being rowdy, whereas now it's a lot more professional. Many even have a no-alcohol policy at events."
Some universities don't even call their fundraising activity RAG anymore because of the negative connotations associated with the word. Durham now refers to its fundraising as Durham University Charity Committee (or Duck) because back in the Eighties some students caused a big commotion after they broke into the prison and left a note on the prison governor's desk. It's better PR to call themselves something else now.
Still, some unruly participants and a somewhat troublesome history should not take away from the excellent work that so many students do. Last year a National Student Fundraising Association (NaSFA) was even established between the universities.
"A group of RAGs set it up together to support each other and to share ideas, good practice, even our mistakes," Dallas says. "Hopefully a small increase in each RAG will mean millions and millions extra for charity."