It's just a hard life being a student in the 1990s: Volunteers

Alistair Clay on those who won't volunteer anymore
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THE BURDEN of increasing student debt is driving graduates away from voluntary service.

The number of 18- to 24-year-olds doing voluntary work has fallen by 1.4 million in the last seven years, according to a Home Office Sponsored report published by the Institute for Volunteering Work. The youth of Britain has been criticised as selfish and unwilling to "give something back" to society, but their unwillingness owes more to financial constraints than to apathy, it now seems.

The National Union of Students estimates the average student debt after graduation is pounds 8-10,000, and believes this will increase to pounds 15,000 after the introduction of tuition fees.

A NUS spokesman said: "It's hardly surprising that fewer graduates go on to do voluntary work with that amount of debt hanging around their necks. Students literally cannot afford to spend time working free." Voluntary Service Overseas, a government-funded organisation received 1,400 fewer applications this year than in 1995, when average student debt levels were only pounds 4,000. Ten per cent fewer volunteers were sent last year as a result of the drop in applications.

Simon Watts, a spokesman for VSO, said it was much harder for young people to "afford" voluntary service nowadays: "The average age of our volunteers is 34. People get their skills later in life [and] it seems fewer and fewer youngsters have the qualifications we require."

VSO places volunteers on projects abroad in 59 developing countries. Established 40 years ago, it appreciates that times have changed.

Mr Watts added: "It's very difficult for young people to think about doing two years voluntary service with huge debts and the prospect of future job insecurity. To combat the decline in applications VSO is emphasising the fact that volunteering is valued by future employers.

Mr Watts feared that students who rushed into jobs to pay off their debts would be unwilling to interrupt their careers at a later stage for the sake of voluntary work.

Community Service Volunteers said that, at present, it was unaware of any reduction in applications because of student debt problems.

Marie Ennis, spokeswoman for CSV, said: "We placed 156,000 volunteers last year in communities all over Britain, providing six million volunteer hours between them. This is the best yet."