Compulsory volunteering: an (oxy)moronic proposal
Press-ganging students into community work won’t overcome the divide between town and gown.
A Cambridge Labour councillor, George Owers, says that the ‘privileged’ students of Cambridge University ought to be forced to volunteer in local, deprived neighbourhoods. The effort is intended to lessen the divide between ‘town and gown’, a schism ‘not conducive to the wellbeing and future’ of Cambridge. Owers’ plan is also meant to tackle the snootiness – or, rather, the perceived snootiness – of Cambridge students.
But there’s a bit of a snag to Owers’ plan: if it’s compulsory, how can it be volunteering? ‘Volunteering’ here doesn’t sound like volunteering at all; it sounds like conscription. Or mandatory community service.
And why is Owers singling out the University of Cambridge? A whopping 63 per cent of Cambridge students are from state schools, and many are neither rich nor snooty. In fact, there are many other far richer and far snootier people around Cambridge – why not force these people to volunteer, too?
Even if the plan to force students to volunteer does come to pass, it is unlikely to improve the students and make them less snooty, as Owers intends. People who have not freely chosen to volunteer are likely not only to miss the purpose of volunteering, but to resent the experience, too. This would deepen the divide between ‘town and gown’, not overcome it.
Volunteering can be encouraged, but it certainly can’t be demanded. Perhaps councillors ought to take it upon themselves to do a spot of community service. Or maybe they could just ask for a few of those expensive paintings in the Cambridge colleges to sell off for relief. One thing’s for sure: forced labour won’t do anyone any favours, whether they’re in gowns or from the town.
Saira Khan is a student at the University of Oxford.