HOT TOPIC – FEBRUARY / MARCH 2009
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
The latest ‘Hot Topic’ to face volunteering in Australia is the rumour that the Prime Minister is soon to announce the formation of a ‘Youth Corp’ program, which aims to encourage a much higher participation rate by students by allowing them to ‘work off’ their HECS* debt through a yet to be determined amount of volunteer work. See http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ozvpm/message/3265
It is believed that this was one of the key recommendations to come out of the Prime Minister’s 20/20 Summit** last year.
When the newspaper article broke last week, it was interesting to read the vast range of responses that the idea elicited, and it was pleasing to see a significant number of volunteer management professionals also throwing their hats into the ring in debating the issues that were arising.
So let’s take a look at some of the issues which the proposed project raises.
1. Is it volunteering?
The first issue which people quickly seize upon is the question of whether or not an activity which allows you to ‘pay off’ a debt is indeed volunteering? The debate about volunteering definitions is one I have written about many times in the past, and while I don’t want to discourage readers in respond to the matter of definitions, I’d rather refer you back to some of those previous hot topics than re-ignite that debate again in this column.
Please re-visit the Hot Topcs of:
- February 2008
- October 2006
- April 2006
- July 2005
Definitions aside, what I do want to say is that there are two certainties which will eventuate from this initiative should it go ahead.
• Regardless of how we define these students, this group WILL become the responsibility of volunteer managers once they roll out into the community
• The success or failure of this initiative won’t lie with the placement of students to organisations. It won’t lie with student motivation. It won’t lie with a University’s ability to mobilise students and it won’t lie with the time / dollar ratio the government decide upon.
Make NO mistake that the ultimate success or failure of this initiative will lie with ALL OF US in the profession of volunteer management. The way we support, lead, include and find meaningful volunteer work for this group will be paramount in the new program succeeding, flourishing and becoming a gateway to other volunteer opportunities for this group as they progress through life.
2. The question of resources
The second issue worth debating is the one related to the need for this anticipated boost in volunteer numbers. It is worth noting that there was little representation at the 20/20 summit by the established voluntary sector in this country. AAVA were not invited nor were Volunteering Australia.
Largely the voluntary sector was represented by some of our largest and most traditional charities. With all due respect to those groups, it is not difficult to observe that these are the groups who are most in need of volunteers, not because volunteers are not available, but because they have refused to change with the times and make their volunteer opportunities more attractive to new generations of volunteers. If the thinking is that we can ‘prop up’ these institutions with younger (more episodic) volunteers without fundamental cultural changes in those agencies, we are sadly kidding ourselves.
The other point on resources is that the new initiative in some ways assumes that younger people (students in this case) don’t already volunteer. This is not true. Statistics clearly tell us that around one in three young people under 25 volunteer (through organisations) on a regular basis, and if we look at comparative data over the past decade, we find that this age group is the one which recorded the largest growth rate in volunteering activity over that period. So a key question we need to ask is just how many extra people this initiative will bring to volunteering, or will those already volunteering now simply add a HECS debt reduction to the benefits they gain from the activity?
3. The question of resourcing
The third, and perhaps most important question relates to how the government plan to support the organisations that are going to need to support the student volunteers. There is no secret that governments just don’t get the volunteer management piece in the puzzle. I can see now that funding will again be released for volunteering agencies to purchase additional equipment to support the extra volunteers – but how do we get them to understand that the investment needs to be in people resources and volunteer management training rather than new equipment?
Consider the following questions:
• All of these new volunteers will need to be administered / managed, often in programs where the VPM is already run off of his/her feet. Additional resources?
• Many will require police record and other screening checks. How will these be paid for and what additional resources will be available to process them at an organisational level?
• What happens when a student’s time is up and they have paid off their debt? Will there be additional paperwork required to register (and de-register) applicants under this scheme?
• Whose responsibility will it be to report students who do not show up?
4. A Positive Experience?
The final point I’d like to raise is the one about how we might best integrate this new group of volunteers into our program. Let’s face it, if the experience of volunteering for these students turns out not to be a positive one, then the overall participation rate by this age group may actually decline as they grow into young adulthood (the age group which has traditionally made up the majority of Australia’s volunteers)
Over to you…
So there are some of the key issues which I see we need to be discussing in relation to this newly proposed program, now it is over to you.
Let’s get some solid debate going about this and I look forward to hearing of your concerns, thoughts and ideas about how we move forward
Let’s hear your thoughts!
*HECS = Higher Education Contribution Scheme. As a general rule, all students who attend Australian tertiary education institutions are charged higher education fees . However, several measures are in place to relieve the costs of tertiary education in Australia .
Most students are Commonwealth supported. This means that they are only required to pay a part of the cost of tuition, called the “student contribution”, while the Commonwealth pays the balance; and students are able to defer payment of their contribution as a HELP loan. Other domestic students are full fee-paying (non-Commonwealth supported) and receive no other direct government contribution to the cost of their education. They can also obtain subsidised HELP loans from the Government up to a lifetime limit of $100,000 for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science programs and $80,000 for all other programs. Australian citizens and (with some limitations) permanent residents  are able to obtain interest free loans from the government under the Higher Education Loan Programme ( HELP ) which replaced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme ( HECS ). (Source Wikipedia)
** The Australia 2020 Summit was a convention , referred to in Australian media as a summit , which was held on 19 - 20 April 2008 in Canberra , Australia , aiming to “help shape a long term strategy for the nation’s future”.  Announced by the new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd , the summit drew limited bipartisan support from Brendan Nelson and the opposition Coalition parties, and ran as 10 working groups of 100 participants. 
1002 delegates  attended the summit to discuss ten “critical areas”. Ideas and proposals were invited from all members of the community, and an official web site was set up to accept submissions