THE BLOG

Why Don't UK Students Want to Donate?

15/01/2014 17:38 GMT | Updated 17/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Last Sunday marked four years since an earthquake struck Haiti, causing massive devastation to the infrastructure and taking the lives of more than 100,000 victims. The extent of the tragedy, and the subsequent impact upon people's lives, was immediately apparent, prompting the donation of millions of pounds of humanitarian aid. It seemed appropriate on the anniversary of such an awful tragedy, and such an international charitable response, to reflect upon student attitudes to donation in the UK.

According to the BBC, the British Public donated £107million in the wake of the Haitian disaster; with an adult population of around 52million, that amount averages out to just over £2 per person, a figure not insignificant in the context of nationwide economic depression. Whilst not every adult in the UK donated, such a response demonstrates the tradition of generosity and empathy which characterises the British public's attitude to charity.

Last year, shortly after a devastating typhoon hit the Philippines and the need for humanitarian aid became critical, it was a surprise to view mixed attitudes towards donating expressed online. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, rather than seeing messages of empathy and support for those affected, debates about whether or not students should give arose on Facebook and Twitter.

Evidently, it was interesting to follow such lively discussion, often between students who had rarely appeared passionate about other socio-political issues. Yet more often than not, the general consensus was dissatisfactory. Whilst there were some students who continued to argue in favour of donations, many of these debates concluded with the argument that most students don't have the money to live, let alone give.

The argument that students are at university to study, in order to earn a good wage and donate more later in their lives is a plausible one to an extent. It starts to come apart, however, when viewed in the context of contemporary student lifestyle. There are, of course, many students who genuinely struggle to survive on the meagre allowance they have available, and if it were solely those students arguing this case, I'd have to concede the credibility of their reasoning.

Unfortunately, many of those who were spearheading this claim did not fall into that category. Their claims of relative poverty rang hollow against a background of Pret a Manger salads and Jägerbombs, whether in comparison to the aforementioned students struggling with the cost of university living, or with those in the Philippines made homeless and penniless by the typhoon.

A student who claims that they cannot afford to donate even a meagre sum to the aid effort, and then goes out that evening and spends tens of pounds on alcohol and fast-food isn't the best advocate for such an argument. Few students would debate with such a sense of entitlement before spending money so freely, but some did, and the evidence of their spending was on social networking sites for all to see.

Students such as those in question are uncommon, and admittedly more likely to be found at universities with a high proportion of students from wealthy families. They are simply acute examples to neatly illustrate a point, but their opinions concerning charitable donation were supported by many others who weren't so explicitly hypocritical. It led me to question whether their attitudes were perhaps indicative of a deeper and more harmful trend in contemporary student philosophy.

There does seem to be some force behind the general conviction that donations should be made by those with a wage, not those with a student loan. Apart from in the case of students struggling to make ends meets, this reasoning appears disturbingly analogous with simply passing the buck. Students are undoubtedly often short of money, but in many cases this isn't because they didn't start off with a healthy amount.

They aren't always effective, but the student bursary schemes at national and university level were put in place to ensure that those from underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds can benefit from the opportunities that university life provides. In many universities, including my own, the institution's own bursary system provides those students in need with additional funding, so that their income often surpasses that of those who come from average middle-class homes.

Unfortunately, there are still those who can barely afford the accumulated cost of rent, food and simply living over the course of their study. Yet the vast majority of students can afford those basic necessities, and often struggle to make ends meet at the tail-end of term because they have overspent on other things, such as socialising. Students are notoriously poor at managing their finances; for many, it is the first time that they have had such a massive sum of money at their fingertips, and it's difficult to be sensible.

Nonetheless, students from all walks of life regularly choose to spend their money on relative 'luxuries': things that are not absolutely necessary to them achieving their degree. Such 'luxuries' can range from grabbing a Starbucks coffee on the way to lectures to buying a round in the pub with mates. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and I myself spend money on socialising. Students are justified in arguing that they need those things to balance with the difficulties of university study, but not in saying that they can't afford to donate.

On the flipside, there are students and university societies which try incredibly hard to fundraise for various causes. Student-run charitable organisations like RAG societies work tirelessly to encourage students to give, whether it be towards humanitarian efforts or UK-based charities. Even so, the very existence of RAG shows you that it's not easy getting money out of students; they have to think up new and exciting challenges in order that people sponsor their friends to complete them.

It seems, then, that many students will donate willingly if they feel they are getting something in exchange for their money. As a fundraising exercise, it's an extremely effective one. Events like Jailbreak, where students are sponsored for every mile they travel from the university campus and for challenges they complete along the way, encourage the student body to dig deep and come up with significant sums of money. The fundamental issue with this is that people aren't donating because they see others in need and empathise, but because they want to see their friend do burpees in front of the Taj Mahal.

It might seem overly cynical, but statistics support this judgment. Research carried out by the Charities Aid Foundation into the donating habits of UK adults revealed, unsurprisingly, that the 18-24 year old demographic was the least likely to give to charitable causes. The obscene levels of youth unemployment in the UK are obviously a contributing factor to this, but the fact that less than two in five people of this age donate in the average month suggests a wider trend.

The Foundation also remarked that there was a spike in donations from that age-group around March, which coincides with several high-profile fundraising events. Red Nose Day typically takes place in the middle of March, whilst the London Marathon is scheduled for early April, and people make donations in the run-up to both events. Viewed in relation to the work of RAG societies, it does seem that young adults and university students are more reluctant than other groups to give unless they have an incentive.

In the case of students, the young adults most likely to earn a salary high enough to donate generously, this is certainly worrying. In the British capitalist society, there will always be someone who earns more money than you. In this context, it's certainly a concern that some students who have money don't donate because they consider themselves to be relatively impoverished. I wonder whether they will ever start donating, or whether they will just keep passing the buck.