Green national service – an idea whose time has come?
A green gap year could be a big pull for students – especially if it means money off fees, says James Derounian
Utter the words “national service” and you are likely to provoke a strong reaction; probably infected by the pervading influence of Dad’s Army, and Spike Milligan’s memoirs about Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall! But why does service have to be militaristic? Why not invite students to undertake an optional peacetime national service, as practised in places like Italy?
I’d like to see such an opportunity in the form of a Big Green Gap Year. The Institute for Public Policy Research argued, as far back as 1994, “for a national voluntary citizen’s service initiative … something that would also build on the American model of students undertaking service learning in community settings”. During the late 1970s, my offer of a university place – to read environmental science – was conditional on taking a year out to complete just such a placement. I ended up as a community service volunteer working with autistic children and adults and helping out in Haringey social services, north London. It was an amazing experience and accelerated my development.
But of course times have changed – not least because I actually received a grant towards my university education, as opposed to paying what will be close to £9,000 in tuition fees alone. So how can teenagers develop confidence, skills, independence while assisting communities to improve themselves? Enter the Big Green Gap Year.
I would like to see, between school and university, students undertake six months’ green sustainability community service with a local community; in exchange, and as the giving white paper advocates, the individual would receive an educational credit worth, say £4,000, to be deducted from their first year tuition fees. The government is planning to introduce a schools-based national citizen service. So why not build on this, in the form of a green gap year – which would constitute precisely a “game changing” innovation with the “potential for national impact” (white paper p10). It would provide practical proof of the government’s keenness “to support innovative models that facilitate and inspire reciprocity.”
So what’s in it for the young conscript? Apart from boosting their employability, addressing the “democratic deficit”, doing socially useful work, reducing their tuition fee debt and having a breather from study, they would have a pause, during which they might just decide “actually I want to do something other than university”. Better one willing student than ten pressed ones! And what does society get out of it? Well there are countless causes, charities, neighbourhoods that could really do with bright, willing, fit and dynamic young people in order to generate ideas and action to convert the “big society” from warm words to constructive change on the ground.
Similarly – green gappers could contribute to projects addressing aspects of climate change and the pursuit of sustainability. Meanwhile, universities and colleges would gain from the maturity and practical experience achieved by their students, before they even cross the threshold of the university! And – here’s a radical idea – gappers could assemble a log that would give them academic credit.
OK, so who pays? I think there are various options: First, I see this as an educational credit – no money changes hands, it’s simply a reduction by some £4,000 from the fees. There may well be companies interested, such as Endsleigh Insurance, that continue to provide cover for students, and for who students constitute perhaps 20% of their business. Or it could form part of an individual university’s pursuit of a unique selling point, in the form of a £4,000 bursary in exchange for a student’s gap year work. In a modest way, this is exactly what OrangeRockCorps already offers – tickets to festivals in exchange for community service.
James Derounian is principal lecturer in Community Development and Local Governance at the University of Gloucestershire
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