Associations, volunteering: why do students get involved ?


Over the past few decades, the terms for referring to active members of causes or organizations have changed. The “volunteer” – which rather referred to charitable action, or solidarity, customary in part of the associative sector, has increasingly replaced in current discourse the “activist” of rather union or political connotation. And, even more recently, no doubt by borrowing from English vocabulary, “activist” has tended to be identified with “militant”.

In all cases, these common nouns refer to active members of groups, whether they are organized over time (associations, unions, parties) or more occasionally.

It should be noted that at the practical and administrative level, the volunteer – unlike the professional (also called “permanent”) – does not receive any remuneration in exchange for his activity, at least no salary or monetary remuneration.

Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the “symbolic reward” provided by the commitment of the actors, as sociologist Daniel Gaxie reminds us. Recognition by one’s peers, by institutional interlocutors can even be considered as an investment – ​​we find here an economic vocabulary – which will bear fruit later.

It can be valued in a CV in the event of a job search, but obviously not for all commitments. Having been a member of a student office, an association promoting one’s sector, a mutual insurance company, constitutes valuable experience and skills with an employer, whereas it is sometimes better to hide a commitment of the type union.

Different types of associations

Based on the extremely low figures, of the order of 10% to 15%, of participation in the elections of the CROUS which manage housing estates, restaurants and scholarships, observers conclude from this that the “depoliticization” of students, their lack of interest in public affairs, apart from short-term mobilizations, such as those concerning the climate.

However, the figures from the various surveys carried out for the Observatory of student life or other organizations belie this prejudice. Claire Thoury tells us for the period 2000-2013 an increase in the proportion of students declaring themselves members of a student association , a figure which rises from 12.0% to 26.7%, while the proportion of students declaring themselves members of a student union remains almost the same (2.6 to 2.8%).

It should be noted that it is difficult to distinguish “associative” from “trade union” in the student environment, insofar as they do not benefit from trade union rights. Indeed, the organizations – even those that claim to be trade unions – are legally placed under the regime of associations. The FAGE, this organization which wants to be representative in its union action, is notably composed, at the base, of associations.

In our 2010 report , we made a distinction between associations for the “defence of interests” (representative and union function), student associations formed around a specific object, and commitments outside universities. Because the commitment of students does not only take place within the university framework. A significant number of them are members of non-exclusively student associations. These are sports associations, solidarity organizations such as the Secours Populaire or the Secours Catholique, anti-racist associations, associations for the defense of human rights, environmental, political movements, etc.

For Valérie Becquet, what distinguishes associations external to establishments and those based within them is the place of the student in the operation and the population with which he meets. Being a “volunteer among students” and being a “volunteer among others” do not have quite the same meaning or the same effects.

This is how Guillaume Houzel had identified three postures of committed students  : “the representative”, which would correspond to the “trade union”, “the speaker” interested in the concrete, the humanitarian for example, and ” the enterprising” rather interested in a precise object of initiatives. In 2004, at the “student voluntary commitments” day organized by the OVE in Rouen, Guillaume Houzel indicated that approximately 50% of students belong to an association.

The University, a legitimate place of citizenship?

The relative disinvestment in the work environment is also revealed at the level of electoral participation. If the participation in the student elections is very low, paradoxically the participation in the political elections is much higher, as evidenced by the participation in the presidential elections of 2022 , where 67% of 18-24 year olds voted in the two rounds, this participation being higher. still important among students who are at the crossroads of the “young” and “graduated” categories.

The question that can therefore be asked is that of the legitimacy in the eyes of the students themselves of their action in the University. After all, they only stay there for a short time, only a few years. Faced with the complexity of the problems in such an institution, it might seem simpler and within reach for them to engage in more concrete areas, with immediate results.

However, the role of voluntary commitment, even in other words, and more broadly of collective student works, was already underlined as a tool of socialization by the sociologist Émile Durkheim who explained in 1918, in a story of the University of Paris  : “These enormous masses of young people cannot remain in an inorganic state”. So that the student “does not feel lost in the anonymous crowd”, “multiple groups have been created for this”, such as “the General Association of Paris Students whose role is to defend common interests”.

Finally, voluntary commitment can also be converted into an immediate benefit on an individual scale, since the mechanisms for academic recognition of commitment allow volunteers, activists, to obtain teaching units that count for obtaining the diploma. This is what Julie Testi’s thesis develops and clarifies , around the “educational recognition of voluntary and militant commitments”.

Author Bio: Robi Morder is Associate Researcher at the Printemps Laboratory, UVSQ/Paris-Saclay, President of the Study and Research Group on Student Movements (Germe) at University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ) – Paris-Saclay University