Time Spent at University: The Impact of Volunteering on Political Engagement During Degree Study and Beyond




Journal Title

Journal ISSN



Volume Title


De Montfort University


Thesis or dissertation

Peer reviewed


Young people’s participation in politics has been the subject of much research and debate for decades. Yet addressing the issue of how to encourage apathetic 18-24 year-olds to engage has yet to reveal an effective solution. This thesis aims to add new knowledge to the discourse around the challenge of political apathy amongst young people by demonstrating how time spent at university participating in volunteering and other ‘real-world’ learning activities can increase political engagement for participants. The research takes place in an epoch when students are paying full tuition fees in England and politicians and policy makers are increasingly questioning the role of higher education. Universities have demonstrated their contribution to society through graduate employability outcomes and economic contributions, but potential outcomes of university study provided by the development of good citizenship and political engagement remain largely untested. This thesis argues that trends in the United Kingdom higher education sector to support student employability, experience and outcomes through offering real-world learning activities are enabling young people to develop skills and voice to engage in politics. The findings of this study argue that participation in real-life learning techniques, including volunteering and service-learning, can have a positive and lasting impact on participants’ political engagement either through conventional methods like voting and campaigning or non-conventional activities like protest and activism. Using a single case study ‘post-1992’ university environment, the research uses a mixed methods approach with 176 participants to study outcomes over fixed points in the student journey from first year to graduation and beyond. The findings reveal significant outcomes that add to the literature on how young people develop or learn political engagement over time. The thesis argues that the growth of political engagement amongst young people in university study is not the linear process argued by many studies of young people and political engagement, but one of a learning cycle with peaks and troughs of participation. These findings add knowledge to the field of young people and political engagement in United Kingdom that could lead to new approaches to tackling the long-standing issue amongst 18-24-year-olds and show how the development of good citizenship and political engagement could be utilised as a measurable benefit of higher education that delivers health, cultural and social benefits gained from democratic decision-making.





Research Institute