Civic participation should be central to the student experience

The snap election has reignited the debate about the political disengagement of young people. Andy Mycock explores the role that higher education should play in shaping the citizens of tomorrow.

Andy Mycock is Chief Policy Fellow at the Yorkshire and Humber Policy Engagement and Research Network

The calling of a general election on July 4th has once again triggered the ongoing debate about young people’s lack of political participation when compared to older voters.

If, as some observers have predicted, a majority of young people chose not to vote, there are a number of factors which help explain their abstention.

Research indicates that the poor quality of citizenship education is a factor, as many young people complain they lack the appropriate political literacy to know how and who to vote for.

The lack of engagement of the main political parties with young people in developing policies which reflect their interests and concerns is also a significant factor.

Choosing not to vote also reflects pessimism amongst a generation of voters, who have grown up in an age of “permacrisis” that political parties of all hues can be trusted to govern in a competent and strategic manner.

Interestingly, polling indicates student turnout could actually increase. This noted, the potential impact of student voters in key “university seats” might be limited when compared to previous general elections – as many will have returned home for the summer.

Claims by students that they will vote should however be treated with an appropriate level of scepticism. The timing of the general election will likely be challenging for some students who are uncertain about where they are registered to vote and what voter ID is acceptable.

Research indicates that the more complicated the “voter journey” is for young people, the more likely some will not make it to the ballot box.

Civic life

The general election does however raise important questions about how the higher education sector supports students to learn about and participate in civic life.

Research indicates that although university students typically engage and participate in civic life to a greater extent than their non-university educated peers, they are still significantly less likely to vote or volunteer than older citizens.

Moreover, levels of civic activity decline after graduation, raising questions as to the extent higher education educates and inspires graduates to become lifelong active citizens.

Interest in student civic learning and engagement has increased in the face of growing concerns about the marketisation of higher education. Critics argue that recent changes in the funding and provision of university degrees have had a deleterious effect on rights and responsibilities of students, and the connection they have with the communities they study and live in.

This has led to calls for the positive re-articulation of the social purpose of higher education through a greater recognition of the value of applied teaching and learning that supports active student citizenship.

The launch of the Enhancing the Student Civic Experience report is a timely wakeup call to all who work in and fund our universities to ensure they are “truly civic”. The report is founded on a review of key literature and two workshops hosted in 2023 which sought to develop the existing evidence base and further enhance knowledge of university student civic learning and engagement.

The workshops brought together representatives from across higher education and leading civil society and student organisations to discuss how, when, and where students engage in civic learning and participation before, during, and after their university studies.

The report is written by Dr Andy Mycock (University of Leeds) in collaboration with the Civic University Network (led by Sheffield Hallam University), the UPP Foundation, the National Centre for Coordinating Public Engagement, and the Institute for Community Studies.

The report provides a clear and feasible framework for enhancing the civic experience for all students – both during their time at university and beyond. It argues that universities need to fully adopt a “truly civic” approach to designing and delivering a connected student civic experience through formal teaching and learning, campus-based extra-curricular activities, and in the communities where students live and work.

University degrees and apprenticeships, regardless of the subjects studied, should enable students to develop their civic identities through sustained opportunities civic learning and participation. This requires a step-change in how universities support student-centred communities of civic participation to prepare them for a lifelong commitment as active citizens.

Annual assessments

We argue that a “truly civic” campus culture should be founded on annual “Student Civic Health Check” led by universities and students’ unions.

This should seek to assess levels of civic engagement and participation in systems of student representation and elections, campus and community democratic and volunteering networks, and all undergraduate and postgraduate programmes of study to ensure that all students are provided with opportunities for civic learning and participation.

Our report goes on to argue that universities can better support democratic participation through the introduction of compulsory electoral registration as part of student induction. They should also host campus-based local, regional, and national election hustings, and regular on-campus “surgeries” for students and staff.

We also recommend that hard work undertaken by “truly civic” universities who embed the student civic experience into their teaching and learning, research, and community engagement should be formally recognised and rewarded within the Teaching Excellence Framework, the National Student Survey, the Graduate Outcomes survey, and the Knowledge Exchange Framework. A National Student Civic Awards should be introduced as part of existing higher education awards.

We also recommend all universities review and revise existing and new Civic University Agreements to fully recognise the importance and value of the student civic experience.

To support this work, we recommend the creation of a “What Works” hub to support universities and their staff, SUs, and other invested stakeholders. This would provide exemplars of existing projects and resources, such as those outlined in the report, that are proven to enhance student civic learning and participation on campuses and in communities.

To understand the student civic experience better, we also recommend funded research should explore the diversity of student civic experiences, including different institutional approaches to teaching and learning, well-being, careers outcomes, and impact on higher education on civic engagement for graduates.

The recalibration of the civic mission and value of higher education could significantly enhance student satisfaction and graduate outcomes, enriching the diversity of learning and life experiences of students as they transition from education to work.

Enhanced student civic participation can provide an important boost to the political and social capital of the places they live and study, strengthening pride in place, belonging, and community identity of both domestic and international students.

The Enhancing the Student Civic Experience report can be downloaded here:

The report will be formally launched at special plenary at the National Civic Impact Accelerator Civicon conference on Wednesday 19th June

Leave a Reply