The Democratic Imperative for Higher Education: Empowering Students to Become Active Citizens

Democracy is under threat. The blows of the financial recession of 2007–09 and now the COVID-19 crisis have emboldened populist political leaders across the globe. Their platforms typically involve a mixture of nativist or nationalist tropes, often infused with hostility to refugees and immigrants and built upon foundations of racism and intolerance. The internet provides access to a hitherto unimaginable amount of information and the means for its lightning-fast dissemination, while also permitting populist leaders to spread lies and misinformation just as quickly. Worse, the commercial imperative in social media that clusters the like-minded, originally for the purpose of targeted advertising, also means that people are bombarded by messages confirming their beliefs, discouraging any critical discernment.

Those of us who work in education have a special responsibility to counteract these forces. One of the core social objectives of education is to prepare our children and young people to become active and responsible individuals, equipped with the competences that will enable them to have a full and productive life in society. To tackle this challenge, in 2018, the Council of Europe published the Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture (RFCDC), composed of three volumes, to strengthen the capacity of education institutions to underpin and sustain democracy in the wider society. In 2020, the council published a fourth volume of the RFCDC specifically for higher education. As a whole, the RFCDC provides a detailed description of the competences learners should acquire to become effective, engaged citizens, and thereby acts as a guide to educators as they plan curricula and systems for learning, teaching, and assessment.

The Magna Charta Universitatum—first signed in 1988 by 388 leaders of higher education institutions and subsequently adopted by 904 higher education institutions from 88 countries (though surprisingly only by 22 higher education institutions in the United States)—highlights academic freedom and institutional autonomy as two of the pillars upon which higher education institutions are able to “engage with and respond to the aspirations and challenges of the world and to the communities they serve, to benefit humanity and contribute to sustainability.” Academic freedom and institutional autonomy are the conditions needed for independent thought, critical engagement with evidence, and recognition of the value of diversity, all conditions that are most likely to be found in democratic societies and that are inimical to authoritarian or “illiberal” societies. Higher education, in other words, has an important role to play in strengthening and underpinning democratic practice.

This has been one of the key animating principles of the Council of Europe since its foundation in 1949, in the aftermath of World War II, to uphold human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Beginning with ten founding member states, the council now has forty-seven member states covering a population of more than eight hundred million people. Its most notable body is the European Court of Human Rights, which has legally binding authority to enforce the European Convention on Human Rights. The council’s prioritization of education was reinforced by its 1999 Budapest Declaration, which placed education at the forefront of democratic development, particularly in the emerging democracies of post-Soviet Europe. A similar educational commitment was made in the United States with the 1998 Wingspread Declaration, which reminded higher education of its historic civic mission at a time when participation in the democratic process was in decline, as was confidence in government and other institutions.

At the tail end of the twentieth century, the concerns varied: in Europe, the focus on higher education was driven by a recognition that many graduates would go on to play leading roles in different sectors of society. Providing them with a firm grounding in democratic principles might help underpin democratic systems in postcommunist societies. In the United States, limited participation, and apparent rising disinterest, in the democratic process by so many young people was the greater concern. The broad concern over promoting democratic values and practice through higher education led the Council of Europe and a group of organizations representing American colleges and universities—including the Association of American Colleges and Universities—to found, in 1999, the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy. The consortium has run global conferences on these themes and broadened its membership from Europe and North America to include organizations representing higher education in Africa, Australia, and Latin America.

For years, the Council of Europe has produced a range of materials to support the work of educators. A key development was the 2010 Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education, which highlighted the conceptual foundations and objectives of its work on education. The charter emphasized the need for clarity on the competences that learners needed to become empowered as active citizens, and it was from this that work on the RFCDC began in 2013.

The RFCDC articulates a framework of competences explicitly linked to the ideals of democracy and the principles of human rights. The focus is on broad competences and not simply the transmission of knowledge or the cognitive aspects of learning. According to the competences, learning about democratic culture has to engage the intellect and emotions and connect with experiences. It has to provide meaningful opportunities for practice, not just in the classroom or lecture hall but as reflected in the day-to-day work of the education institutions themselves.

The framework focuses on twenty core competences in four key areas. The first set looks at the values underpinning democracy, including dignity and rights; the value of cultural diversity; and justice, fairness, equality, and the rule of law. Such values imply giving every person equal respect, irrespective of their cultural affiliations, status, abilities, or circumstances; seeing diversity as an asset and source of enrichment for society; and supporting every citizen’s right to participate equally in formulating and establishing the laws regulating society.

The second set of competences focuses on attitudes related to democratic culture, including respect, civic-mindedness, responsibility, and self-efficacy. This also includes tolerance of ambiguity and an openness to cultural otherness—to other beliefs, worldviews, and practices. Attitudes do not involve minimizing or ignoring differences between the self and others but rather appreciating the right of others to hold different views while acknowledging those differences. An attitude of respect, for example, is necessary for positive intercultural dialogue.

The third set of competences focuses on well-organized systems of thinking or behavior that can be used to achieve a defined goal. The skills identified as supporting democratic culture include those related to listening and observing; analysis and critical thinking, empathy, flexibility, and adaptability; linguistics and plurilingualism; and cooperation and conflict resolution.

The fourth set of competences focuses on the information people possess and the way they understand and interpret meaning. The focus here is on knowledge and critical understanding of the self, language and communication, and the world—even if that last category potentially encompasses a vast array of issues and domains, including politics, law, human rights, culture, and religion.

The RFCDC guidance explores how the competences might be implemented in practice, drawing on existing education models and aspiring to what might be possible. The volume focused on higher education proposes that all aspects of the life and work of a higher education institution can and should contribute to promoting a democratic culture, whether this is in the way faculty teach or carry out research or in the way administrators run the institution.

The long tradition of service learning in US colleges and universities is an existing example of higher education programming that fits with the RFCDC competences and can promote democratic culture. These community-based teaching programs provide opportunities for students to consider and discuss alternative perspectives with others. The key lies in engagement with communities, not just in the delivery of services to communities. In this respect, the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, with its work on academically based community service and university-assisted community schools, provides an exemplary case. For instance, the center partners with local schools and groups to advance literacy, STEM education, health and nutrition, arts and culture, and economic development in the community.

Another model for realizing the RFCDC democracy competences is provided by European universities’ “Science Shops,” which act as a broker between the institutions and their local community. Community organizations can place requests for research evidence on issues of local importance, and the Science Shop finds students who can undertake projects on these topics as part of their curriculum. Students get an opportunity to carry out research in a real-world context while learning to develop an appreciation for the perspectives and priorities of communities. The community organization gets a research report that can be used for its own advocacy purposes. Examples include projects that measure water quality in rivers and research on the impact of domestic violence with a women’s aid organization.

The RFCDC guidelines also address the role of colleges and universities’ research within the wider society. This includes researchers’ defense of knowledge and understanding, as well as the defense of policies or programs grounded in research, particularly when policymakers or special interest groups attack such principles or practices. Research is not value free and can never be entirely neutral in regard to society; the results of research can have profound consequences for people and communities, and researchers cannot shirk their responsibility for these consequences. All researchers work to ethical standards, but they also have some degree of responsibility to ensure their work is not misused or abused by particular interests within society. The way research priorities are set, the way research is funded, and the way it is reported are all subject to these priorities of social responsibility. Research should not be done on communities, or even for communities, but with communities. Faculty should incorporate the principles of cooperation, respect, and responsibility in the training of researchers, as this is how research communities themselves deal with challenges and resolve debates.

This can be illustrated by a program of work from my own institution, Queen’s University Belfast. In 2007, we embarked on a project in which we used our research on social networks and cross-community contact to address the divisions and hostility in a school system that had been historically split into parallel systems for Protestant and Catholic students. Beginning with twelve schools, and working closely with teachers, we developed a model of “shared education” through which local collaborative school networks support students, teachers, and parents to work together for the common good of their communities. Local partnerships have enabled students to take classes in each other’s schools and thus have extended the range of available curriculum choices. Teachers have been working together to support these activities and have also developed local professional learning communities. Our assessments have found that the shared education program has led to more positive intergroup interactions among participants and contributed to the school improvement process and, in these ways, has contributed to efforts to unite a divided society. Currently, more than half of all schools in Northern Ireland are involved in collaborative partnerships, and the Department of Education is planning to make this partnership work a formal part of our school system. The broader point is that this type of research highlights Queen’s University Belfast’s explicit institutional priority to make a positive impact on society and, more particularly, to work to secure the peace process in Northern Ireland. This model of school partnerships is now being adapted for implementation in a number of other divided societies, including Israel, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and the cities of Jerusalem and Los Angeles.

The formal priorities of higher education lie in teaching and research, but higher education has a key civic role beyond this through the wider social, cultural, and economic impact of its graduates, faculty, and staff. The roles each of these groups of people play in society can not only enhance the positive impact of the institution on society but also make it more likely that the institution will work to address pressing social issues. Democratic principles should also be reflected in the way higher education institutions are governed, with the civic and democratic agenda influencing the institutional mission and vision and with all relevant stakeholders encouraged to participate in decision-making processes of the institution. In Europe, for instance, many higher education institutions encourage strong and effective students’ unions with democratic processes to elect representatives. These representatives, often students who take a paid period of sabbatical leave, participate in governing bodies and key committees at their institutions. In order to be effective, students’ unions should also be provided with sufficient resources and support for capacity building to ensure independence from the institution. This type of participation encourages the acquisition of practical knowledge of, and trust in, democratic and participative processes. Business, political, and civic elites are traditionally well represented on higher education governance bodies, but these bodies should also include a wider set of voices from community and civil society groups, especially those voices not traditionally present in the institutions.

At the time of writing, we have just been through a rancorous US presidential election that was followed by an aftermath that has been, if anything, even more rancorous. The fact that the election attracted the highest turnout in more than a century might have allayed long-standing fears about disinterest in the democratic process, but the tone and ardor of the contest produced other concerns. A toxic mix was created by a veritable flood of information and disinformation, the echo-chamber effect of social media, the eagerness of too many to promulgate lies and untruths, and the lack of time or willingness on the part of so many to display even a modicum of discernment. What has emerged is the exact opposite of the dystopian vision offered in Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. We are not suffering from restricted access to tightly controlled information but from a surfeit of information within which it is difficult to identify that which is true and that which is false. As the saying goes, in a flood it is difficult to find water to drink, a situation made more difficult when the unscrupulous are proffering their own tainted concoctions.

In such circumstances, the drive to defend democratic culture becomes even more important, not to promote particularistic political positions but to defend and underpin the democratic process itself. In this crisis of democracy, it is an imperative for higher education to play its role.


Tony Gallagher is a professor in the School of Social Sciences, Education, and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast. He has worked with the Council of Europe and the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy to support their work helping universities promote democratic culture and serve as anchor institutions in their communities.

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