When I was asked, at a recent conference organised by the Yehuda Elkana Centre at the Central European University, to speak about whether universities should educate ‘more concerned citizens’, my immediate reaction was that there are so many reasons for concern today that we do not need education to be even more worried. I was, however, missing the point.
Higher education does have a mission to educate citizens as well as scholars and these are not in different categories. Scholars are citizens and citizens who are not in academia need at least a modicum of scholarship. Higher education should turn out well-educated graduates who are committed to participating in the broader life of our society, what we may call the public space.
The answer to the ‘whether’ question is therefore a resounding ‘yes’, but we would be nowhere near answering the question without looking at the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. What should institutions teach and students learn and how should they do it?
What to learn and teach
Some 20 years ago, the TUNING project (Tuning Educational Structures in Europe, overseen by the universities of Deusto and Groningen) made the very useful distinction between subject specific and transversal competences.
The first concept is almost self-explanatory: competences that are specific to chemistry, history or any other academic discipline. Transversal competences are those every higher education programme should develop. Typical examples are analytical ability and presentation skills. Those which are less easy to measure or legislate for, may simply be common sense.
Higher education graduates, of course, need both sets of competences. This also holds true for ‘concerned citizens’. They need transversal competences to engage in the public space and they should do so on the basis of solid subject-specific competences.
The concept of learning outcomes is also important when we reflect on what higher education should teach. The classic definition of learning outcomes is what learners know, understand and are able to do on completion of a course or study programme.
This classic definition, however, misses an important element. It is not only about what we are able to do but also what we are willing to do. We may well be able to do things we should refrain from doing and history has no shortage of examples. This is the ethical dimension of education, and it is of key importance in educating concerned citizens.
Between 2012 and 2018, the Council of Europe developed a Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture. The framework defines 20 competences grouped into four clusters (this was pre-COVID, so there was little hesitation in using the term): values, attitudes, skills, knowledge and critical understanding.
The competences include valuing cultural diversity, respect, civic-mindedness, analytical and critical thinking, and knowledge and critical understanding of language and communication.
These competences can and should be developed to different degrees and at any level of education. A specific guidance document suggests how higher education can use the framework to educate graduates who are concerned citizens committed to the public space.
How to learn and teach
Higher education and research cannot exist without theory and no student should graduate without a grasp of the theoretical underpinnings of his or her chosen field.
However, as even the classic definition of learning outcomes indicates, theoretical knowledge and understanding needs to be accompanied by an ability to put theory into practice – and, I would argue, the ethical understanding of when and how it is appropriate to do so. Whether in language learning, mathematics or democratic culture, we need to practice what we learn – and also what we teach.
The notion that higher education should develop practical ability as well as theoretical understanding has not always been recognised. Until around 1960, my alma mater, the University of Oslo, published very extensive annual reports that a generation or two later still make fascinating reading. The format has been changed because the reports became too voluminous and today the original format would probably have been in violation of data protection regulations.
Among other things, the annual reports included the recommendations from the committees assessing applications for professorships. From memory, in one case the committee made the argument that the applicant recommended for a professorship had considerably less than perfect practical mastery of the language he would teach, but that this did not matter because his theoretical accomplishments were undisputed and ‘you have lecturers to teach practical language skills’.
A similar attitude may be found today when it comes to competences for a democratic culture. In the expert group that developed the framework, one of the more heated discussions was about whether such competences should simply be taught and understood theoretically or also practised on and off campus.
The hesitation was understandable given the background of the expert who wished to limit the teaching and learning of democratic competences to theory. She came from a country that until a generation ago had mandatory ‘political education’ and she made the fair point that developing democratic competences should not simply repeat the past mistakes of her and other European countries in other ways. She did, however, misunderstand the purpose of the framework.
Higher education cannot educate concerned citizens unless institutions and the individual members of the academic community practise what they teach and learn. Higher education must practise democracy on campus through student and staff participation in institutional governance, which is one of the fundamental values of the European Higher Education Area, but also as a culture – a set of behaviours and attitudes – that permeates institutional life.
Higher education, then, should encourage civic participation, and one way of doing so is by making engagement with the local community an institutional policy.
What the Council of Europe has come to define as the local democratic mission of higher education should be place-based, emphasise working with and not just in the local community and be based on a commitment to democracy and human rights.
It should include engagement with local civil society, as exemplified by the work Queen’s University Belfast is doing with its local community, including community centres, Dublin City University’s engagement with its local community of Ballymun, or the efforts by the University of Clermont Auvergne and other institutions to draw on the competences of refugees.
The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System should make it relatively straightforward to give credits for local engagement within a degree or study programme.
How we refer to students is much more than a semantic issue. It betrays the way we consider them. Do we see them just as clients passing through an institution or a programme or rather as members of the academic community?
Clients have no intrinsic interest in the inner workings of the provider. If they find what they want, they stay and shop as long as they need the goods. Then they move on, and they move on immediately if they do not find what they want.
Members of a community, on the other hand, stay and seek to correct what they believe is wrong. If students are seen and treated as members of the academic community, they will seek to improve higher education, as we witness both in institutions and in the European Higher Education Area. The difference between treating students as clients or as community members is vital to higher education and to society more broadly.
Higher education probably trains more highly qualified subject specialists than ever before. I am less convinced that we educate intellectuals: people who can put their subject-specific competences into a broader context, ask the critical questions needed to improve society, and find the answers that can make the potential for improvement a reality.
This is the essence of educating concerned citizens, and it is a challenge to which higher education can and must rise – particularly in times where democratic values are under siege and one European country is conducting an all-out invasion of a neighbouring country.
Sjur Bergan was head of the Council of Europe’s Education Department until the end of January 2022 and is a long-time member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group. He remains a member of the EHEA Working Group on Fundamental Values and has written extensively on higher education, including as series editor of the Council of Europe Higher Education Series.