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An interdisciplinary research centre that examines what it means to grow up in a global world


Learning Active Citizenship in UCL’s Global Citizenship Programme: Making the case for more education for Active Citizenship for university students.

By UCL Global Youth, on 15 October 2017

A guest post by Dr. Ioanna Noula, Independent Researcher and Visiting Fellow, at the Department of Media and Communications Department, LSE

A core theme in UCL’s strategy is to become a global University addressing global challenges and delivering global impact. The UCL Global Citizenship Programme (UCLGCP), a two-week summer course offered every year free of charge to all undergraduate and postgraduate students across UCL, is considered a key enabler to this end. It also constitutes a flagship programme for UCL’s Connected Curriculum, enabling “students [to] make connections across subjects and out to the world”. The Programme aims at advancing students’ employability while fostering their civic engagement. Students have the opportunity to select among 10 different strands that address different global challenges.
In 2016 the Active Citizenship Strand was introduced as an innovation to UCLGCP. The distinct character of the strand consists in that it is set within the human rights framework espousing a social-justice oriented model of global citizenship and stresses the importance of political awareness and participation. I had the opportunity to get actively involved in the Programme as a “navigator” of the Active Citizenship strand and as a researcher in an award-winning research project that explored the UCLGCP in comparative perspective and identified ways higher education can develop young people’s awareness, knowledge and skills related to global citizenship. As a navigator I was in charge of facilitating students’ learning through debriefing group sessions. I also acted as a liaison between the Strand and the campaigning organisations students were placed at. This experience allowed me to closely observe the impact of the activities of the strand and of the UCLGCP overall on students’ understanding of global and active citizenship.

What does learning active citizenship involve?
The strand’s pedagogical approach to civic engagement goes beyond the theory/ practice divide. Daily, over the course of two-weeks, students attend workshops and lectures in the morning and they spend four hours in the afternoon at the placements. Students work in groups tasked with creating an online campaign raising awareness around a civic issue. This project takes place in collaboration with campaigning organisations (partner organisations) including, amongst others: Amnesty International, War on Want, Right to Education, and Think Global. Students are placed with the partner organisations, they support their work, and develop a campaign in order to disseminate the work of the organisation or to launch a campaign of their choice related to the issues that their selected organisation takes action about. Moreover, their placements enable them to observe closely the work routine of the partner organisations and the strategies they deploy to achieve their cause. Therefore, placements are both an opportunity to engage with and take action on civic matters, and an opportunity to develop their communication skills and habits that will serve them towards a successful professional life.
The strand also includes a taught element comprising workshops and lectures from expert activists and practitioners in the campaigning sector. The students primarily gain insights on how to campaign and politically engage with topical issues and global challenges. The importance of awareness raising and active participation to address global issues is also highlighted. The advocacy and campaigning skills taught (strategic thinking, communication, networking, campaigning) were also emphasised both as a benefit for their professional plans, as well as a life skill that contributed to their self-confidence.

Students’ takeaways
After the completion of the programme, students provided feedback on their experience by completing evaluation forms. Additionally, a number of students were interviewed as part of the comparative research project. These data provided a number of key insights into students’ perceptions of this Strand. It was concluded that the aspects of the project that benefit students most are:

  • the practical character of the learning experience provided and the opportunity given to students to acquire professional experience,
  • the emphasis placed on students’ employability also mirrored in the opportunities that emerged for students to work or volunteer for their selected organisations,
  • the prestige of the partner organisations as an addition to students’ CV,
  • the opportunity given to students to pursue their personal interest in active citizenship, working along expert practitioners and learning from experienced activists,
  • the approach to active citizenship as a means for awareness raising and social change,
  • the emphasis of the strand on the global scope of contemporary citizenship,
  • the opportunity given to students to interact with peers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds as a means to enhance their perspective on the way they perceive the world and the challenges it is faced with.

However, a number of shortcomings of the programme were also identified:

  • many of the students concluded that it would be a lot more useful to spend more time at the placements in order to become more involved and integrate in the routine of the organisations,
  • given the importance the strand places on the use of social media for the purpose of learning campaigning skills, the findings revealed that although students acquired significant know-how on strategic campaigning online, they were not encouraged sufficiently to reflect on the interplay of their online and offline citizenship.
  • students who answered questions regarding their online citizenship demonstrated a thin understanding of the civic impact of their online participation. In their answers they associated online active citizenship to petition signing online or to the practice of following campaigning organisations online corresponding to the definition of “slactivism”.

Moreover, there is a tension between the employability aim of the programme and the social-justice oriented character of the strand. One way to address this would be to place more emphasis on problematising ways in which future professionals can creatively integrate critical civic attitudes in their chosen professional context would be crucial. This is particularly important for STEM students, who ordinarily rarely enjoy the opportunity to problematize sociopolitical issues over the course of their studies or to consider the impact of their professional choices for future developments in the world.

Active citizenship and the global university
This Strand constitutes a unique pedagogical constellation of practical based learning, cutting-edge research and a social justice ethical framework. It is premised on collaborative, experiential, transdisciplinary, reflective forms of learning that seek to engender inclusive, empathetic, ethical, critical and transformative attitudes setting the foundations for a sustainable approach to global living.
The findings yielded from investigating students’ experiences in the Active Citizenship Strand suggest that there are great benefits for HEIs to involve students of all disciplines in courses and extra-curricular experiences that do not solely focus on enhancing their knowledge and skills and render them employable. Most importantly, I believe that these educational opportunities should aim at emancipating students and creating citizens that engage with the world with a critical mind, capable of challenging the unquestionable truths, and default assumptions in their chosen field of study and inspiring them to bring about change as through their chosen careers.

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