Enhancing the Student Civic Experience: A Roadmap to Empower Students

Universities across the UK should embed a ‘truly civic’ approach that equips all students as lifelong active citizens through formal learning, campus activities, and community engagement, according to a new report jointly produced by the Civic University Network and the UPP Foundation.

The report, Enhancing the Student Civic Experience, argues that universities have a fundamental responsibility to promote robust civic and democratic education regardless of a student’s field of study.

Report author Dr Andy Mycock, Chief Policy Fellow, Y-PERN Chief Policy Fellow comments: “As we prepare for a new UK government, the launch of the Enhancing the Student Civic Experience report offers a much-needed new lens to understand the social value of higher education, providing an opportunity to reflect on the value and contributions of students in developing innovative and impactful forms of civic engagement and knowledge exchange.”

Key recommendations for civic engagement

Based on input from two national workshops involving representatives from across higher education and leading civil society and student organisations, the report outlines four key recommendations:

  • Supporting Democratic Participation through practices like compulsory voter registration, on-campus polling, and legislative ‘surgeries’.
  • Acknowledging the student civic experience in metrics like the Teaching Excellence Framework and National Student Survey.
  • Refreshing Civic University Agreements to formally recognise the importance and value of the student civic experience to ‘truly civic’ universities.
  • Creating a ‘What Works’ civic learning resource hub and funding further research.

The report also recommends universities and Students’ Unions should undertake an annual ‘Student Civic Health Check’ to assess levels of civic engagement and participation in systems of representation, student elections, and local democratic and volunteering networks.

Innovative approaches from Yorkshire and Humber

Many of the case studies which informed the report came from university partners in the Yorkshire and Humber Policy Engagement and Research Network who provided examples of innovative approaches to student civic engagement.

“They highlight the potential for all students to learn about and participate in evidence-based policymaking during their time at university, both as part of their formal studies and through extracurricular activities,” says Dr Mycock.

Partners across Y-PERN are exploring how policy engagement can form part of the broader student civic experience. For example, colleagues at the University of Hull are developing a module on Policy Impact which focuses on local and regional policy and community engagement for post-graduate students. Y-PERN has also hosted an early-career workshop on regional policy engagement in West Yorkshire, involving postgraduate students from across the region. 

Improving town-gown relations

Richard Brabner, Executive Chair of the UPP Foundation said: “Student participation in their local communities through volunteering, extra-curricular activities and work experience as part of their degree is incredibly valuable. It helps town-gown relations and supports student employability. This report offers a plan for what an effective student civic service programme could look like and we call on the next government and higher education sector to embrace its findings.”

Professor Chris Wiggington is Pro Vice-Chancellor for Global and Academic Partnerships at Sheffield Hallam University which leads the Civic University Network. He said: “Our degrees and apprenticeships must enable students to develop true civic identities. This means providing sustained opportunities for civic learning, participation in governance, and connections to local communities.  Higher education holds incredible potential to support students to become engaged and active citizens. There is a need to promote universities as civic and democratic communities of participation to prepare them for a lifelong commitment as active citizens.”

Sophie Duncan and Paul Manners, Co-Directors, NCCPE said: “We warmly welcome this report. The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement always been interested in how to maximise the potential of student involvement in universities’ public, community and civic engagement. The report lays out a clear set of recommendations and challenges – and we are committed to working with the sector to tackle these, in particular to help build a stronger community of people committed to this agenda and to developing the evidence base about what works, including how civic engagement can animate student learning.”