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The ‘double benefit’ of active citizenship

  • 20 March 2024
  • By Simran Dhanjal-Field
  • This blog is an adapted version of a speech delivered by Simran Dhanjal-Field, CEO of Student Hubs. Student Hubs is a charity which seeks to enable all students to participate in social and environmental challenges during their education. The speech was delivered at the Student Hubs’ Conference in January.

Student Hubs exists to empower university students to become active citizens, equipping them with the tools, behaviours, and skills they need to make a positive change. Our initiatives are a bridge between students and their communities, operating on a double-benefit model, building connections and mainstreaming student social action to create active citizens for life.

Active citizenship is a word that comes up a lot when we talk about Student Hubs: why is this so important to us?

Let’s start with sculpting a shared definition of what we mean by an active citizen. To be a citizen means you belong to a group, such as a group of people with shared values and ideas. When we add ‘active’ to it, it suggests an intentional role is being played. To be a socially active citizen is to be someone who is engaged in coming together with others to improve their lives, and solve the problems that are important to their communities. This social element is important when we consider the type of world we want to create: a fair and just society, where all individuals can thrive. An active citizen has to be someone who is working towards this vision.

In their paper, “What Kind of Citizen” in the early 2000s, Westheimer and Kahne define three concepts of a ‘good citizen’ which helps to create a spectrum of engagement. From the ‘personally responsible citizen’, someone who acts responsibly in their community, to the ‘participatory citizen’, someone who actively seeks to be a part of the social life of the community, engaging in organising roles and policies, to the ‘justice-oriented citizen’, someone who engages critically with understanding and interrogating the structures which uphold social issues and injustices. These definitions help us to understand the spectrum of engagement an ‘active citizen’ may have in their community and on the world around them.

Being an active citizen is about feeling like you have the ability to imagine a future that is better than it is now, and knowing you have the skills to get there. It’s about having agency and feeling like you can make an impact on the world around you. The second element is about taking action. From our experience, this comes down to two factors: confidence and a sense of belonging.

Fundamentally, across the higher education sector, we want to set up our students for success, to succeed in the world and create lasting impactful change through their careers and how they live their lives. This requires them to have agency, to feel in control and to have the skills, the vision, and the connections to make a difference. Supporting the development of active citizens, who know this about themselves and believe they can do it, is how we make this happen.

Student Hubs’ theory of change speaks to active citizenship, and we see immediate and long-term benefits for students and community groups.

Place-based, regionally-dedicated work is vital to becoming a social-purpose university. A university is a part of its surroundings, and we cannot remove the impact an institution or its students has on the place in which it exists. Our connections with our communities shape the graduates we are trying to support, and it’s important that we allow them to learn together and solve problems together, to avoid activities being done to a community group.

This work requires meaningful dialogue to be effective, as well as an understanding of local communities and the social issues and contexts that they face on a day-to-day basis. We need to work with partners who are invested in this meaningful collaboration and understand that building trust will take time. As such, we need to have a whole university approach.

However, we are all acutely aware that not all students can access these opportunities equally. It would be incredibly naive of us to assume that participating is all up to the individual. There are a wide range of factors that can prevent students from accessing the existing opportunities within our institutions for this skill development. It is our responsibility as practitioners and providers to ensure that all students, in particular underserved students, are set up for future success. Equally, we must do all we can to ensure meaningful engagement means transformative outcomes for the students who need this support most.

This is why Student Hubs’ vision looks at mainstreaming social action activities, and why we are a strong believer in both in-curricular and extracurricular civic activities. Every student deserves to experience the benefits of social action activities.

By embedding these activities into the curriculum, we can ensure that every student has real-world experiences and the opportunity to engage in social action activities. These activities connect students to their communities, both local and global, and with their own personal values. Having the experience embedded into their course, every student will have a chance to participate and being an active citizen, a citizen of the world, is an essential part of their university experience and journey.

However, we also believe that participating in these activities needs to be a choice. Behaviour change can only come around if individuals are provided opportunities to make a choice, arn supported to act on it, and of their own volition, choose to do it again. By providing a variety of well-structured and supported extracurricular options after ensuring all students get to experience the benefits of socially impactful activities, we reinforce the idea and feeling that they do have the skills necessary, that their contributions are worthwhile, and that they can make a difference in their communities, for themselves and others.

At Student Hubs, we encourage the higher education sector to think about the future you want to see and start mapping how to get there for our students, communities, and the underlying social purpose we should all seek to serve.

We want to be part of this journey as collaborators, champions, and advocates for student social action.

Overall, we all need to be working towards a future where we can imagine a better tomorrow, for ourselves and our students, and our mindset needs to broaden and allow us to consider our community on a local, national and global level.

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