Universities’ civic endeavours must reflect students’ priorities 

A new survey underlines the importance of anti-racism, mental health and climate change to current and potential undergraduates, writes James Sloam  

June 28, 2021
A climate change protest
Source: istock

In recent decades, universities have made efforts to enhance their civic role – from addressing challenges in their local communities via volunteering to providing benefits for the whole of society via research impact.

However, three successive crises – the Great Recession, the climate emergency and Covid-19 – have altered key fundamentals in society and the economy. It is vital that universities enhance their civic roles in response.

To that end, we can and should learn from the values and priorities of our students. These, after all, are the people who will have to live with the long-term effects of these crises. It is universities’ fundamental duty to respond – and it is also in their own interests as student recruiters.

Over the past decade, young people have made their voices heard through increasing engagement in political and social movements. The climate strikes (#fridaysforfuture) and Black Lives Matter are just two examples. However, surprisingly little research has been carried out on the specific priorities of the youth. That is why we at the School of Law and Social Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London commissioned a survey on the subject.

A representative sample of 1,521 UK students (1,011 in higher education and 510 taking A levels or equivalent) was asked two main questions by the polling company Youthsight: “What are the most important issues facing the country?” and “What are the most important (civic) qualities for a university?”

Usually, economic or health issues come top in polls like these (although surveys often do not test for so-called “identity” issues). But, for our student sample, the top issue facing the UK (identified by 51 per cent of respondents) is “racial, ethnic or religious discrimination”.

This is reflected in students’ attitudes towards higher education – 63 per cent selected “commitment to anti-racism” as one of their top three civic qualities for a university. This sentiment was especially strong among school-age, female and Black African and Black Caribbean students, but even 60 per cent of white students see the issue as a top priority.

The second most important issue facing the UK, according to students, is mental health. Nearly half (46 per cent) of our sample selected it – and, tellingly for the sector, more than two-thirds (68 per cent) believe that a strong “commitment to good mental health” is one of the most important civic qualities of a university (the highest ranked quality in the survey).

Mental health has often been shown to be a top priority for young people, and there is much evidence indicating that young people’s mental health in particular has deteriorated dramatically since the onset of the pandemic. Three-quarters of female students believe it should now be a priority for universities.

Climate change is students’ third-ranked priority, with 41 per cent listing the environment as one of the key challenges facing the country and 37 per cent indicating that “commitment to action against climate change and protecting the environment” is an important civic quality for a university. Interestingly, that latter figure rises to 47 per cent among prospective undergraduates. And environmental issues will only increase in importance in the run-up to COP26 (the United Nations climate conference) in Glasgow in November – not to mention as the crises brought about by climate change begin to mount.

It is true that most universities have already made commitments to addressing racism, mental health and climate change. However, they are rarely integrated across all areas of operation, including student services, teaching and learning, research, impact and engagement and volunteering. Moreover, efforts to promote these agendas can all too often be tokenistic or piecemeal in their effect. Turning words into action by weaving these priorities into the fabric of the university should be at the forefront of our minds as universities generate their post-pandemic strategies.

One example is anti-racism. Universities might look at decolonisation of the curriculum, but they may not be proactive in other areas where action is needed. At Royal Holloway, we are piloting a placement scheme in Parliament for under-represented minority groups, which is also integrated into our “Politics in Action” module. This is an attempt to tie career opportunities to learning objectives.

Universities should prioritise action in areas where there are proven synergies. Civic engagement can, when integrated into the curriculum, bring benefits to mental health, develop a student’s sense of self-efficacy and improve academic achievement.

It can also provide valuable research beyond academia into key questions. For example, only 31 per cent of students feel that their educational institution is currently doing enough to combat climate change. If we encourage and support students to research this broad topic (from multiple disciplinary angles), it has the potential to build students’ and academics’ sense of efficacy in terms of knowledge and solutions.

Clearly, universities cannot be expected to solve all the ills of the world at a time of crisis. But reimagining our civic purpose through the voices of our students would provide tangible benefits not only for those students but for our institutions and society more generally.

James Sloam is professor of politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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