Citizenship and solidarity practices at universities Good intentions or feasible practices?

KANDEL, Victoria

In this article Victoria Kandel of the Universidad de Buenos Aires analyzes the tensions between the "citizenisation" model and the traditional conceptions of professional training.

In recent years, slogans and definitions concerning the ‘social responsibility of universities’ have been circulating internationally. These formulations attribute a fundamental role to universities in terms of complementing professional training with knowledge and experiences related to citizenship. This proposed new relationship between universities and their environment raises a number of questions: why should universities educate students as citizens? Is it possible to accomplish this? What tools are available to pursue this objective? Moreover, although there are points of consensus on this issue, there are also tensions between the ‘citizenisation‘ model we describe and traditional conceptions of professional training. We describe some of these tensions and conclude by offering a series of suggestions that could serve to frame further discussion and decision-making aimed at making the university a space where students are educated for engagement in civic life.

In recent years, slogans and definitions concerning the ‘social responsibility of universities’ have been circulating internationally. These formulations attribute a fundamental role to universities in terms of complementing professional training with knowledge and experiences related to citizenship. Universities have also been criticised for being ‘ivory towers’, that is, for maintaining a degree of isolation, over the course of many years, from everything going on in their environment.

The following quotations reflect these concerns: Relevance in higher education should be assessed in terms of the fit between what society expects of institutions and what they do. This requires ethical standards, political impartiality, critical capacities and, at the same time, a better articulation with the problems of society and the world of work, basing long-term orientations on societal aims and needs, including respect for cultures and environmental protection. (First World Conference on Higher Education, UNESCO, 1998, Article 6).

Particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, there is a need for education that effectively contributes to democratic relations, to tolerance, and to creating a spirit of solidarity and cooperation that makes up a continental identity, that creates opportunities for those who today do not have them, and that contributes, with the creation of knowledge, to the social and economic transformation of our societies. (Regional Conference on Higher Education, CRES, 2008, Article 4).

The urgent need to take on board notions of social responsibility and educate students to become citizens who have a sense of solidarity and are engaged with their social context is widely recognised, but institutional responses have been rather slow, and it is impossible to identify general trends or uniform progress in a single direction.

In the following pages, we consider several key questions: why should universities educate students as citizens? Is it really possible to accomplish this? What tools are available to pursue this objective?

Citizenship on the political agenda

The issue of citizenship has been on the higher education agenda in recent years, so it makes sense to take a closer look at citizenship and the role of universities with respect to this issue. Globalisation, migratory movements, and the current questioning and distrust of the institutions of representative democracy—among many other issues—invite us to consider the tensions generated by the very concept of citizenship. Now more than ever before, citizenship is a category that creates both equality and inequality. The equality derives from the legal system of the political community to which a citizen belongs: the equality of rights and obligations that exists within a particular state (and therefore within a particular territory). At the same time, however, statistical data points to situations of extreme social polarisation and deep inequalities in living conditions within these territories. Exclusion, individualism and social fragmentation limit the equalising and integrating potential contained in the legal and political figure of the citizen. In a scenario marked by the threat of social disintegration, it is essential to recover notions such as community, participation, commitment to the public and social sphere, and recognition of the other. In this context, many look to the educational system in the firm belief that it must be the starting point for building a more just and inclusive order.

Apart from political arguments, there are reasons for pursuing education for citizenship that relate to the labour market in which future professionals will have to find a place. The labour market also demands forms of knowledge that are related to citizenship; employers are placing ever-greater emphasis on ‘transversal competences’ that complement education in specific areas of knowledge. The ability to formulate arguments, thinking skills, critical skills and practical know-how are all essential in both professional and civic life. In other words, it is increasingly important that university education should foster an ethic for citizens as well as a professional ethic. Education for citizenship and dialogue with the university’s external environment can have highly positive effects on the training of future professionals.

This set of expectations appears to be gradually penetrating the academic world and the system as a whole as a result of public policies aimed at building and promoting notions of citizenship. But how is this process unfolding? Why is there a certain level of indifference and even resistance when it comes to implementing civic education projects? We will now briefly describe a number of tensions we have identified in order to facilitate a better understanding of the potential of civic education at universities and its limitations.

Before considering these tensions, however, based on observations we have made in the case of Argentina (part of a broader research project, of which we offer only a brief summary here due to space limitations), we can conclude that institutional policy decisions have been oriented in three directions when it comes to developing specific action plans on education for citizenship:

• Access and retention policies. Policies observed in this area include quotas for underrepresented populations; financial aid for low-income students; extension programmes and institution building in outlying regions to make university programmes accessible in areas that are distant from major urban centres; and tutoring sessions to promote retention of students, provide support, and thus prevent drop-outs.

• ‘Curricular justice’ policies. Such policies include, among many other examples, the inclusion of topics related to human rights in curricula (as in the case of the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which recently decided to include human rights content as part of all undergraduate programmes); introduction of specific subjects such as professional ethics and deontology; strengthening of the humanistic and social content of curricula (including for technical studies) and teaching of history, philosophy and social issues; and the inclusion in curricula of approaches that emphasise the experience of disadvantaged social sectors.

• Institutional policies. Through the democratisation of decision-making processes and the opening of participatory channels for the various sectors that make up the university system; introduction of educational and training practices based on the service-learning model; and promotion, support and funding of traditional areas of extension, based on a renewed approach aimed at taking social needs and demands into account in both research and teaching.

Five tensions

The policies listed above appear to suggest a trend, with institutions gradually recognising the importance of education for citizenship and implementing relevant practices. At the same time, however, one can observe attitudes of indifference and resistance to a transformation that would make universities more permeable to social issues—issues that ultimately challenge universities to produce graduates with a real awareness of the broader social impact of their professional activity.

We will now briefly describe a number of dilemmas that we believe may serve as useful tools for thinking about the potential and the difficulties involved in conceiving of the university as an institution for producing citizens who are socially engaged, responsible, and possessed of a sense of solidarity.

First tension: dilemmas inherent in the notion of citizenship. The complexity of the contemporary social world makes it difficult to establish any consensus on what form education for citizenship should take. We believe that one reason why it is difficult to address this issue is that certain key questions have not been discussed, including the following: should education for citizenship be limited to recognising lists of rights and obligations that apply within a territory or globally, or should it be aimed at promoting practices that transcend the notion of citizenship as a defined status? What are the implications of thinking about citizenship in the context of an increasingly global order? Who will the interlocutors be for future professional graduates: the market, the state, civil society? Who will be impacted by the actions of future professionals-citizens?

Second tension: university versus lower educational levels. Some specialists argue that since university education is not obligatory, it should not deal with concepts already covered at lower educational levels. If only a minority of people attend university, why should we accentuate differences by introducing ideas that all individuals, as citizens, should already be aware of? And if one maintains that universities have a role in this area, what distinctive features should characterise education for citizenship in the context of professional training? A discussion involving the entire educational system needs to take place to consider these issues and the democratisation of access to higher education.

Third tension: professional training versus comprehensive education. The increasing specialisation of knowledge and the need to prepare students to enter the labour market are leading us to abandon a broad, comprehensive approach to education that stresses analytical skills and critical thinking. The notion of ‘one-dimensionality’ refers to the progressive abandonment of multiple areas of knowledge and educational experience in favour of a strategic focus, in which an emphasis on utility (‘knowing how to do something’) comes to pervade teaching spaces. Some authors note a shift from ‘knowing why’ things happen to ‘knowing how things are done’—the approach to knowledge that now characterises university studies.

Fourth tension: educating citizens versus educating producers. The previous tension raises a question about the role of universities—namely, what kind of knowledge is regarded as useful? Increasingly, and in accord with the expectations of many students entering university, utility is seen to lie in what is productive in terms of accumulation. Solidarity, empathy, democracy and participation do not generate immediate material gains. As a result, it can be difficult to establish the legitimacy of educational practices that focus on these areas.

Fifth tension: ideas about what it means to be a professional. What attributes do professionals have? What does it mean to be a good one? What type of society will the professional have to work in? Is it a just society or one that needs to change? Universities appear to provide few spaces (formal or informal) for democratic discussion of what it means to be a professional in the contemporary world.

‘From university knowledge to pluriversity knowledge’

In a well-known paper published in Argentina in 2005, Boaventura de Sousa Santos used these words to describe a contemporary trend that involves going beyond the traditional approach to knowledge. Knowledge used to be ‘produced in universities whose autonomy resulted in a production process that was relatively decontextualised in relation to the needs of the quotidian world of societies.’ In contrast, pluriversity knowledge is ‘contextual insofar as the organising principle of its production is its application. [...] As this application occurs outside the university, the initiative of formulating the problems to be solved and the determination of their criteria of relevance are the result of agreement between researchers and users’ (Sousa 33).

While pluriversity knowledge has enormous potential for the planning of educational programmes that are inclusive, engaged with their social context, and solidarity-based, Sousa recognises that it ‘has most consistently been pursued within the framework of university-industry partnerships, and consequently takes the form of commercial knowledge’ (Sousa 36). Pluriversity knowledge presents a series of options in terms of social involvement and education for solidarity, provided it is the university community that makes the political and academic decisions that allow it to move in this direction.

We conclude by offering a series of suggestions that we believe merit consideration. The points listed below should be discussed by members of the university community in a democratic setting that encourages deliberation.

  • Professional and scientific training have a privileged status at universities to the detriment of education for citizenship. Institutional measures should be implemented to rebalance this relationship. This will involve formalising and establishing a hierarchy of actions to be taken by instructors and students to increase involvement in the community. In many countries, a lot of work remains to be done on evaluation of teaching performance. In addition to encouraging scientific productivity, quality evaluations should incentivise forms of social engagement.
  • Ways should be found to include university volunteer programmes and traditional forms of extension (very much part of Argentinian institutional culture) in university curricula. This will allow students to gain experience that enriches their theoretical training as well as increasing their awareness of what living conditions are like in the community they will eventually work in.
  • Academic programmes would be richer if they included curricular content that addresses deontology, professional ethics, history and changes in the way different professions are understood and approached. Dialogue between students and instructors about the meaning of what they are doing is a useful means of promoting reflection.
  • Work at both the curricular level and the institutional level: promote practices such as discussion, deliberation, and participation in governing bodies; recover the notion of ‘university citizenship’ or the ‘university demos’. It should be the university community as a whole that makes decisions about how and why to commit to an educational approach that pursues both professional and civic goals.


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CONNELL, R. (2006), Escuelas y Justicia Social, Morata, Spain.
DE ALBA, A. (Comp.) (1993), EL curriculum universitario de cara al nuevo milenio. Mexico: Universidad de Guadalajara – Universidad Autónoma de México.
DEREK, Bok (2008), Más allá de la torre de marfil: la responsabilidad social de la universidad moderna, Universidad de Palermo, Buenos Aires.
PINTO, M. (2010), ‘La enseñanza de Derechos Humanos en la Universidad de Buenos Aires’, in Academia. Revista sobre Enseñanza del Derecho, Year 8, No. 16, UBA, Argentina.
SOUSA SANTOS, B. (2005), La universidad del siglo XXI, Miño y Dávila, Buenos Aires.

About the author

Victoria Kandel: She holds a Bachelor degree in Political Science  and and MA in Education at Latinamerican Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) She is candidate of a Phd at the same university and her thesis name is: "Students and citizens. The University of Buenos Aires as an space for the construction of citizenry"

She is currently working as a universitary pedagogy at Faculty of Law of the University of Buenos Aires. Aditionally she is an active member of the voluntary program of the university titled "The Convention about the children rights"


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