Citizenship, rights and universities

KANDEL, Victoria (2010)

In this article Victoria Kandel, BA in Social Sciences and doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Buenos Aires, analyses the concepts of citizenship and rights and their linkage with higher education.


Universities and the national and international organisations that regulate them share the idea that universities should not only prepare students for the labour market but also to become responsible citizens. This is upheld by the declarations and charters in which both ministers of education and university managers agree that the main function of universities is to “educate highly qualified graduates and responsible citizens able to meet the needs of all sectors of human activity (…)” and to “provide opportunities for higher learning (...) in order to educate for citizenship and for active participation in society” (World Conference on Higher Education, UNESCO, 1998).

At the 2008 Regional Higher Education Conference (a preliminary to the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education), the final document underscored the central role played by universities: 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 do not have them, and that contributes, with the creation of knowledge, to the social and economic transformation of our societies.

In a context of marked inequality such as Latin America, the commitment to higher education means inclusion but, above all, encouraging deep, committed reflection on higher education as a social good and a right. This means that professional training must be undertaken in a certain context and that professionals should be able to overcome the many challenges facing them in endogenous development and in the integration of countries in an ethically, socially and environmentally responsible way. They should likewise be able to take an active, critical and constructive involvement in society.

These considerations inevitably give rise to the issue of how to turn these declarations into concrete actions, and from a conceptual perspective, of how best to do so.

Teaching citizenship: life with others

Academics seem to have renewed their interest in citizenship, as put forward by Kymlika and Norman in a paper published in 1997, Return of the Citizen, that is, the return of the problem of being a citizen. Although citizenship was originally conceived as a phenomenon that would bring about equality and a feeling of belonging, and as a practice that would give people rights, the modern world challenges this idea of equality. Modern-day social problems make manifest that inequality, exclusion, individualism and social fragmentation are processes that limit the potential of citizens as political and legal figures. Thus, rekindling an interest in citizenship means thinking of it as a problem, with all the contradictions and difficulties inherent to the modern world.

An understanding of this analytical framework gives rise to the question about the role educational institutions play in fomenting an appreciation for citizenship and in bringing about certain good citizenship practices. In tackling this problem, we assume that we are experiencing a new scenario of “decitizenisation”, in which it is imperative to recover notions such as “community”, “commitment to public and social life”, “acknowledgement of others”, in short, the human dimension in its widest possible sense.

Perhaps a good way to start on the links between education and citizenship is to take up the words of J. J. Rousseau, who – in his brilliant political treatise on education, Emile – is faced with a dilemma that takes on new meaning today in view of the current educational challenges at all levels. Education is going through a highly complex process, in which a large number of factors are involved, in addition to all the knowledge and information that is conveyed to us during the years we spend in educational institutions. Therefore, the stance taken by Rousseau is clear with regard to the purpose that education fulfils, namely: “Living is the business that I wish to teach him. When he leaves my care he will, I grant, be neither magistrate, nor soldier, nor priest: he will be, primarily, a man.”

Whatever educational process people go through to receive training, they do not live alone or in isolation from the rest of humanity or from a plethora of institutions. Therefore, in addition to training people the challenge is to train a “sociable” being who is able and willing to live in society. Therein lies the importance of recognising the political character of education, within the framework of a specific society and context. By recognising that the individual who receives an education is a part of a whole, we could perhaps arrive at a consensus on the meaning of the construction of citizenship and the teaching of rights.

We could however ask ourselves whether educational institutions, particularly universities, are willing and prepared to train professional men and women and citizens who are aware that they will share their “lives with others” in their future career paths. To put it another way, to what degree do individualism, fragmentation and competition inhibit the ability to tackle the joint task of training professionals and citizens?

An all-encompassing education in which values linked to citizenship are the backbone of academic activity has progressively given way to an approach to knowledge that is based on the assumption that universities have a certain purpose, namely, to respond to immediate market demands. Thus, institutions are responsible for satisfying immediate needs, and the social function that is supposed to govern their scientific, academic and professional activities (and is designed to fulfil cultural ambitions that reflect the heritage of the society to which these institutions belong) is put on the back burner.

We believe that instrumentality, that is, the transmission of know-how, should be permanently linked to social criticism. There are unsalvageable gaps in curricula that are organised solely on the basis of skills. Therefore, if a skill is to be included in an academic curriculum students must be made aware of the cognitive processes involved and of the fact that skills do not exist outside the situation in which they are used and that their use unquestionably contributes to defining that situation.

In short, strategies must be devised that allow students and graduates to reflect on and commit to their status as citizens, as well as learning about their chosen profession. This is imperative in the current context in which critical reflection has been put to one side, individualism and competitiveness are on the rise, and in which notions such as community, commitment and participation (to name but a few) are disparaged.

Different ways of understanding citizenship

T. S. Marshall, who pioneered the study of citizenship as a theoretical problem, is one of the most cited authors on the subject. He argued that citizenship is a “fight” for equality, belonging, permanence and recognition.

However, if we talk about citizenship in terms of status, from a liberal perspective we understand that being a citizen presupposes being guaranteed a number of rights in a given country. In contrast, the republican perspective conceives citizenship as a sort of attitude whereby we participate in public affairs, that is, we become actively involved in the public arena.

The idea of citizenship ultimately brings to mind an act of mediation between individuals and the political community: the latter recognises the former and consequently grants them rights and allows them (or not) to intervene in the definition of public affairs.

This mediation is what is of interest to us, as it allows us to contemplate change and the opportunities of men and women to intervene in the real scheme of things. The political community is out there, made up of a series of institutions, rules and structures, but between them and individuals per se there are citizens, who have a say in the way the political community is run.

The study of citizenship is therefore the study of a legal, political, philosophical and historical category that brings individuals and their community together. Therefore, regardless of a particular historical era and of the attributes with which the notion of the political community is conferred, speaking about citizenship means bringing to light the problems of belonging and identity.


There is a widespread consensus that the idea of citizenship is bound to the sense of belonging: being a citizen means belonging to a particular political community. In turn, this idea of belonging presupposes identity, recognition and, of course, difference. One is only a citizen if one is recognised as such (an individual with rights, a participant, a member) as opposed to an individual who does not belong. Thus, citizenship has always been subject to one limitation: the difference between those who belong and those who do not. Several authors argue that citizenship is a category that includes and excludes at the same time. However, daily experiences in the modern world give rise to tensions, as being a citizen is not always associated with the idea of belonging, or of participation and, perhaps, not even with the feeling that one has certain rights. The question of citizenship thus poses a dilemma between what the world of regulations tells us and our everyday experiences. As early as 1949, T. S. Marshall pointed out the tensions between “citizenship and social class”. Modernity and the emergence of the nation state required the construction of an individual who felt equal and a member of a community, paradoxically within a capitalist system rife with social inequality.

If on the one hand the economic sphere is unequal by nature, on the other, the political sphere must create a society that perceives itself as belonging to a whole, as a member and as a holder of rights. The response to this need is the idea of citizenship that embraces equality and inclusion. It is therefore no surprise that modern societies are marked by this clash between political equality and economic inequality.

Therefore, can education systems that claim to be inclusive and transformative coexist with an increasingly unjust social reality in which exclusion is commonplace? Hopefully, we will ask ourselves a number of questions when we reflect on the teaching of rights and the construction of citizenship in educational environments. Is it possible to produce citizens who participate and are active and committed if politics and public institutions are constantly deteriorating? How do we deal with the loss of faith in public institutions and the fact that young people and adults do not perceive participation as a value?

Over the past few years, Argentina has been a witness to the withdrawal of citizens from the political arena, primarily due to their lack of interest in public affairs and their distrust and scepticism of public policies and the role of the state, but also to the weakening of links between the political community and society. The Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell called this new way of understanding and exercising citizenship “low-intensity citizenship”: a citizenship that has folded in on itself and has abandoned the public dimension with which it shared a common identity in times past. Citizens delegate most of their responsibilities to others (politicians) when they discover that their rights have been violated and participation ceases to make sense anymore.


In view of the above considerations, what should university education be like and what commitments should it make in a democratic society? It is precisely the fact of democracy that ensures that we can engage in a critical discussion about these issues, although the discussion of what citizenship should be, far removed from the material conditions in which citizenship actually takes place, may well arouse the distrust and alienation of students. A better approach would be to pose questions about citizenship and our understanding of it in the framework of the educational institutions to which we belong.

A further challenge consists in considering that work on rights could take the form of an invitation to actually think about the meaning of these rights and about the difficulties belonging and inclusion pose to those who do not have these rights.

With regard to the above, work on citizenship and rights is not based on conveying a list of prerogatives, but on constructing a debate about the way in which citizens are able to act in a public space that belongs to them and of which they would like to form part. This is based on the premise that citizenship is both a condition and an attitude, which invites us to see ourselves as members of the community to which we belong and that gives us a particular identity.

The work being undertaken in the Faculty of Law at the University of Buenos Aires, in the framework of the University Voluntary Work Programme, is striving to move in this direction through the project “The Convention on the Rights of the Child: Workshops for Dissemination and Reflection”. The workshops are held in secondary schools and children’s institutes in the City of Buenos Aires and Greater Buenos Aires, and legal literacy campaigns are run in soup kitchens. To date, over 150 students, lecturers and graduates have become involved in this experience and over 1,000 workshops have been held. This project was declared to be of educational interest by the Argentine Chamber of Deputies and the Government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires.

Both students and future professionals think of themselves in terms of citizens or, at least, that is the challenge. Law students – future lawyers – discuss the meaning of being a citizen with teenagers and children, and this is a learning curve for both those who teach the workshops and those who attend them.

Finally, it must be said that Argentine universities must take a decision about the type of training they wish to develop as public institutions. The instrumentality of practical knowledge and skills, so-called useful knowledge, cannot be divorced from the context in which this knowledge is to be deployed. Neither should we ever let our guard down in terms of casting a critical eye on these practices and in our commitment to reviewing them in professional contexts so that we are responsible for their consequences. In summary, the challenge is to try to mould professional citizens who are aware that the exercise of any profession means that they acknowledge that they live in a social world, a world-with-others.


- Aronson, Perla (2007), “La globalización y los cambios en los marcos del conocimiento, ¿qué debe hacer la universidad? In Aronson (comp.) Notas para el estudio de la globalización, Buenos Aires, Biblos.

- World Conference on Higher Education, UNESCO, 1998.

- Regional Conference on Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, Colombia, 2008.

- Kymlicka and Norman (1997), “El retorno del ciudadano. Una revisión de la producción reciente en Teoría de la Ciudadanía”, Agora no. 7, Buenos Aires.

- O’Donnell, Guillermo, Delegative Democracy, in Journal of Democracy, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, Volume 1, 2009.

- Rousseau, J. J., (2005), Emilio (Emile); Madrid, Biblioteca Edaf.

About the author

Victoria Kandel, BA in Political Science (UBA) and MA in Social Sciences with a focus on Education (FLACSO, Argentina). She is a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Buenos Aires (thesis entitled: "Students and citizens. The University of Buenos Aires as a space for construction of citizenship). She teaches adult pedagogy at the Faculty of Law at the same college where she has integrated and currently integrates research teams on university subjects and teaches grade and upgrade seminars on politics and history of the university in Latin America. She is also a member of the college volunteer program "The Convention on the Rights of the Child: dissemination workshops and reflection".

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


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