Creating high impact citizens through student engagement

Student engagement is known to correlate well with retention and success but its impact on developing citizenship competences is hardly studied.

A new study report by HERANA – Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – in collaboration with Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Cape Town in South Africa, shows that key aspects of the undergraduate student experience have a profound impact on raising levels of citizenship competences.

It shows that the institutional culture; active and collaborative learning practices and student-staff interaction; tailored civic skills training activities and student leadership opportunities; as well as a high level of discursive engagement with global and public affairs and diversity, all cumulate to raise levels of citizenship competences.

The citizenship competences included in the study were critical thinking, leadership, diversity and social skills, as well as attitudes supportive of democracy and good citizenship.

The study

The HERANA study was conducted with undergraduate students at the two universities in 2012-13 using the SERU online survey methodology developed by the Center for Studies in Higher Education, or CSHE, at the University of California, Berkeley.

In recent years the CSHE formed an international consortium of research universities, all of which regularly conduct engagement surveys on the Student Experience in the Research University, or SERU.

The SERU surveys make up close to two-thirds of the questions used in HERANA’s mini-survey called the ‘Citizenship Module’, which plugs into existing engagement surveys to specifically measure student engagement in relation to key citizenship competences.

Albeit developed for implementation in African research universities, the HERANA Citizenship Module is certain to inform similar efforts in other contexts where universities seek to better understand the processes that enhance key social outcomes of higher education such as citizenship and look for evidence of the effectiveness of existing practices.

This round of HERANA student surveys followed an earlier set of studies investigating the contribution of higher education to development in Africa, of which three projects specifically focused on matters of political development and democratisation.

The latter studies were premised on the understanding that education is intrinsically linked to development and good governance and, in keeping with the thinking of Manuel Castells, that the selection and political socialisation of the leadership of society is one of the functions that universities have been fulfilling historically, more especially so national flagship universities.

The earlier HERANA studies – published inter alia in the Journal of Higher Education in Africa – showed that university-educated political leaders and citizens in Africa play a key role as ‘institutionalisers’ in the complex institutions of state and civil society that characterise modern democracy.

They further showed high levels of criticalness among students in evaluating the quality of democracy in their respective countries, and very high levels of political engagement among students, thus prompting the question of whether the ‘political hothouse’ that many African universities represent could be transformed to serve as effective ‘training grounds’ for democracy.

The purpose of the follow-up HERANA II student engagement surveys has therefore been to identify specific aspects of the student experience of higher education that could be harnessed for the development of specific citizenship competences as a means to better understand and improve the contribution of higher education to democracy and development in Africa.

Impact of engagement on citizenship

A project presentation made at the University of Stellenbosch in November 2014 provided a first perspective on the impact of student engagement on citizenship competences with reference to the two case universities.

It directly addressed the core research question of the project as to whether students who report higher levels of engagement also report higher levels of citizenship and diversity competences.

Exploring different statistical models and indicators of the student experience and competences, it showed that the best models of engagement explained up to a third of variation in levels of civic, diversity and social skills, as well as separately between a quarter and two-fifths of variation in diversity and social skills, leadership skills, and student attitudes towards good citizenship.

The findings not only confirm the usefulness of the student engagement construct and the HERANA Citizenship Module for studying and improving the student experience to enhance higher education’s contribution to citizenship in Africa; they provide actual evidence of the way that processes of student engagement relate to and enhance citizenship competences.

They thus invite reflection on what George Kuh calls ‘high-impact practices’, or HIPs. If well designed, many of the prominent ‘high-impact practices’ for teaching and learning success – such as interdisciplinary first year seminars on global issues, learning communities etc – are likely to also have a positive impact on citizenship competences insofar as they correlate with many of the same academic engagement measures.

Yet, the HERANA surveys also show that beyond the curricular, there is a critical role to be played by the co-curriculum and particularly student affairs civic skills training activity targeted at student leaders, student politics, and volunteering in development agencies and advocacy groups.

These features cumulate with the stimulation of a ‘discursively engaged’ diversity respecting campus culture that is abuzz with debates on global issues, stimulates interest in and discussions of public affairs and politics, and enables meaningful interactions with diverse others.

* The findings of this and other recently concluded HERANA studies will be published by African Minds, Cape Town, in the book Contradictory Functions, Knowledge Production and Pacts in African Higher Education, AHED Series, edited by Nico Cloete, Peter Maassen and Tracy Bailey. The book is set to be launched at the African Higher Education Summit in Dakar, Senegal, in March 2015.

* Thierry Luescher-Mamashela is associate director of institutional research at the University of the Free State in South Africa, and project leader and senior researcher on the HERANA international research project, “The University, Student Development and Citizenship” in the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, CHET.