Why higher education must develop democratic competences

The most frequently stated reason for engaging in education must surely be a variety of “getting a good job”. The reason is, of course, valid and it is prominent in public policy and discourse. It is also incomplete. Reducing education to a single purpose does both the education community and society at large a disservice.

The Council of Europe has defined four major purposes of higher education:

• Preparation for the labour market.
• Preparation for life as active citizens in democratic societies.
• Personal development.
• The development of a broad and advanced knowledge base.

All four purposes are equally important and they support and reinforce each other. Many of the competences that make us attractive on the labour market also prepare us for active democratic citizenship and stimulate our personal development.

As an organisation devoted to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, the Council of Europe is particularly concerned with making preparation for democracy a recognised and effective purpose of higher education.

As a global organisation representing universities and other higher education institutions all around the world, many of which work under conditions of political control or even repression, the International Association of Universities (IAU) shares this concern.

When the Council of Europe launched the development of a Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture – the RFCDC – it was therefore natural for the IAU to contribute as one of the main partners in the project.

Dialogue over violence

The term ‘democratic culture’ may warrant a detour. We are writing this article as we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. When the Wall fell, there was a naïve belief that if only constitutions were changed and elections held, we would have democracy.

It took only a few years before we saw that, however important elections, laws and institutions are, they cannot be democratic unless they build on a set of attitudes and behaviours that seek to resolve conflicts through dialogue rather than violence, that accept a diversity of views as healthy and natural, and that see cultural diversity as a strength rather than a threat.

In short, democratic institutions, laws and elections must build on a culture of democracy. The catastrophic development in Afghanistan underscores the need for broad societal commitment for democracy to become a reality.

The RFCDC defines 20 competences organised around four clusters: values, attitudes, skills and knowledge, and critical understanding.

Examples of competences are:

• Valuing human dignity and human rights.

• Openness to cultural otherness and to other beliefs, world views and practices.

• Tolerance of ambiguity.

• Analytical and critical thinking skills.

• Skills of listening and observing.

• Knowledge and critical understanding of the self.

• Knowledge and critical understanding of the world.

The model is complemented by descriptors for each competence, labelled basic, intermediate and advanced.

By way of example, “shows interest in learning about people’s beliefs, values, traditions and world views” is a basic indicator of openness to cultural otherness; “expresses an appreciation of the opportunity to have experiences of other cultures” is an intermediate one; and “seeks and welcomes opportunities for encountering people with different values, customs and behaviours” is an advanced descriptor of the same competence.

A set of guidance documents explores how the RFCDC can be used – and be of use – for specific purposes, such as curriculum development, assessment or pedagogy. There is also a specific guidance document for higher education and further documents are in the works.

Higher education fosters a culture of democracy through the transversal competences it develops in all its students, the way in which institutions are run, how the members of the academic community interact and how higher education institutions see themselves and behave as actors in society at large.

It must be fostered on, as well as off, campus. It must be fostered through a whole institution approach and it must permeate the way higher education institutions as well as individual members of the academic community engage in and with broader society.

Competences for democratic culture should not be taught in political science or law classes alone, only to be forgotten when it comes to linguistics or physics, campus life or the way in which students and staff conduct themselves on and off campus. They must be reflected through, and be used in, higher education governance and they must permeate institutional life and practice.

A whole-institution approach

A whole-institution approach to competences for democratic culture ensures that all aspects of higher education – curricula, teaching methods and resources, research methods and collaborative work, leadership and decision-making structures and processes, policies and codes of behaviour, staff and staff-student relationships, extracurricular activities and links with the community – reflect democratic and human rights principles.

Engaging the whole institution in creating a positive and safe learning environment will also enhance students’ achievements. Students who feel part of a higher education community and enjoy good relations with their peers and academic staff are more likely to perform better academically and become the innovative citizens society needs.

Ultimately, however, the value of the RFCDC will be decided by the ways in which it is used rather than by the theory that underpins it. It may be worth looking at three objections that were raised during the work of the expert group developing the RFCDC, of which we were both members.

One set of comments held that values cannot be taught and certainly not assessed. Firstly, that simply does not ring true. Part of what teachers do from the earliest stages of education and all the way through higher education is precisely to develop consciousness of key values in their students.

In the European Higher Education Area, the European Students’ Union is among the voices joining the Council of Europe in underlining the importance of developing values in and through higher education.

Secondly, teachers assess values and the behaviour that builds on – or contradicts – them regularly in class. If students show disrespect toward someone because of his or her disability, dress, ethnicity or beliefs, teachers would not fulfil their role if they did not intervene. That is true of school but also of higher education. On a broader scale, combatting hate speech is an eminent educational issue, also on campus.

Another discussion concerned the relationship between theory and practice. Some conceded that education may have a role to play in developing knowledge of the theory of democracy, but maintained it has no business encouraging students to convert theory into practice.

It may be worth noting that those who held this view rarely referred to other aspects of education than knowledge. Part of their reaction is understandable. Some of our education systems come out of a tradition where political education was part of the curriculum. In other systems, political correctness may be a difficult issue.

The RFCDC is not intended to replace either. It does, however, build on the belief that democratic competences cannot be developed through theory alone, but that they must be exercised in practice in ways that are commensurate with students’ age and education level.

Student participation in higher education governance is one of the stronger points in European higher education policy as well as one of the fundamental values of the European Higher Education Area.

A third objection concerned the concept of critical thinking. Some comments betrayed a view of critical thinking as merely ‘tearing down’. That is actually the easy part – the more difficult part is developing viable alternatives. Granted, some governments may be even less enthusiastic about providing students with the competences to construct alternatives than they are with the notion of identifying problems with what exists. Both are, however, essential to a culture of democracy.

The ethical dimension

To further a culture of democracy through education, we need to revise our understanding of learning outcomes. The classic definition of these is what students know, understand and are able to do. This definition, however, ignores the ethical dimension of education.

We may be able to do things we should abstain from doing. We will not provide examples, as history is full of them.

We need to add this fourth element – what students are willing to do and hence to abstain from doing – to our definition of learning outcomes if we want education to play its rightful role in developing and maintaining the culture of democracy that makes our society one we would like to live in and that we would like to leave for our children and grandchildren.

Sjur Bergan is head of the Council of Europe’s Education Department and a long-time member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group. Hilligje van’t Land is secretary general of the International Association of Universities, the global voice of higher education, and a strong advocate for higher education for sustainable development. Both were key members of the group that developed the Council of Europe’s Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture as well as of that developing its guidance document for higher education. This article is based on their contribution to a podcast, a webinar and a blog for the 2021 Community Exchange of the European Association for International Education (EAIE) from 28 September to 1 October.