Examining the role of higher education in graduates’ civic participation: How does university matter?

Year: 2018

Author: Evans, Ceryn

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

With the cost of going to university escalating in the UK in recent decades, questions about what graduates can expect to gain from going university have become increasingly important. In UK higher education (HE) policy, universities are regarded as playing a central role in national economic development and have therefore come under increasing pressure to ensure the ‘graduate-ness’ and employability of their students. Whilst concern with the economic benefits of higher education have featured significantly within both policy debate and students’ considerations about what they can expect to gain from a university education, marginal within these debates are any serious discussion about higher education’s wider cultural and civic contribution.
This paper examines the role of higher education in equipping graduates with the skills, knowledge and capitals (particularly social capital) needed for their participation in civil society. Whilst the positive relationship between higher education and civic participation has been recognised as a European and indeed wider international phenomenon for decades, much less is known about the exact nature of this relationship. Drawing upon in-depth qualitative interviews with 30 graduates who had studied at three different higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK, this paper examines the extent to which their higher education experiences, including curricula, pedagogic and social experiences, are uniquely important for imparting skills and knowledge needed for political or civic participation. The interviews revealed that higher education’s role in developing skills, knowledge and attributes needed for civic participation was deeply uneven amongst the graduates, and that some curricular, pedagogical and social experiences are more important than others in amplifying graduates’ civic participation.  
The paper is framed by contemporary debates about the socially uneven distribution of social capital in society. It makes an important contribution to these debates by examining relationships between different types of higher education experiences and civic participation which is an important source of social capital. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the implications of these findings for our understanding of the role of HE in the structuring of civic life and the role of universities in the uneven distribution of capitals in society, namely, human and social.