The support for student engagement in volunteering, civic, cultural, associative and solidarity activities is becoming part of the institutional agenda at European higher education institutions. The European Student Engagement Project (European STEP), addresses this topic. Katarzyna Kucharska from the University of Warsaw, which participates in European STEP, discusses the question of how European universities recognise student engagement.
European universities are aware of their social and civic responsibility towards their academic community and society in general. However, institutions address the topic of student engagement differently, depending on national and local contexts, as well as internal institutional policies. The European STudent Engagement Project (European STEP) survey, which collected information from 104 higher education institutions across 26 countries, shows that the recognition of student engagement is part of the policies, strategies and annual reports of universities across the European Union. More than 68% of respondents stated that student engagement is a part of their strategic plan, and 65% stated that there is a policy for student engagement in the institution. Thus, student engagement is becoming a substantial matter from the institutional perspective. Recognition of student engagement is not only part of the official documents and statements; it is also visible in established modalities of the recognition, activities, and tools introduced by universities.
Active participation of young people in society is highlighted through the European Commission's Youth Strategy for 2019-2027, and in many different European and local policies. The European STEP Project focuses on the overview of practices at higher education institutions on the national, institutional and individual levels. The “How Do European Higher Education Institutions Recognise Student Engagement? European Survey Report” presents how different institutions across the European Union approach and support the recognition of student engagement. While the report does not provide a general picture for the whole European Union, it contains insight into diverse institutional perspectives from almost every country from the EU (except for Slovakia and Luxembourg).
The distribution of answers in the survey reveals that the importance of student engagement is increasing. For the majority of the respondents, the recognition of student engagement is a part of the institution’s strategy. While describing the strategy of the recognition of student engagement, some of the higher education institutions highlighted the importance of shared values and community-building. As the academic communities often include individuals with divergent views and beliefs, the opportunity to engage in extracurricular activities creates the possibility for common action without the necessity of worldview confrontation. Thus student engagement might be a tool for the integration of diverse groups within the scope of shared values and goals.
Within institutions, student associative, artistic and cultural activities, short-term projects, and mandates as student representatives are the most commonly considered forms of student engagement. Higher education institutions are also attentive to the skills that students may acquire during these activities, as well as on the topics and themes concerning current social and civic matters. Activities that build relations between the members of the university community are also important and valued by the respondents.
Student engagement could also be a useful medium in enhancing cooperation between the institution and organisations outside of academia. From outside the academic world, institutions also typically recognise activities with NGOs, associations, youth organisations, civic, artistic and cultural activities as student engagement. Interestingly, political and religious involvement is often not considered as a recognised form of student engagement. Participants of the survey highlighted the importance of students’ independent choices and their agency in conducting various activities.
The most frequent forms of student engagement recognition are the allocation of ECTS, valorisation of student engagement in various ways, and integration of student engagement as part of the curricula in some of the study programmes. The general tendency among the institutions featured in the survey is the recognition of soft skills, intercultural competences and skills that contribute to the students’ employability. Higher education institutions are also more likely to recognise regular engagement, for example in the same activity during one semester, rather than event-based activities.
The European STEP Map of the legislative frameworks that rule student engagement recognition in the European Union presents the national policies regarding the recognition of engagement. European member states are divided into three groups, depending on whether there is established policy concerning higher education, or a general policy on the recognition of engagement, or no policy at all. In the countries where there is a national legal policy of engagement recognition specific for higher education, for example France, Ireland and Spain, higher education institutions present a more formal and planned approach to the topic. French universities, for instance, often describe their rules for recognising student engagement in an explicit and detailed manner. In EU member states that have policies not directly targeting higher education, such as Austria, Belgium or Czech Republic, or do not have any policy for recognising engagement, like the Netherlands, Poland or Sweden, the approach to the topic is more diverse and less formal.
In terms of success factors for recognising student engagement, there is a need for strong cooperation between all of the actors who participate in the life of academia. The cooperation needs to take place between individuals and across various units within the institution. Decision makers, academic and administrative staff, and students should be included. Clear and coherent definitions of the engagement, skills involved, and subsequent recognition, need to be established. Some of the respondents even highlighted that it should be done at the European level and be unified for all of the European universities. However, students are not always keen to participate in extracurricular activities, and their lack of time is a frequent barrier. Another major obstacle is that staff often underestimate the importance of the topic. It is also difficult for some higher education institutions to establish centralised strategy and policy, and find necessary resources. Therefore, further interviews within the European STEP Project will show whether the individual perspective of respondents from universities is similar to the institutional picture outlined in the report. This will be the next project stage. The final results from the European STEP research part will be available in April 2020.
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