Universities can foster more deliberative democracy – starting with empowering students

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This article originally appeared on The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Authors: Simon Pek, Associate Professor, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria and Jeffrey Kennedy, Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Criminal Law, Queen Mary University of London

As universities come back to life with renewed expectations, students are heading to institutions that will shape their lives now and in the future.

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At the university, students have various opportunities to participate in the governance of these communities. They may be asked to take surveys, to vote, or, if they are confident enough, to run for elective positions in a student union or as a class representative.

As researchers interested in exploring new approaches to the practice of democracy in organizations, we consider this type of participation to be crucial.

It can enable diverse groups of students to interact, tackle important issues, hold universities accountable, and develop their abilities to be confident, engaged, and thoughtful participants in civic life.

Pressing aspirations

These aspirations are all the more pressing in light of today’s challenges to democracy – such as low voter turnout, mistrust and polarization.

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Universities have a role to play in revitalizing democracy. Yet, despite the merits of contemporary approaches to student participation in university governance, these tend to face major shortcomings.

We argue that universities should look to the democratic innovations seen with initiatives such as Climate Assembly UK.

In search of democratic innovations

Climate Assembly UK was launched by a group of select committees of the UK House of Commons. The organizers selected the 108 members – made up of ordinary citizens – through a democratic lottery.

The use of a lottery brought together a diverse group of voices, representative of the demographic profile of the UK, and more evenly distributed opportunities for civic engagement among the population.

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Over six weekends, these citizens heard from a range of experts and stakeholders and deliberated with the support of independent facilitators. They developed and presented recommendations covering topics such as consumption, travel and the elimination of greenhouse gases.

Climate Assembly UK is just one example of a deliberative ‘mini-public’ whose use is proliferating around the world.

They have been used to address issues such as transportation planning, child care, democratic expression, and the impact of digital technologies and genetic testing.

The problems go beyond the headlines

In the world of university student politics, recent years in Canada have seen reports of spending scandals, disqualified candidates, threats of sanctions for polarizing decisions and the mass replacement of a student federation following allegations of misconduct.

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Reports of these challenges are also making headlines in the US and UK.

Our recent research reveals that such headlines are symptomatic of larger issues.

The gaps are less about people than about the approaches used to engage them. Traditional approaches ultimately fail to nurture the ability of universities to have inclusive and reflective discussion to shape decision-making – their “deliberative capacity”. After all, in any democracy, people expect more than to stay out of scandal.

Limits of polls, voting, candidacy

Although surveys are easy to administer, they limit student voice to spontaneous responses. They provide information isolated from background context and gather opinions unevenly across demographics.

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Like voting – which regularly suffers from low turnout – polls also provide students with limited opportunities to develop civic skills and abilities such as critical thinking and communication.

For those few students who are willing to overcome the hurdles to run for and win elected roles, more intensive experiences await. But these experiences often take place in unsupported environments that foster conflicting or selfish approaches to common concerns.

Yet another question is the extent to which these elected students reflect the diversity of the student body.

More student deliberative influence

Some universities are beginning to experiment with mini-publics. Our own universities have experimented with a “Student Jury” on pandemic learning and a “Student Dialogue” on youth participation in democracy and civil political discourse.

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The students’ union at the London School of Economics recently used this approach to rethink its democratic structures.

Our research concludes that, if done well, the key characteristics of minipublics provide a compelling way to influence more inclusive and deliberative students and should be used much more widely.

A student mini-public could be mandated by the university administration or the student union. The size of the gathering can be adapted – from a jury of 12 students to an assembly of 150. Mini-audiences can be deliberately combined with existing opportunities such as representation on boards of directors to maximize impact.

Through mini-audiences, students could address a wide range of important and potentially controversial issues that university communities can act on, such as universities’ strategies to address climate change or free speech on campuses or the student accommodation.

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Tackling a student housing strategy

A university looking to co-develop its student housing strategy could convene a mini-student audience of 36 students to tackle the problem.

Using a democratic lottery would ensure that the mini-audience reflects the diversity of the student body based on characteristics such as gender, school year, race, international vs. national enrollment status, income and the current housing situation.

Students would have access to balanced and comprehensive information materials on topics such as the university’s current land use policies, environmental strategies, and finances. They would learn from experts such as planners and researchers, as well as stakeholders such as residential services staff, local developers and other students.

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Their recommendations would be shared not only with relevant decision-makers, but also with the entire student body to help inform conversations in the student newspaper or social media, in the dining halls or in the student pub.

Such an approach would give every student an equal chance to contribute and grow, help guard against the distortions of self-selected “usual suspects,” and facilitate a student voice that reflects the diversity of backgrounds, personalities, and needs of the student body. .

Thoughtful and representative decisions

Integrated learning, facilitation and deliberation means that decisions are informed and shaped by the perspectives of others.

This means not only more thoughtful and representative decisions, but a greater diversity of students accessing meaningful and deliberative civic education.

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While there is still much to learn about integrating student mini-audiences, they are an exciting and realistic prospect.

It is crucial that universities take innovative steps to foster more inclusive and deliberative approaches while educating for the kind of democracy we want.


The research project on which this article is based was partially funded by the President’s Chair award from Simon Pek.

Jeffrey Kennedy does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Disclosure information is available on the original site. Read the original article: https://theconversation.com/universities-can-foster-more-deliberativ https://theconversation.com/universities-can-foste



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