As universities come alive with new expectations, students visit institutions that will shape their lives now and into the future.
The university offers students a wide range of opportunities participate in governance these communities. They may be asked to answer polls, vote, or – if they are confident enough – to run for elected positions in a student union or as class president.
As researchers interested in exploring new approaches to the exercise of democracy in organizations, we see this type of participation as crucial.
It can empower diverse groups of students to interact with each other, address important issues, hold universities to account, and develop their skills to be confident, engaged, and thoughtful participants in civic life.
These efforts are all the more urgent in view of the current challenges facing democracy – how low turnout, mistrust and Polarization.
Universities play a role in reviving democracy. However, despite the merits of contemporary approaches to student participation in university governance, they tend to have significant shortcomings.
We argue that universities should pay attention to democratic innovations seen with initiatives like Climate Assembly UK.
In search of democratic innovations
The Climate Assembly UK was initiated by a group of select committees from the UK House of Commons. The organizers elected the 108 members – consisting of ordinary citizens – by a democratic lottery.
The use of a lottery brought together a diverse group of voices representative of the UK’s demographic profile and more equitably distributed civic engagement opportunities among the population.
Over six weekends, these citizens heard from a range of experts and stakeholders and debated together, with the support of independent moderators. They developed and presented recommendations on issues such as consumption, travel and greenhouse gas reduction.
Climate Assembly UK is just one example deliberative “mini-public”, whose use was proliferating global.
They were used to solve problems like traffic planning, Childcare, democratic expression and the impact of digital technologies and genetic test.
Issues go beyond headlines
This has been covered in the student politics world in Canada in recent years spending scandals, disqualified candidates, threatened sanctions about polarizing decisions and the wholesale replacement a student union due to allegations of misconduct.
Reporting on these challenges also makes headlines in the United States and the United Kingdom
Our recent research finds such headlines symptomatic of broader problems.
Deficiencies are less about people and more about the approaches used to engage them. Traditional approaches ultimately fail to foster universities’ ability to engage in inclusive and thoughtful discussions that shape decision-making—their “advisory capacity”. After all, people in any democracy expect more than just staying out of scandals.
Restrictions on polls, votes, candidacies
Although polls are easy to manage, they limit student voice to top-of-the-head answers. They offer information isolated from background context and collect opinions unevenly across demographics.
Like voting – which regularly suffers from it poor turnout — Surveys also provide students with limited opportunities to develop civic skills and skills such as critical thinking and communication.
More intense experiences await those few students who are willing to overcome obstacles in order to compete for and win elected roles. But these experiences often take place in unsupported environments that encourage conflicted or self-interested approaches to common causes.
Another question is to what extent these elected students reflect the diversity the student body.
More deliberative student influence
Some universities are beginning to experiment with mini-publics. Our own universities experimented with a “Students’ Jury” on pandemic learning and a “Students’ Dialogue” on youth participation in democracy and civil political discourse.
The London School of Economics’ student union recently used this approach to redesign its democratic structures.
Our research closes that the key features of mini-publics, if done well, provide a compelling vehicle for broader, deliberative influencing of students and should be used much more broadly.
A student mini-public could be commissioned by either the university or the student union management. Assembly size can be tailored – from a jury of 12 students to a gathering of 150. Mini-publics can be selectively combined with existing opportunities such as board representation to maximize impact.
Through mini-publics, students could address a wide range of important and potentially controversial issues for university communities to respond to, such as:
Embark on a student housing strategy
A university that aspires to be to help develop its strategy for student housing could convene a student mini-public of 36 students to address the issue.
Using a democratic lottery would ensure that the mini-public would reflect the diversity of the student body based on characteristics such as gender, year of study, race, international or national enrollment status, income, and current housing situation.
Students would access balanced and comprehensive information materials on topics such as the university’s current land use policies, environmental strategies and finances. You would learn from experts such as urban planners and researchers, as well as from stakeholders such as housing service workers, local developers, and other students.
Their recommendations would not only be shared with relevant decision-makers, but also with the wider student body to support conversations in the student newspaper or on social media, in canteens or in the student pub.
Such an approach would give every student an equal opportunity to contribute and develop, help avoid the biases of the self-selected “usual suspects” and enable a student voice that reflects the diversity of backgrounds, personalities and needs in the student body.
Well thought-out, representative decisions
Blended learning, enabling, and deliberating means that decisions are informed and shaped by the perspectives of others.
This means not only more thoughtful and representative choices, but also a greater diversity of students who have access to meaningful, considered citizenship education.
While there is still much to learn about how to engage student mini-publics, they are an exciting and realistic prospect.
It is crucial that universities take innovative steps to encourage more inclusive, deliberative approaches while educating for the kind of democracy we want.
This article first appeared in The Conversation on October 17th.