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ECPR Virtual Methods School 2020

Civic Education and Academic Engagement: Identifying the Impacts of a University-Wide Political Engagement Campaign

Civil Society
Political Engagement
Alasdair Blair
De Montfort University
Alasdair Blair
De Montfort University
Chris Goldsmith
De Montfort University
Mark Charlton
De Montfort University

Of the political science literature that has focused on civic and political engagement, a number of studies have analysed the impact of voter education drives and student participation in political campaigns as methods of creating a more engaged academic community. These studies tend to report findings from initiatives that are more often than not located at the individual class level where a tutor has organised a series of events that seek to impart a greater level of knowledge on the student body. By contrast, there is a relative dearth of studies which focus on broader university level initiatives that promote political engagement. This paper seeks to address this lacuna by reporting on the findings of a political engagement campaign that was undertaken at De Montfort University in the UK in the run-up to the 2017 General Election. In the advance of a United Kingdom General Election in 2017, there was concern amongst politicians, academics and the media that political engagement amongst 18-25 year olds was particularly low compared with other demographic groups. Amongst the issues highlighted was the apathy of young people towards going to the ballot box during the United Kingdom’s European Union Membership Referendum. In this specific voting context the age of the voter was viewed by many political thinkers as significant because there was concern that the largest number of voters, aged 55-years upwards, may not have to live or work with the outcomes of their voting decision in 20-30 years’ time. To address this challenge the University organised a series of events under the campaign banner of ‘Be the Change’ in reference to Mahatma Gandhi’s famous: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” quote. A series of profile-raising activities, including open-mike style debates and critiques of party manifestos were held. These events attempted to pull apart key political policies that were being promoted in advance of the 2017 General Election. This in turn led to the creation of a manifesto of policy suggestions from the university’s academic and professional staff, which was in turn shared with the major political parties and took place in tandem with an on campus voter-registration drive. This paper seeks to explore the impacts of creating a culture of political engagement for students, looking at what they learned, changes in voter patterns, trust in the political process and whether they felt they could ‘Be the Change’ or whether the political debates had left them feeling less engaged with the process.
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