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Graduate Citizens? Issues of Citizenship and Higher Education

reviewed by Terence A. Beck - 2005

coverTitle: Graduate Citizens? Issues of Citizenship and Higher Education
Author(s): John Ahier, John Beck, and Rob Moore
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415257239, Pages: 200, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

Graduate Citizens? is a look into current debates in the United Kingdom around issues of citizenship and higher education. The authors conducted a small study to consider how the current emphasis on economic individualism is affecting British university students’ views and understandings of citizenship. Although the intended audience is British academics, both the nature of the debate and the conclusions drawn are of interest to American educators who think about the role of the university in citizenship education.

The book follows an organizational scheme that mirrors that of a journal article. That is, Chapters 1 through 3 set out the review of the literature and conceptual framework for the study. The introduction to Part 2 serves as a methods section. Chapter 4 outlines the findings of the study. Chapter 5 outlines the study’s implications, and Chapter 6 provides a conclusion and summary.

Conceptual Framework

The conceptual framework includes a nice discussion of current and former conceptions of British citizenship. The authors begin by exploring the concept of citizenship as it has developed historically in Britain. They note that the British came late to the idea of citizenship, preferring instead the concept of subject. Within the framework of citizen-as-subject rests a “passive acceptance of subject status combined with an ethnocentric sense of national superiority” (p. 24). Subjects occupy a “proper place in a legitimate ordered hierarchy” (p. 9)—notions of class are central and logical. Such a system works well within the context of world domination and seems foolish when adopted by a “second-class power.”

Enter T. H. Marshall in the middle of the 20th century, attempting to replace notions of citizen-as-subject with those of social citizenship. Marshall characterized social citizenship as democratic welfare capitalism. Social citizenship recognizes three forms of citizenship: social, civic, and political. Equality in the civic and political realms requires some equality in the social realm. This equality takes the form of entitlements such as free health care and free education. Marshall suggested that social citizenship was superior to either “Marxist social revolution or unfettered free-market competition” (p. 15).

Although the idea of citizen-as-subject remained, Marshall’s notion of social citizenship was generally adopted. For a time, social citizenship was “associated with the relatively stable period of consensus politics in which, at least for a generation of British citizens, the social element of citizenship (even if not generally thought of in that language) became a key part of the taken-for-granted backdrop of everyday existence” (p. 15). The British concept of social citizenship rests somewhere between that of the Scandinavian countries and those of other countries such as the United States.

Neoliberals such as Margaret Thatcher sought to restructure British society, making it more like that in the United States. Most notable for this discussion, citizenship was actively cast as citizen-as-consumer and citizen-as-entrepreneur.

New Labour, the government of Tony Blair, introduced a vision of a “Third Way” in politics that was touted as a departure from the policies of neoliberals. Third Way theorists promote voluntary activity as “an essential act of citizenship” (p. 51). In Third Way thinking the private sector is presented “in principle” as better than the state at providing services.

The authors unashamedly value social democratic notions of citizenship. They are suspicious of what they see as attempts to undermine social citizenship by both neoliberals and New Labour’s Third Way. Their own political stance sets the stage for the study.

Large political forces are affecting higher education. Higher education in England is increasingly financed through tuition fees paid by students and their families. Further, universities are under pressure to attract and serve students from around the globe in order to raise revenue. What impacts do these changes have on students in British universities as they form their ideas of citizenship? The authors explore this question.

Empirical Data

The authors invited students selected from Cambridge University and the Cambridge campus of Anglia Polytechnic University to join their study. Ten men and 21 women volunteered and participated in hour-long individual interviews. Interview themes included the global nature of student career aspirations and students’ relationship to the nation, the extent to which students saw themselves as private consumers of higher education, students’ view of other citizens, and the experiences of their university life that led to social and political learning.

Perhaps most interesting in these findings is a picture that emerges of a group of students who were “not apathetic, hedonistic, and self-seeking” (p. 131). These students were suspicious on moral grounds of government attempts to privatize many aspects of British social democracy. They generally felt distant from politics, and yet their experiences of higher education revealed significant challenges to their political assumptions and outlooks. These students reported growth in their willingness to be informed and self-critical. Students’ peers received most of the credit for this growth.


Among the authors’ remarks are two I found especially interesting. First, the authors found a “code of civil conduct” that allowed students to experience exchanges with peers that seems to have had a significant impact on their political beliefs. The authors make a nice connection between this code and the “formal procedures of academic life and liberal scholarship” (p. 136). In higher education, students must learn to become “patient listeners,” expressing themselves with depth and clarity, taking turns, and hearing others with respect. These were key aspects of the civil code of the students interviewed.

Second, the authors do a good job of theorizing about the reasons for students’ disengagement from official political structures while valuing students’ potential contributions to civil society. Briefly, the authors point out that disengagement from a process may be a sensible response if one feels powerless to influence that process. The authors suggest that it is possible to be civic without being political, just as it is possible to be religious without belonging to a church. They note the value in being civic and engaging with the public sphere. In the words of T. C. W. Blanning (2002),

the essence of the bourgeois public sphere is rational argument. The bourgeois public sphere can be defined as the medium through which private persons can reason in public. . . . It is the effort of communication that creates the ‘public’ and gives it qualities of cohesion and authority quite different from mere aggregates of individuals. (quoted on p. 153)

The authors of Graduate Citizens? create a space in which we might appreciate what higher education means for social citizenship. They note that students’ moral reservations about further privatization in Britain, combined with students’ sense of civility and civil society, create possibilities, however slim, for placing social citizenship back on the British agenda.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1494-1497
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11783, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:44:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Terence Beck
    University of Puget Sound
    E-mail Author
    TERENCE A. BECK is Associate Professor at the University of Puget Sound. He teaches courses in educational sociology, multicultural education, and curriculum and instruction. His research interests include classroom discourse (particularly regarding deliberative discussion), democratic citizenship education, and the impact of practitioner research on individual teachers, practitioner research groups, and the schools in which they work.
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