Not just for vocational education

Should we make citizenship education mandatory for UU students?

Burgerschapsonderwijs Foto's: Shutterstock, bewerking DUB
Photos: Shutterstock, bewerking DUB

The Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, recently decided vocational students will have to take an exam in "citizenship" from 2026 onwards. Many political parties agree this is a good idea. But why would that only be of interest to them and no students at the higher education level? 

Students in universities and universities of applied sciences have a lot to learn too, some politicians say. In the short term, Dijkgraaf doesn’t see any reason to make the exam mandatory for this group, but he is willing to think about it alongside students and institutions. 

According to the education inspectorate, citizenship education is meant to increase knowledge about the democratic constitutional state and strengthen social skills. But these terms can mean many different things and a call for such classes stems from a wide variety of concerns. 

The hardening and polarisation of societal debate is said to be visible in the university’s lecture halls, too. Some say that students no longer appreciate the foundations of democracy. Others complain about the "bubble" students are supposedly living in. 

Addressing these issues is a complex undertaking, but DUB is happy to start the discussion. That’s why we posited the following statement to our panellists via email: 
“Mandatory citizenship education would be a good idea at UU.”

“No, nonsense,” says educational scientist Casper Hulshof. “Apart from who should teach it and how, it’s just nonsense. If you need to teach ‘citizenship’ at this level, you're already too late. We don’t teach university students how to tie their shoelaces. Learning how to debate and critically assess issues is an integral part of academic development, so let’s focus on that instead of these meaningless propositions.”

Innovation scientist Frank van Rijnsover also thinks that young people should acquire most of their "citizenship knowledge" at primary and secondary school. Like Hulshof, he believes that knowing how to engage in a dialogue with others should be part of students' academic skills anyway. He can, however, imagine that putting some extra focus on having a “safe dialogue” could be useful. “But that doesn’t necessarily have to be taught in a separate ‘citizenship class’.”

Out of the bubble
Philosopher Brandt van der Gaast is charmed by the idea of mandatory citizenship classes. He even presents a proposal for how it should be done. “Scientific disciplines, and therefore study programmes, sometimes focus on a very small niche area as a result of far-reaching specialisations. With purely technological know-how, you can get far in this society, as evidenced by the likes of Bill Gates and Elon Musk. That shows the importance of a broad perspective and a more in-depth one."

“A course aimed at Humanities students could discuss contemporary moral dilemmas and classic works from the Humanities. That way, the university, like other educational institutions, could play a role in the development of its citizens. After all, that’s what students are.”

Internship coordinator Bé Mijland, from the Faculty of Humanities, also supports the idea. They think that citizenship education should be in service of the ambition of creating and maintaining a righteous society, and hopes it would also lead to cross-connections between vocational education, applied sciences, and universities. 

“By definition, citizenship education cannot be taught within the bubble of one educational form. A joint approach is the only way. As not everyone continues their education, we need a more solid foundation in primary and secondary education. We can subsequently let students in the various forms of higher education come in contact with each other more often. For instance – and that’s something my colleague Marloes Lammerts is now working on a proposal for – we could let them work together in project groups on societal issues. That would create more shared contacts outside of their bubbles, more shared responsibility, and hopefully more understanding of each other’s knowledge, abilities, and values.”

Psychology student Levi Bierhuizen also sees possibilities of getting students “out of their bubbles” through mandatory citizenship education. “I’m always in favour of equalising vocational education and higher education to reduce stigmas. I've also noticed that, at the university level, when you look at your study programme or faculty, you don’t encounter different opinions very often. If students would be faced with various points of view and have conversations about things that are happening in society, or at least thinking about them, that would help reduce polarisation.”

Burgerschapsonderwijs Foto's: Shutterstock, bewerking DUB

Even more polarisation? 
Master’s student of Cancer, Stem Cells & Developmental Studies Sterre van Wierst struggles with the statement. “Citizenship education is already a part of secondary education. When do we think people are developed sufficiently in this regard?”

She adds that most study programmes already contain a societal component. Still, she believes that citizenship education has become a necessity, even at university. “Unfortunately, too few students are socially engaged,” she says, referring to a DUB article about law students, who mostly take jobs at Amsterdam Zuidas. 

At the same time, Van Wierst says that administrators shouldn’t hope or expect to steer activist students towards "more word and less action". Sometimes, she feels that this might be an important motivation behind citizenship courses. “I don’t think that such classes will lead to fewer protests.”

She is not certain whether citizenship education should have the explicit goal of reducing polarisation. “If that means that students should stop protesting to raise awareness of crises like climate change or the genocide in Gaza, only voicing their concerns in conversations, I am not sure that’s desirable.”

Lastly, environmental philosopher Floris van den Berg thinks that citizenship should be a recurring theme in all education, from primary school to university. But that's if citizenship education means that pupils and students learn the foundations of liberal democracy; how to come up with independent, critical judgment; and how to respectfully exchange ideas and thoughts. This would contribute to a realisation of why tolerance, democracy, and human rights are important. 

But if citizenship education means that difficult topics should be discussed in a classroom, he’s less positive as that would risk causing more polarisation.

“Think about discussion topics like: is climate change real? Are there more than two genders? Should you eat meat? Does God exist? Imagine being a teacher and having to lead a constructive debate about issues like that.”

Van den Berg suggests just teaching civic education (“dry facts about the mechanisms of liberal democracy and the welfare state”) and the political philosophy of liberal democracy (“explaining why this system is morally superior to the alternatives”) without linking it to a discussion.

“But perhaps we should start with citizenship courses for many of our politicians.”