Embedding a civic engagement dimension within the higher education curriculum: a study of policy, process and practice in Ireland

Boland, J. A. (2008) Embedding a civic engagement dimension within the higher education curriculum: a study of policy, process and practice in Ireland. UNSPECIFIED thesis, University of Edinburgh.


As the civic role of higher education attracts renewed critical attention, the idea of engagement has come to the fore. Civic engagement, as espoused in many institutional missions, encompasses a diversity of goals, strategies and activities. Latterly, these have included particular approaches to teaching and learning. This research examines the process of embedding a civic engagement dimension within the higher education curriculum in Ireland. I use the term ‘pedagogy for civic engagement’as a generic term for a range of academic practices –variously referred to as ‘service learning’or ‘community based learning’–which share an explicit civic focus. Academic practice serves as the central focus with attention to pertinent aspects of the prevailing context. Using a multi-site case study conducted in the spirit of naturalistic enquiry, I examine four cases of this curriculum innovation, drawn from the university and institute of technology sectors in Ireland, with unstructured interviews and documents as the main sources of data. I interrogate the underpinning rationale for ‘pedagogy for civic engagement’–as gleaned from the literature, the policy context and the case studies –exploring implicit conceptions in relation to knowledge, curriculum, civil society, community and the purpose of higher education. The study draws its empirical data from those responsible for implementing this pedagogy –the ‘embedders’–and a range of other actors. Interviews were carried out with academic staff, project directors, educational developers, academic managers and leaders. Key actors from the national policy context and from the international field of civic engagement also participated in the study. Four orientations to civic engagement are identified, revealing the multifaceted rationale. I explore the process of operationalising the pedagogy and the factors impacting on academics’capacity and willingness to embed it. While the study does not directly examine the experience of students and community partners their role within the process, as perceived by academic staff and others, is problematised. The implications of the putative unresolved epistemology of this pedagogy are explored in light of how participants conceive of and practice it. Academics’ambivalence about the place of values in higher education emerges as a theme and the issue of agency recurs. I explore how the pedagogy may be conceived of in terms of the teaching, research and service roles of academics and consider how it may be positioned within an institution. Opportunities for alignment are identified at a number of levels from constructive alignment within the curriculum to alignment with national strategic priorities. I explore the unrealised potential of the Irish National Framework of Qualifications –specifically the ‘insight’dimension –as a means of enabling and legitimising the pedagogy, in light of the prominence afforded to the principle of subsidiarity in Irish higher education policy. The localised way in which these practices have been adopted and adapted underlines the significance of context and culture. ‘Pedagogy for civic engagement’as a concept and as a practice challenges a range of assumptions and traditional practices, raising fundamental questions regarding the role and purpose of higher education –and not just in contemporary Ireland.

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