Does young mean less political or involved? Lessons from Southampton Youth Debate Event

By Tudor Vilcan, Politics & International Relations

Contemporary discussions in academic research tend to quite often revolve around the issues of impact and dissemination. In disciplines like International Relations and Sociology especially, fierce debates about the relevance of the field vis-a-vis the larger (lay) audiences have been and still are quite commonplace. But is there an undeniable sense of mismatch between the rigours and expectations around academic research and the somewhat more straightforward frameworks of understanding perpetuated at the level of media or in the casual conversations of everyday life?

An event organized on Wednesday 16th of October by PhD students from across Social Sciences at University of Southampton in collaboration with the Outreach Office can be thought of as an attempt to bridge this apparent disconnect. What better way to engage the question than by inviting 100 young people in Year 9 across Southampton, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight to learn about doctoral research and take place in a ‘Question Time-style’ panel discussion with local politicians. Having arrived at the University early in the morning, the young people were split into groups and taken to different rooms to listen to parallel presentations by three PhD students about their own research. Following this, at midday, the participants attended an hour long interactive workshop which was designed to encourage them to come up with interesting questions for the panel discussion which took place afterwards. The panel discussion saw the young people asking the local politicians present, Rowenna Davies, Flick Drummond and the British Youth Council Vice Chair Solomon Curtis questions about the issues they found most important in their own communities.

The event was a resounding success and everyone involved rose to the occasion. The teachers that accompanied the young people were very pleased with the activities and the young people themselves seemed enjoy both the presentations and the more interactive parts of the day like the workshops and the panel discussion. Some of the PhD students involved were asked by the teachers to come and teach with them at their schools, and some of the teachers even expressed an interest in undertaking PhD research themselves. Rebecca Ridley (Education) and Emily Rainsford (PAIR), both PhD students here at the University of Southampton, bear the responsibility (and credit!) for the design, organization and success of the event.

Perhaps the lasting legacy of the event will stay with the young people involved. Being among the brightest students in their schools, it is highly like that most will take the path of higher education. Thanks to this event, they will have a very early idea of what research inside the academic world means and looks like. Thanks to the panel debate, too, they would have learned that they are never too young to think and care politically. From what I have seen during the my own workshop session with them, their age does not stand in the way of having strong, well-argued positions on almost any kind of issue.

During my presentation about climate change I sought to engage them in a discussion about what can be done regarding the environment. If I tried to stress one thing it was that arguably a lot of this will come down to them, the younger generation, and the way they think and act about the environment. In this sense, more initiatives of this sort might help expose them to the issues in which their interests are already embedded. Communicating research therefore, even for one of the least initiated of audiences, should not be about the ESRC’s obsession with impact, ticking a box in the never-ending quest for benchmarking. It should be about opening up, about bridging manufactured divides and engaging all individuals in society, young or old, in the quest for the betterment of the human condition, a quest that should already be implicit in the idea of academic research.   

Note: the event was kindly supported by the RDGC Public engagement and Outreach fund, the School of Education, Centre for Citizenship Globalisation and Governance, Division of Politics & International Relations and the ESRC Doctoral Training Centre. 

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