The publication of Campus Engage, Ireland
Capturing the ‘insight’ dimension of the NFQ:
learning from civic engagement
Dr. Josephine A. Boland
School of Education, National University of Ireland, Galway
Principles of engagement
The concept of ‘engagement’ is intrinsic to the idea – and the ideal – of higher education.
Recently it has provided a focus for re-conceptualising teaching and learning with growing
attention paid to how best to engage students more actively in the learning process. Of even
greater significance, however, is the way in which engagement has emerged as a guiding principle
in a re-examination of the idea of the ‘engaged’ campus – one which engages actively with both
economic and civic society. Campus Engage is but one manifestation of this phenomenon.
Some generic characteristics of engagement are worth considering here. ‘Engagement’
implies mutual listening, reciprocity and dialogue which is focused on something beyond the self.
It comprehends both a promise of action and the outcome of action. Generally it implies a
permanent rather than a temporary condition. It is full of potential, promise, risk and uncertainty,
because it entails a willingness to change, a capacity to accommodate the other and a
preparedness to be transformed in the process (Bjarnason and Coldstream, 2003). Clearly,
engagement is a means rather than an end in itself.
Engage, Issue 1, 2009 1 J. Boland
Civic engagement, as espoused in the mission of many higher education institutions,
encompasses a diversity of goals, strategies and activities. The rationale is multifaceted and
complex. Within issues of the Community Knowledge Initiative newsletter – precursor to Engage
– Prof. Gerard Quinn asserts that our core educational mission includes equipping graduates with
the skills needed to contribute positively to wider process of changes in society and in their
communities. In other issues, Edward Zlotkowski, Elisabeth Hollander and a range of
practitioners have highlighted the contribution which the pedagogy of service/community based
learning can make to realising this mission. I wish to focus here on the opportunity which the
pedagogy offers for promoting ‘insight’ – a potential outcome from a learning process with civic
engagement as a core value.
Teaching and learning through and for civic engagement
The pedagogy of service/community-based learning is espoused for its potential to realise
academic, civic and personal development goals for students, while meeting an identified need
and enhancing the capacity of a community/civic partner (Furco and Holland, 2004). It aims to
actively engage students in the learning process in a reflective and critical way, through
interaction and engagement with others, in a manner/in a location/on a theme which involves
some consideration of wider civic or social issues, in the specific context of their academic
discipline. The curriculum is underpinned with certain values and the rationale invokes, variously
in different contexts, concepts such as community, active citizenship, democracy, equality, social
justice, interculturalism, engagement and service. In the Irish cultural context, the process of
localisation is manifest in a particular focus on local community concerns (Boland and Mc Ilrath,
2007). A key principle of the pedagogy is a focus on real issues, needs and concerns, negotiated
with a community partner as a valued actor in a reciprocal partnership of student, university and
community – however defined. An expanding range of service/community based learning
initiatives is evident, as the practice takes root in Irish higher education – many of these will
feature in the evolving Campus Engage website.
Balancing academic, personal and civic outcomes
Key actors working within the civic engagement arena sometimes refer to a process of
‘thickening’ the practice of service/community based learning, by re-balancing the focus on
academic, personal and civic outcomes to ensure a greater emphasis on sustainable longer term
Engage, Issue 1, 2009 2 J. Boland
outcomes for all participants. From the literature on service/community-based learning, it is
possible to identify a continuum of approaches, as follows:
(i) Transactional models which are characterised by an exchange process with
the community as recipient of a service, while students gain academic credit for
experiential learning (leaving conditions unchanged at best).
(ii) Transformative models (for the student) which lead to deeper
understanding, and to a capacity for empathy or even action on the part of
(iii) Transformative models (at community/societal level) which seek to
question and change the circumstances, conditions, values or beliefs which are
at the root of community/society needs.
It is important to recognise the value which each approach has in an overall civic engagement
strategy. For those embarking on the journey from transactional to transformative models of the
pedagogy, some fundamental questions and tensions arise. These relate to diverse conceptions of
the purpose of higher education, a degree of ambivalence regarding academics’ role in realising
the civically engaged campus and the need for clarity regarding the respective roles of students,
the higher education institution and community partners in this venture. Deliberative critical
discussion focuses on the legitimacy (or otherwise) of including affective or civic outcomes in the
context of academic programmes and on whether higher education could or should promote the
achievement of transformative goals. The means by which these goals may be realised and how
such outcomes might be recognised (and rewarded) are understandably of particular interest to
academics. In attempting to address just some of these questions I propose to explore the
significance of one dimension of the new National Framework of Qualifications.
Licence to promote and opportunities to recognise ‘insight’
One of the more innovative and potentially far-reaching aspects of the Irish National
Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) is the inclusion of ‘insight’ as one of eight dimensions of all
awards. (See www.nqai.ie for details) The framework provides a set of descriptors, based on
learning outcomes, for awards over ten levels for each of the eight dimensions. Universities, as
well as other institutions of higher education, have committed to ensuring that key goals of the
framework are achieved and a process exists for placing all existing awards on the framework
(Irish Universities Association, 2005). New programmes are being designed in light of these levels
The eighth dimension of the framework is ‘Competence-Insight’. The competence is
Engage, Issue 1, 2009 3 J. Boland
…the ability to engage in increasingly complex understanding and consciousness, both
internally and externally, through the process of reflection on experience. Insight involves
the integration of the other strands of knowledge, skill and competence with the learner’s
attitudes, motivation, values, beliefs, cognitive style and personality. This integration is
made clear in the learner’s mode of interaction with social and cultural structures of
his/her community and society, while also being an individual cognitive phenomenon
(National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, 2003)
Generic descriptor statements exist for all dimensions for each of the 10 levels on the framework.
The level 7 descriptor for ‘insight’ is; “To express a comprehensive internalised personal world
view, expressing solidarity with others”. At level 8; “To express an internalised world view,
reflecting engagement with others”. At the upper levels on the framework (9 and 10) learners
should be able to “To srutinise social norms and act to change them”. Clearly these statements
resonate with key characteristics of transformative models of service/community based learning.
They are closely aligned with the goals of civic engagement and with certain perspectives on the
purpose of higher education.
The inclusion of the ‘insight’ dimension within the Irish NFQ distinguishes it from many
other such frameworks. It has been the subject of acclamation and emulation at pan-European
level. The decision to include ‘insight’ as an explicit dimension of all awards is consistent with the
prominence afforded to ‘preparation for active citizenship’, which is identified as one of the four
purposes of education by the European Qualifications Framework (Ministry of Science
Technology and Innovation, 2005). The approach taken to communicating this innovative
dimension, however (in terms of short telescopic statements on a grid of levels), has limited its
impact on programme design and academic practice. Research findings confirm the low level of
awareness of the ‘insight’ dimension, even amongst those academics who are actively engaged in
the development of this competence amongst their students. Moreover, the concept of ‘insight’
is generally associated with higher level cognitive processes (such as capacity for analysis and
synthesis), rather than being seen as a result of engagement and interaction in social and cultural
milieux (Boland, 2008).
The varying, limited extent to which this particular dimension has been taken on board in
programme design is acknowledged by the relevant policy actors. Given the innovative and
challenging nature of the dimension, the NQAI recognized that an iterative process of
development would be needed, in association with practitioners embedding the dimension within
programmes of learning (National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, 2003). At this stage, the
experience of those currently designing, implementing and supporting service/community-based
learning initiatives can contribute significantly to this process of review and development. The
Engage, Issue 1, 2009 4 J. Boland
practice of service learning is characterised by approaches to teaching, learning and assessment of
learning – including integration, self-evaluation and reflection on experience – which exemplify a
new paradigm in teaching and assessment for lifelong learning. Modes of interaction are a
defining feature. Moreover, the pedagogy explicitly seeks to develop insight and an enhanced
sense of agency. A perceived absence of a sense of agency amongst students provides a
motivation for some academics to engage in this pedagogy, which they regard as an opportunity
to address to influence students’ nascent professional identity and to develop their capacity as
potential agents of change in the wider community. The achievement of these outcomes for
students has potential for longer term benefit for the community and for wider society. As ever,
the most important and lasting outcomes of the learning process are unpredictable and delayed.
The potential outcomes – for students, community and society – arising from teaching
and learning through civic engagement are consistent with one of the central purposes of higher
education; the preparation of graduates equipped to contribute positively to the processes of
change in society. The social and economic conditions in which we now find ourselves suggest
that such knowledge, skills and competences were never more needed. The inclusion of the
‘insight’ competence within the Irish National Framework of Qualifications is testament to the
priority afforded to such outcomes. Its presence as a dimension of all awards legitimises
pedagogies which explicitly seek to promote civic engagement, and exhorts us to find effective
and meaningful ways to evaluate the outcomes of such endeavours. The elusiveness of the
concept – by comparison with more easily measurable outcomes – has limited its penetration in
the process of programme design. There has been a commitment to remedy this. The pioneers
of service/community-based learning have much to contribute to this process by demonstrating
how ‘insight’ may be promoted, recognised and rewarded, arising from their experience of
embedding civic values within the higher education curriculum.
Engage, Issue 1, 2009 5 J. Boland
Bjarnason, S. & Coldstream, P. (Eds.) (2003) The idea of engagement: universities in society, London,
Association of Commonwealth Universities.
Boland, J. (2008) Embedding a civic dimension within the higher education curriculum: a study
of policy, process and practice in Ireland. Unpublished Ed.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh.
Boland, J. & Mc Ilrath, L. (2007) The process of localising pedagogies for civic engagement in
Ireland: the significance of conceptions, culture and context in Mc Ilrath, L. & Mac Labhrainn, I.
(Eds.) Higher education and civic engagement – international perspectives. Aldershot, Ashgate.
Furco, A. & Holland, B. (2004) Institutionalising service-learning in higher education: strategy for
chief academic officers, in Langseth, M. & Plater, W.M. (Eds.) Public work and the academy - an
academic administrators guide to civic engagement and service-learning. Boston, Anker Publishing Company.
Irish Universities Association (2005) The universities and the National Framework of
Qualifications. Dublin, Irish Universities Association.
Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation (2005) A framework for qualifications of the
European Higher Education Area
National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (2003) Policies and criteria for establishment of the
National Framework of Qualifications. Dublin, Dublin, NQAI
About Campus Engage
‘Campus Engage’ is a network for the promotion of civic engagement activities in Irish higher
education. The project to establish the network is funded by the Irish government through the
Higher Education Authority (HEA) Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF). The current network
partners include the University of Limerick, National University of Ireland Maynooth, National
University of Ireland Galway (lead partner), University College Dublin, and Dublin City
University. See www.campusengage.ie
Dr. Josephine A. Boland is Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, National University of
Ireland, Galway. Her research interests relate to higher education policy and practice, as
evidenced by her doctoral thesis ‘Embedding a civic engagement dimension within the higher
education curriculum; a study of policy, process and practice in Ireland’. She is a part of a team of
colleagues, students and community partners developing a service learning project – ‘Learning to
Teach for Social Justice’ – within the context of initial teacher education. In association with
Campus Engage, Josephine provides workshops and seminars in support of curriculum and
assessment design for service/community based learning.
Engage, Issue 1, 2009 6 J. Boland