Social Purpose in Higher Education: A Debate PART I

We would all agree that the creation of autonomous thinking individuals should be the goal of education (whether it has any direct social purpose or not). However, the majority of schools/​colleges in India (and possibly in Pakistan and a number of such countries) fail in this regard. This is not due to the burden of any other social purpose or the planned need for indoctrination. What happens in our education system is the outcome of a number of constraints…

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Participants: V Santhakumar (VS), Kerry Shepard (Kerry), Qudsia Kalsoom (Qudsia), Lorenz Probst (Lorenz), Paul Gannon (Paul)

VS: On the topic of the feasibility of social change through higher education, rather than the effectiveness, let us debate on the pathways that can be attempted.

Whenever we talk about education for social change, we get into this paradox of indoctrination versus creating autonomous and thinking individuals. As an economist, I wish to explore other pathways. I am focussing on the possibilities of marginal and practical changes without pursuing indoctrination. We may agree that the knowledge’ content of teachers is not adequate for pursuing social change. My view is that the lack of pursuit of social purposes has reduced or altered the knowledge content of teachers. Let me highlight a couple of issues here. Firstly, do teachers in social sciences develop transferable knowledge on how to make social change in a given context? This, in my view, is not attempted adequately. Having a specific social purpose can encourage teachers to do so. Here, my assumption is that the availability of and exposure to such knowledge would enable students to think about (and use it) if they want to pursue social change (autonomously). The second issue is the kind of students to be targeted for a particular social change, for example, let us take, improving the learning achievements of students from underprivileged backgrounds in schools as a desirable social purpose. The skill/​knowledge for this purpose should be imparted to those who are more likely to be school teachers in similar contexts. If the latter is not attempted, the effectiveness of this education would come down. Hence matching’ becomes important. In my view, these two issues indicate certain practical problems in achieving higher education with a social purpose even when the pathway is the creation of autonomous and thinking individuals.

Kerry: I would suggest that we also include in this debate some other issues, such as:

  1. Different forms of social change (for social justice or for environmental justice in some respects, the former is more acceptable in higher education than the latter, but even the former appears to be unacceptable to many).
  2. Evaluating the extent of social change. Would we know it if and when we achieve it? Would we be honest if we thought that we have not?
  3. Uncovering, challenging, overcoming the sensitivities in this debate — why, given such profound evidence about environmental degradation, are educators still sitting on the fence? Why is gender inequality so apparent around the world?
  4. Calling out hypocrisy –why do we tolerate even our most respected educational institutions saying one thing, but doing another? As professional, are teachers blind to our disabling self-appreciation?

VS: We should have the courage to debate all these issues, Kerry.

To start with, based on my experiences in India, there are different forms of social change. To me, it seems that the push for social justice is less acceptable than that for environmental justice; it could be due to a number of reasons.

  1. Much of the political contest in all countries is about the way to achieve social justice.
  2. As noted by our reviews the role of religion in shaping attitudes towards the environment and environmental justice can be acceptable to different kinds of people – religious, non-religious, rational, not so rational, conservatives, liberals, but all these people may have different views on the way to achieve social justice.
  3. Though the support for conventional socialism has diminished, and there is overall support for capitalist’ economies, there is a vehement polarisation of the role of government in ensuring social justice in all kinds of polities/​economies.
  4. Social change has become less acceptable to sections of academics too for different reasons – post-modernism, cultural relativism, deep environmentalism, and so on.

In such a context, a mega project of social change (like social engineering) is becoming less acceptable and is less likely to be the goal of higher education.

However, there is a problem in countries like India and many others. These countries have not achieved even the basic development and the need for such a development may be agreeable to many. They may agree on the need for the removal of abject poverty, higher levels of infant mortality, open defecation, malnutrition, violence against women, caste/​racial discrimination, and so on. But can the achievement of this basic development (say, human development as noted by scholars like Amartya Sen) be the goal of higher education? Not through indoctrination but through enhancing the capabilities of people with higher education to facilitate such human development in their contexts.

Paul: A fascinating debate; one which I am ill-prepared to contribute, but will attempt nonetheless…

My disciplinary angle within higher education is engineering education, which has grappled with social justice since its inception but more recently in open academic settings – one example is this book from 2013, Engineering Education for Social Justice to which leading scholars in this area have contributed. This reference, along with those cited within it, largely informs my fledging views on this topic, and will likely influence my paltry contributions to this debate. For now, I encourage its perusal at leisure. There are certainly more contemporary references that I will be happy to provide if needed.

The one struggle that I see from my angle is the willingness and/​or preparedness of higher education (and especially engineering) faculty to engage students in the social (and to a lesser extent, environmental) justice implications of their engineering practices.

Too often in engineering education, ethics, social justice, sustainability, etc. are partitioned as separate courses (often taught by non-engineering faculty) or as ineffective modules within one or more traditional engineering courses. Students see the disconnect, and there is arguably a culture of disengagement’ in engineering education, which can result in students having a reduced sense of social responsibility throughout their academic program, and which perhaps further deteriorates as they proceed into their engineering careers.

Furthermore, engineering faculty (like many/​most in higher education) too often experience no formal education on education’ itself (nor social justice issues) yet are considered professional educators. On-the-job training seems to improve teaching for most of the faculty, but there is much else that can be done, including aspects of social justice.

Qudsia: Thank you very much for starting this crucial debate. In the case of Pakistan, I cannot find any higher education institute that has included social justice or environmental justice as their key focus. In a survey from December 2019 to January 2020, I found that the ecological footprint of university teachers was much higher than the teachers of low-income private schools. Similarly, the ecological footprint of the students studying in private sector universities was very high as compared to the students studying in public sector universities. Private sector universities are attended by students from the privileged social class. Public sector universities in Pakistan are engaged in some social justice practices, such as providing equitable educational opportunities to students from underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds; for people with different abilities; and for women.

I think social change can be seen at two levels: inclusivity, i.e., availability of basic services and facilities to everyone regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity etc and transformation in our frames of references/​meaning/​perspectives (Mezirow, 1978). In the case of my country, I think we have not achieved it in either of these two ways and our higher education is not really helping in achieving these targets. We, as university teachers, are mostly biased and do not promote inclusivity.

I am a teacher educator for the past 16 years. There is a standardised curriculum of B Ed (Honours) degree in Pakistan. The four-year degree clearly misses a specific focus on social justice education. The degree aims at developing pre-service teachers’ technical skills, such as lesson planning, differentiated teaching, classroom management, resource development, assessment etc. Similarly, the course work of MPhil Education and PhD Education also do not focus on social or environmental justice education. Some teachers (like myself) integrate the concepts of social and environmental justice into their teaching. I hope things are different in other parts of the world and expect that teacher preparation programs help students to learn about social justice.

VS: The points made by both of you, Paul and Qudsia, are very important. Let me try to frame these based on my original concerns.

  1. In the engineering education example mentioned by Paul, we must consider a background issue. When something is defined as professional education, it is based on a social understanding that the learning of the subject in a liberal mode is inadequate for a certain social purpose. That is why we have designated the education of medicine, engineering, education and so on as professional education. One problem that I see is that some other forms of education which should have a similar purpose of making a change’ are not designated and treated as professional education. This limits the imagination of these educational programs. For example, social development. There is education in social sciences but that is not adequate to create professionals/​practitioners of social/​human development. (Social work is a profession, but it is different).
  2. Engineering education has a professional objective. However, when an additional social objective (like environmental justice) is expected from it, its weaknesses come out as noted by Paul. This example shows the need to enhance the preparedness of teachers of professional education’ when the profession has to address newer challenges. Enhancing this preparedness must be an important objective of higher education.
  3. The example that Qudsia highlights has a number of dimensions. First, there is an implied (even if it is not explicit) understanding that higher education would address certain social issues. For example, improving access to higher education itself could be such a social objective. There may be certain legal/​constitutional provisions that may encourage such an inclusion. However, a complacent attitude of the educators may lead to a neglect of such social requirements.
  4. Though the issues of social or environmental justice could be reasonable add ons’ to the objectives of education, teacher education may not make an explicit attempt to include these aspects in the training of teachers.
  5. The learning achievements of school students are an issue in many developing countries like India and Pakistan. Many studies (including ours1) have shown that classroom/​school processes and family/socio-economic environment have an impact on these learning achievements. In fact, studies note that the family/socio-economic environment has a greater impact. This warrants school teachers to take proactive additional steps to improve the learning achievements of children who come from vulnerable family backgrounds. Though this can be a reasonable objective of teacher education, I don’t see an explicit recognition of this in teacher education in India. Hence, there is not enough preparedness among teacher educators in this regard.
  6. By taking all these points, my argument is that education for a social purpose need not be evaluated only on the basis of whether it leads to indoctrination or not (and whether such indoctrination is effective or not), but also on the basis of the preparedness of educators. An enhanced preparedness on the part of educators may give students a higher level of exposure to the appropriate learning materials, and that may encourage them to think about relevant social issues (and encourage some of them to act) as autonomous thinking individuals.

Qudsia: The social justice issue in education in Pakistan is very complex. For example, there are four discrete school systems based on socio-economic status of the parents. Private schools that charge a monthly fee of Rs 15,000/- to 30,000/- ; private schools charging a fee of Rs 3000/- to Rs 5000/- per month; private schools charging a fee less than Rs 2000/- ; public sector schools and faith schools (madrassas) that charge no fee. People from the low socio-economic strata send their children to public sector schools or low-income private sector schools. In these private schools, teachers are not qualified at all. They start teaching after 10 or 12 years of education. Their salary varies from Rs 5000/- to 10,000/- per month. Teachers who teach in public sector schools are well qualified and paid reasonably. However, they lack ownership. Their own children study in private schools. They mostly argue that the students who attend public sector schools are slow learners because their parents are not educated. These beliefs add to social injustice. Things are very complex here.

VS: This is important information, Qudsia. The picture in India is not very different. There are structural factors that work against the realisation of social purposes (or even normal purposes) of education. These constraints are much more severe in developing/​poorer countries like ours.

We would all agree that the creation of autonomous thinking individuals should be the goal of education (whether it has any direct social purpose or not). However, the majority of schools/​colleges in India (and possibly in Pakistan and a number of such countries) fail in this regard. This is not due to the burden of any other social purpose or the planned need for indoctrination. What happens in our education system is the outcome of a number of constraints, such as (inadequate) education, training, preparedness of teachers; (poor quality of) foundational education of students; other socio-economic constraints, including social norms which value hierarchy and unquestioning acceptance.

Kerry: Although our debate started with some differences of opinion (about how higher education can achieve social change), we may be in danger of, for the most part, agreeing with one another.

Formal debates need speakers for and against a particular issue. One equivalent tradition in critical thinking is the devil’s advocate’, and I shall attempt some elements of this in what follows. In other respects, formalised protocols for critical thinking go through three cycles – identifying the assumptions that underpin each statement or point of view, challenging these assumptions or at least identifying where the assumptions are not well-supported by evidence, and seeking alternative explanations. I shall attempt all three below.

We started with a concern about the feasibility of social change through higher education and encountered what VS described as the paradox of indoctrination versus creating autonomous and thinking individuals. VS described another pathway of pursuing marginal and practical changes that are somehow less than indoctrination (recognising that although at present university teachers lack a social purpose, they could teach transferable knowledge on how to make social change in a given context).

In VS’s alternative pathway:

Proposition 1 is targeted at higher education students from underprivileged backgrounds, particularly those who are more likely to become school teachers (Assumption 1: School teachers can provide the conduit from higher education to practical social change. Assumption 2: That school teachers who have themselves experienced social injustice will be most likely to attempt to create social change.)

Proposition 2 is aimed not at achieving universal equality, but at basic levels of human development, that should be agreeable to many people’. VS asks: Can the achievement of this basic development be a goal of higher education?’ (Assumption 3: Because many people agree that this outcome is desirable, it will help its achievement).

Proposition 3 proposes that the availability of and exposure to such knowledge would enable students to think about and use it if they want to pursue social change (autonomously)’. Assumption 4 (perhaps more of a hope than an assumption?) That if people are exposed to the facts of injustice, it will cause them to change their behaviour.

Let us focus on Proposition 2 first (the core of VS’s argument) and see what we think about the assumption that underpins it.

Paul used his experience in engineering education to suggest the following:

Related to Assumption 3: Engineering educators may not be either able (prepared) or willing to engage students in the social (and to a lesser extent, environmental) justice implications of their engineering practices, consequently, students experience a culture of disengagement’ where the social consequences of engineering are not given the same weight within professional teaching as engineering itself. (References are likely available to support these propositions).

I suggested, in the context of what university educators were willing to address:

Related to Assumption 3: Addressing matters of social justice might be more acceptable to educators than addressing environmental justice. (But I am currently working with teacher educators from three universities in New Zealand and we have concluded that although teacher education and its regulatory instruments inadequately address sustainability education, there is far more attention paid to addressing social equality issues than to environmental issue. But even with respect to social inequalities, these sustainability-related roles of teachers, and equivalent functions of teacher training institutions, are considered optional and their achievements are not assessed or evaluated).

It would be difficult, on the basis of our discussion so far, to conclude that Proposition 2 is credible at this point in time. Qudsia proposes an alternative explanation We, as university teachers, are mostly biased and do not promote inclusivity.’ [even for basic development’]. VS summarises, What happens in the major part of our education system is the outcome of a number of constraints including (inadequate) education, training, preparedness of teachers; (poor quality of) past education of students; other socio-economic constraints, including social norms which value hierarchy and unquestioning acceptance.’

I offer an alternative to Proposition 2 (Proposition 2 is, in this way of thinking, a derivation of ESD) Plan A2… that we should use the power of higher education to teach our students to be sustainable’. Whether we aim for sustainable development or basic development’ is just a matter of degree. At present, higher education is neither able nor willing to teach our students to be sustainable. Proposition 4 (ESD Plan B) suggests that higher education should focus on something that it tells the world that it is good at, but that it should do it better than it does at present – teach our students to have the skills and dispositions to think critically. Students will then know and understand the extent to which higher education is currently indoctrinating them to think and behave unsustainably and to think and agree that this is an acceptable way forward and that it is somehow their right and obligation to maintain the social and environmental injustices inherent to the system that they inherit. Given the skills and dispositions to think critically, students will decide for themselves the rights and wrongs of the current higher education practices and a critical mass of these students may decide to do something about it.

ESD Plan B, Proposition 4, is of course dependent on a number of assumptions, and likely deeply flawed. Perhaps this group would like to analyse its deficiencies?

(Noting that at this stage we have only addressed the skills elements of critical thinking, the dispositional aspects have not yet figured in the analysis. And we have only explored one proposition.

VS: Thanks Kerry for these useful observations. One general point – I am raising some questions and I have not seen many studies which have raised or answered similar questions especially in contexts such as India. This is not discouraging me from asking these questions and I am fully aware that I may not be able to answer all such questions.

Regarding Proposition 1, you have identified two underlying assumptions. My point is that the proposition can be seen even without these assumptions. I don’t know whether what I am going to describe now is relevant only for countries like India.

There is a job matching in our contexts. The urban middle-class (who are well-educated) opt for certain jobs, and they are less likely to be school teachers in, say, underserved areas of the country. Most of the school teachers in these areas come from rural areas, they may have studied in tier-two and ‑three cities/​towns and in colleges that do not offer very good quality education, most of them are from families in which parents too may not have received a good quality education and so on. They are doing a certain type of jobs and this has a socio-economic basis. This is true of many development’-related jobs, like working in the local government in an underserved district.

Higher education can be operationalised in two ways: One – the conventional way – to provide it to the best set of students who apply for a particular course. Here best’ is in terms of their past education and based on some measurable assessments of their (universally valuable) aptitude. I want to know whether a higher education program can be provided not to the best but to those who are already working in or are likely to take up, certain specific jobs because of their educational and socio-economic background.

One of the assumptions that you have identified is partly correct. I am assuming that these school teachers/​professionals who come from less privileged backgrounds would use the additional knowledge that they get from this specific purposeful higher education program well. For example, do teachers coming from tribal groups use the special teacher education they receive to address the needs of students from such groups well? However, my real assumption is the following two situations:

Situation A: Most of these teachers are not trained adequately to address the educational challenges in their context.

Situation B: Some of these teachers have exposure to a purposeful education which gives them exposure to the knowledge on how to address the educational challenges in their context.

The assumption is that Situation B is better than Situation A, even if the distribution of the (intrinsic) motivation among teachers is the same between A and B.

Regarding Assumption 3, this is in my view, a social science perspective. Let us take sustainable development as a desirable goal. If someone asks a social scientist, the question, What kind of social/​economic/​political factors help a country to achieve sustainable development?’ My sense is that there is no empirically robust answer. This is so since no country has achieved what can be called sustainable development. On the other hand, if we take (basic) human development (as reflected in human development indicators), not just the developed countries but also some developing countries (and certain states even in a country like India) have a much higher level of human development (in comparison with others). Hence, it is easier for social scientists to assess the kind of factors that enable the achievement of higher human development, and this can be part of the knowledge on how to bring about better human development. Whether such knowledge would enable people to work towards higher human development is a valid question, but again my assumption (like the previous one) is as follows:

Situation A: Most people do not have the knowledge of how to improve human development in a specific context.

Situation B: Some people have the knowledge of how to improve human development in their contexts based on social scientists’ understanding of the experience of countries/​states which have improved human development.

My assumption is that Situation B is better than Situation A, even if the readiness to bring about a change among people is the same in both these situations.

Regarding Assumption 4, I have highlighted this earlier but am elaborating it here. In general, any set of people have a distribution of willingness to work effectively or a motivation to work. For example, the distribution could be as follows: (I am using numbers just for the sake of explanation).

20 percent proactive
40 percent not so proactive but become active as they follow others
40 percent lazy, not very motivated

Let us assume that the exposure to facts and knowledge does not change this distribution. However, even with the same distribution, the assumption is that the exposure to facts and knowledge would create an aggregate social outcome which is better than the situation where such exposure is not there. This assumption is invalid, say, if the exposure to facts and knowledge demotivates some people.

This is regarding environmental justice versus social equality issues. It is true that the content of education training may have more coverage of social inequality than environmental un-sustainability. However, my argument is somewhat different: Achieving social justice is more challenging and contested in developing countries whereas, environmental justice is seen as a desirable goal (even by those who disagree on social justice) but it may be treated as something not to be taken seriously in the short-term.

I agree with Proposition 2 suggested by Kerry, but I don’t see it in conflict with what I have written. Regarding Proposition 4 (ESD Plan B) suggested by Kerry, I see it as an agreeable norm. However, whether it is empirically valid or not is something that I cannot answer.

Qudsia: I feel that achieving both environmental justice and social justice is equally challenging and linked in many ways.

My personal experience informs me that raising university students’ awareness about sustainability issues is not enough to promote pro-sustainability practices.

Five years ago, as a part of my PhD, I integrated the concept of ESD in my course on Research Methods in Education. Twenty-seven students were engaged in two forms of undergraduate research. I acted as an ESD educator throughout. Pre and post-test scores indicated a significant difference in the participants’ sustainability consciousness (a complex of knowledge of SD, pro-sustainability attitudes, and pro-sustainability behaviours) after four months. I followed up 15 students for three years. Last year, before the advent of Covid-19 in Pakistan, only ONE student mentioned that she always exhibited pro-sustainability behaviour.

I feel that knowledge of sustainability issues or teachers’ pro-sustainability practices are not enough to promote social justice and environmental justice. I go with Prof Kerry’s Proposition 4 which is about developing critical thinking. Scholars, like Arnim Weik, Aaron Redman and Matthias Barth, do not view critical thinking as a core sustainability competence rather, they take it as an essential academic competence. I think whether critical thinking disposition is taken as an essential academic competence or a key sustainability competence, it has a relationship with sustainability (including social and environmental justice). We definitely need to integrate the concepts of social justice and environmental justice in higher education, but critical thinking disposition needs to be the major focus.


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Kerry Shephard, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Kerry researches higher education and has a specific interest in the affective domain of attitudes, values and dispositions – how learners acquire these; how teachers contribute to their acquisition, deliberately or not; how universities assess or evaluate them; and how we can research them. 

Qudsia Kalsoom, Department of Educational Leadership and Management at the School of Education, Beaconhouse National University. Lahore, Pakistan. She is interested in investigating issues related to social justice education, environmental education and education for sustainable development. She is currently working on Teacher education for sustainable development’.

Lorenz Probst, Deputy Head, Institute for Development Research (IDR), BOKU University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna.

Paul E. Gannon, Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Associate Director of the Montana Engineering Education Research Center at Montana State University, USA. Paul’s research interests include engineering education innovations to effectively integrate sustainability and promote diversity and inclusion.

Featured photo courtesy Unsplash

  1. Santhakumar, V. Gupta, N. and Sripada, R. (2016) Schooling for All in India: Can We Neglect the Demand? Delhi: Oxford University Press↩︎

  2. Shephard K (2020) Higher Education for Sustainability: Seeking Intellectual Independence in Aotearoa New Zealand, Springer↩︎