Social Purpose in Higher Education: A Debate (Part II)

Those who advocate the use of higher education to educate for sustainable development know that what they really seek is some form of value education but they avoid calling it that. Instead, they use the euphemism of competence’ to make it appear more acceptable to higher education. The plan works in situations where we judge the quality of education by how many pass exams, or what the students think about the teachers, but generally fails when we judge the quality of education as resulting in social change.

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

Paul: Well stated Qudsia; I agree and will add the following quick/​paltry thoughts.

Unless and until ESD is chronically salient throughout an educational experience (preceding and through all higher education curricula), emphasising critical thinking (seems to me) to be a very reasonable and agreeable focus for most/​all educators. I also vote for ESD Plan B.

That said, critical minds also need to seek out or be presented information (curious/​motivated and resourceful) and have sufficient empathy to engage with whatever they perceive as injustice – before or after graduation but, perhaps critically-minded people are also more inclined to be curious/​motivated and empathetic?

VS: We all know that social justice is a complex issue.

To take the point made by Qudsia earlier about the inclusivity in education, when children from poorer families get education (merely through a strategy of inclusion) there is some improvement in social justice (irrespective of whether this education helps in creating autonomous and thinking individuals or not). The contrary is also true – even if the education is one of creating thinking and autonomous individuals, there could be an issue in social justice if some students belonging to specific classes/​races/​gender do not get education.

Hence, let me suggest a way out of the quagmire or a way to integrate what we have discussed so far. Social justice and sustainable development require:

  1. Enabling socio-economic environment and policies (unrelated to education)
  2. An appropriate education’

An appropriate education means:

  1. Inclusion in education
  2. Appropriate matching in education
  3. Adequate preparedness (and knowledge generation) on the part of teachers to address purposes like social justice and sustainable development
  4. Practical and measurable ways to create thinking and autonomous individuals who can work towards social justice and sustainable development (or who decide to work towards these objectives autonomously and not due to indoctrination).

Kerry: Aspects of the empirical validity of Proposition 4 have been on my mind for some years now (although I have not previously formulated these ideas in these ways), at least, the individual elements (that a critical mass of critical thinking people will actually change the world is a mere conjecture on my behalf). The possibility that those with dispositions to critical thinking will be more aligned to sustainability thinking than those without these dispositions should be subject to empirical clarification, and to a degree, this is the cornerstone of the research that our group has been involved in.1 Our research was, of course, more complicated, and in particular revealed the complexity (though not impossibility, I hope) of actually measuring individual dispositions and worldviews.

What VS writes is, of course, sensible. What could be better than an appropriate education combined with appropriate and enabling socio-economic environment and policies in the background, appropriate inclusion, appropriate matching, and adequate and appropriate preparedness of teachers?

But as this is a debate, it is my role to challenge it. On my way to work this morning (including a 10-minute walk that helps my mind work with clarity), I wondered if the early settlers in New Zealand thought that their education was appropriate when the Maori children were forced to learn in English rather than in Te Reo? Similarly, I wondered if the Canadian educators, who forcefully removed the First Nations children to be educated in particular ways were also convinced that their education was appropriate. Having spoken to many Chinese students, I think that many in China do think that Uyghur re-education’ is appropriate.

I think that it was Dewey who first theorised how education systems tend to reproduce existing social norms rather than challenge them. At present, I am not sure how we would, for example, empower trainee students to be adequately prepared to address purposes such as social justice. I would like to think that we could, but I am not convinced that we would. I remember a conversation with Paul, who as an engineer has particular insights into engineering issues, explaining the circumstances that resulted in the Challenger space shuttle exploding on the launch pad. Social pressures to conform to social hierarchies and hegemonic practices are extreme in most societal circumstances that I am familiar with. Even engineers do not necessarily feel up to speaking out against societal and professional norms in our societies. Expecting a newly graduating teacher, from a poor background, to lead our way to social justice just does not seem right, or possible to me.

VS: What I write below is from two vantage points – one as a researcher on issues of development and secondly, as one from a poorer country. There are additional benefits from education from these vantage points:

  1. If a girl stays in school for 12 years, it has important benefits for her and society, even if she does not learn much.
  2. Even if people have a few years of schooling, it is much better than not having any schooling.

We have reviewed the literature and the evidence is clear. Imparting the skills and dispositions to think critically is important as an ideal. However, many institutes fail in this regard. This cannot discourage us from ensuring that many others get this imperfect education while trying to improve the quality of education to ensure that it is achieving its desirable goal.

A university with a social purpose is also of this kind. Critical thinking (rather than indoctrination) is important. But there are other issues to be addressed – teacher preparedness is one. The inabilities, if any, to reach the perfect ideal should not prevent us from trying out other enablers.

Imparting the skills and dispositions to think critically is (and should be) the objective of all forms of education and not only for universities with social purposes. There are a number of regular (liberal) colleges/​universities which fail in this regard and this is not because these have a different objective. Hence, I do not see the need to connect the discussion on universities with social purposes with that of this general/​overarching goal/​objective of education. It is appropriate to focus on additional features that are necessary for these universities with a social purpose.

Education has certain demonstrated benefits in society. (We have evidence to back this). However, the positive impact of education on certain other aspects is unclear (there is evidence of this too). We cannot connect these demonstrated benefits and unclear impacts with successes/​failures in terms of imparting critical thinking. (This could be due to the problem of evidence collection). There are features other than critical thinking that contribute to these demonstrated benefits. Can we think about similar features to enhance the social impact of universities?

Lorenz: Regarding Higher Education Institutes (HIEs) as agents of (social change), in the German speaking world, the examples of HEIs explicitly including structural social change in their mission are probably few – some underline entrepreneurship and individual agency, but controversial ideas are mostly delegated to civil society and individual scholars in underfunded departments and disciplines.

Higher Education Institutes, however, readily subscribe to terms like sustainability, particularly from a more technical perspective, where it does not question social configuration. Austrian politicians and opinion leaders are very good at framing Austria as a model of ecological sustainability and social justice, so that technical innovation will be sufficient to achieve XYZ (usually, the goal of Austria is to be doing better than its neighbours).

So, adding to the discussion on whether social or ecological justice is addressed in higher education, I observe that scholars here readily address the environment-bioeconomy-biotech complex (well-funded), and to a lesser extent social question (no funding). Debates on justice, however, are rather seen as politics and avoided.

My own interpretation, ignorant of most scholarship that has worked on this, would be that higher education is an area where social interests are constantly negotiated, due to its powerful ability to legitimise courses of action with neutral’ science. Some forces are pulling in the direction of instrumental skill training, others try to defend higher education as a project of societal progress (probably also the camp of critical thinking and disposition). So, I think there is no finality in this, rather an ongoing dynamic.

What I totally miss in the Austrian context is a future-oriented, creative debate on what is higher education for?’ Public self-reflection on higher education and its purposes is very limited at my institution and concentrated in disciplines that are not favoured by funding realities and has few students. Given my limited revolutionary talents, I sympathise with the idea of pragmatic/​marginal change, and some of the researchable aspects I would love to explore are:

  1. Much more influential than usually acknowledged, due to the focus on content and pedagogy, is the educator’s way of being, which signals her disposition and shows her skill (some studies are available in this regard). In the Austrian context, educators seem to avoid discussing aspects of what they value and why, emphasising stable epistemologies. Would it be possible to empirically investigate how the learners’ perception of criticality andtheir educator’s expertise is affected by different ways of being critical in our interaction with them?
  2. Similarly, exposing students to individuals who care about some issues; are crucial about those and which make a difference to their lives could add to the students’ belief that change is possible, maybe not in a clear causality. In one of my classes, I ask students to privately or openly reflect on moments of transition in their lives. In 90 percent of the cases, these moments involve people that inspired a different point of view, a way of dealing with challenges etc. Looking into ways of making more space for moments like this in higher education and the possible effects on critical disposition would be very interesting.

My faith in the concept of Higher Education for Sustainable Development (HESD) is fading. So far, all empirical HESD studies (including my own) that I have come across that claim to show particular effects of curriculum on some sort of skill/​competence/​value/​attitude would have difficulties to show that this effect was in any way only sustainability’ related but could not be relevant for any complex societal concern. But maybe I don’t have sufficient normative competence.

Kerry: Others, however, are starting to challenge the dominance of competence rhetoric in a range of disciplines, with particular focus on identifying learning outcomes that should be called, competences’ and those that should not be. Here are two references that, in particular, question how competence has come to dominate education in Germany.2

VS’s wish to employ the power of higher education to address basic development’ is relevant here. (Some) Colleagues who advocate the use of higher education to educate for sustainable development know that what they really seek is some form of value education but tend to avoid calling it that. Instead, they use the euphemism of competence’ to make it appear more acceptable to higher education. The plan works in situations where we judge the quality of education by how many pass exams, or what the students think about the teachers, but generally fails when we judge the quality of education as resulting in social change.

VS’s exploration of basic development’ is, to a degree, the same – taking a values-based objective and sugar coating it to make it more acceptable (from VS’s last email: It is appropriate to focus on additional features that are necessary for these universities with a social purpose’). I strongly approve (Plan A), but simply ask for ongoing evaluation to measure how effective it is and accept that we have limited tools to teach these values in higher education.

Lorentz proposes one that could be in addition to VS’s suggestion that we focus on educating school teachers who themselves have experienced social disadvantage. Exposing students to individuals who care’ paraphrased as using eco-warriors (or social justice agitators) to teach our students’.

We need to empirically follow the impact of exposing our trainee school teachers who themselves have experienced social disadvantage’ to eco-warrior/social activist teacher-trainers and to normal teachers’, and compare learners’ perception of criticality and their educator’s expertise’ . I still have doubts that higher education is capable of such things, but strongly support the attempt.

VS: Universities that focus on social justice are few (and this is confirmed by what Lorenz has noted). One can say that the need for such universities is also different in different countries. My impression is that such a need may not be that intense in, say, West Europe which has addressed the issues of poverty, lack of social security, lack of access to education, healthcare and so on.

Education for Sustainability is a felt need in almost all (both developed and developing) countries; the pathway to transformation is not only the change in individual behaviour (say, that which can be achieved through a critical reflection of the actions of self and others), the focus could be on other pathways. Technology could be another one. In this case, technology is seen capable of reducing the use of natural inputs without reducing end-use/conveniences. This kind of change does not require change in individual behaviour or reduction in consumption to attain sustainable development.

My sense is that there would be a diversity of higher education enterprises – some may focus on skills; some may focus on theory and critical social reflection; some may focus on remedial actions.

Regarding the use of role models mentioned by Lorenz, in one of the courses on education and education linkages, I have asked each student to reflect on the relationship between his/​her education and his/​her familial and socio-economic context. This is an interesting way to make them realise the connection between development and education and to sensitise potential school teachers/​practitioners who have to address the problems faced by children from underprivileged backgrounds.

Kerry interprets my argument as the need to change values. I am not so sure about that. In fact, I am not so clear, frankly. My perception is that those students who are willing to take steps, which are in line with the specific social purpose, bring in different capabilities, additional skill, information, knowledge, higher willingness to act (or try out), perception of the need for such action, and probably a set of appropriate values. My argument is that we can view these in totality and not necessarily in disaggregate terms.

I fully share Kerry’s concern regarding the measurement. However, we may agree on the challenges in measuring outcomes. First, as an economist, I see problems in stated responses, and ideally, it is better to look at revealed preferences. Secondly, there are problems of identification and self-selection. These may require randomised control trials but conducting these is not easy for certain issues. What do I have to do, if I want to know whether the students trained from university (X) are more active in addressing issues of social justice than others from regular universities? We cannot ask questions on their perceptions because perceptions need not necessarily mean actions. We cannot compare a set of students from X with others, since those who come to X could be a self-selected group, and the factors which have led to the self-selection (and not the education in X) may explain the difference in outcomes. RCT is difficult since we cannot allocate students randomly to X and other universities.

Kerry: It seems to me that we have reached the crux of the problem, or problems, relating to the purposes of higher education (is it higher- or simply more-education; is it involved in cognitive development or in change at the personal level; is it relating to individual change or social change?). My own observation that the changes implicit in ESD (and for current purposes; and in creating opportunities for basic development by educating trainee school teachers who have themselves experienced social injustice) that are inherently affective, came in 2000 – 2002 and nothing since then has changed this perception. Of course, universities (and all other educational entities) that focus on social change will not have to change the values of students whose values are already aligned to social justice (through social orientation, family or pre-university education). The purposes of education in that case can certainly be focused on cognitive, skills-based development. But in my research so far, the proportion of eco-warriors and social activists in classes that I have researched has been quite small. Certainly not sufficient (or not sufficiently supported) to effect change in our societies. I think it important that VS uses the word willingness’ twice. Willingness, to my disaggregated mindset (see below), implies affect not the knowledge that students have, nor the skills that they learn to put their knowledge to use, but what they choose to do with the knowledge and skills available to them.3 Of course, at present, I do not think that higher education should seek to change students’ values; that is the purpose of compulsory education. But I do think that higher education needs to help students to develop the dispositions to think critically (in an open minded and fair minded in appraising reasoning sort of way).

VS: A short reflection (and seeking clarifications) on being able’ and being willing’.

  1. Is there a possibility that those who are being able’ may become being willing’ even without an explicit training for this purpose. I see two probable scenarios: (a) There is a higher level of intrinsic motivation – which could be unrelated to any formal education; (b) Secondly, some jobs are such that using the ability is the only or dominant way to derive joy and happiness. If these are correct, making somebody being able’ per-se is socially beneficial (even though being able’ and being willing’ together are much more beneficial), and hence, the pursuit of enhancing ability is a desirable task even if there are practical/​philosophical challenges in making someone willing through higher education.
  2. I see, being unable but being willing’ problematic. I work with a number of social activists who are not adequately trained/​knowledgeable about their domains. Let me take the example of open defecation in India. Activists were spending money to construct toilets. However, they were not asking the question of whether the lack of toilets was the main reason for open defecation. In that sense, education is useful when we enable’ those who are willing.

Kerry: There is some evidence and a great deal of conjecture about the importance of role modelling in values-based education, whether we are changing values, recreating the values of society, or just drawing out values for discussion. I have huge interest in role modelling in education, but limited data (summarised in Shephard and Egan, 2019).4

As I see it, educational science is about making the tacit, explicit. Experienced educators may do things holistically, but science requires us to do our best to understand what is happening certainly by evaluating outcomes in the round/​holistically’ but also, I think (and wearing a research hat’, by using scientific method) often, but perhaps not exclusively, in a reductionist mode. Of course, nowadays there is much debate on what scientific method is, and how unscientific it may be, and the epistemology and ontology of what we are talking about).

These things have direct relevance to VS’s more recent commentary on being able and being willing. As I see it, this is currently the practice of ESD worldwide or the Plan A. Let’s teach all of our students all they need to know about sustainability and how to put this into action if they wish to, and hope that they will make decisions that previous generations have not.’ All good; let’s hope that it works. But please do evaluate its effectiveness. As I see it, this approach is also the dominant ideology that underpins the current UNESCO approach; this defines the Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) that are needed to achieve the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). They are all stated as abilities, rather than as willingness (although some are debatable in terms of what is actually intended). See, for example, ending poverty on page 12 (https://​unes​doc​.unesco​.org/​a​r​k​:​/​4​8​2​2​3​/​p​f​0​0​0​0​2​47444). I am all for it but only if we evaluate its effectiveness. After more than 30 years of Plan A, I have my doubts.

Regarding being unable but being willing’ being problematic, I see it as a task for educational science. A scientific approach might do some inductive research to discover explanatory possibilities, then formulate some hypotheses and from these develop some interventions as pilots. Probably the data would suggest that some combination of education, social persuasion and legislation might be worth trying.

More problematic for me is being able, but unwilling’. (A large percentage of the population in some parts of the world? Likely a large percentage of educated people in all parts of the world).

VS: I think we are all moving towards a consensus.

  1. Imparting skills and dispositions to think critically should be the ideal goal of higher education. We need more efforts to see that (a) the education that is attempted all over the world is moving in this direction; (b) there is more research on strategies or pedagogical approaches to enhance the critical thinking skills/​dispositions among students; © there is a deeper understanding on the importance of critical thinking; (d) there is a higher level of measurement of the achievement and effectiveness of this approach.
  2. There should be a focus on other aspects (like the preparedness of teachers, matching of students) to enhance the social impact of universities, followed by measurements on the effectiveness of these strategies.
  3. We need to develop different measurement/​assessment strategies. This is so since conventional measurements alone may not be that effective. Critical self-reflection of teachers and reflection on the practices in the education system, close observations, ethnography, and other such approaches may have to be encouraged along with quantitative approaches like the assessment of perception of students, understanding of their behaviour, and controlled experiments.

Qudsia: In principle, yes, I agree that critical thinking disposition could promote social justice.

Role modelling is an important teaching method with reference to affective learning. Higher education faculty may serve as role models. Literature from the field of teacher education for social justice (Conklin, 2008; Chapman & Hobbel, 2011) indicates the importance of modelling in ensuring social justice education. My argument is that higher education institutions as a whole should serve as role models of social justice practices. My argument is largely rooted in my personal story and reflections.

Being a woman in a traditional society, I am spending most of my time (during the pandemic) in my kitchen, family care, and housekeeping. I hardly find enough time to prepare my lessons and check students’ assignments. No university in Pakistan has a women-friendly work-load policy. All assistant professors have to teach at least nine hours per week. Although universities are reporting the triple burden of women during Covid 19, I am not aware of any university in Pakistan that has reduced the workload of married faculty. Many universities do not have a day-care facility for the female staff and for the student-mothers. Similarly, the architecture of many campuses is not supportive for people with disabilities. To contribute towards social justice, higher education institutions in the traditional societies should start with policies that facilitate married women to continue their studies; facilitate female staff to continue working; allow students (from under-privileged economic backgrounds) to acquire higher education; and actively engage teachers in service learning. In addition to developing a critical thinking disposition, I strongly believe that university-based policies and practices are key factors to promote social justice. I do not think if teaching for critical thinking will contribute towards social justice alone. Higher education institutions should model equitable practices.

VS: Thanks, Qudsia. These points are broadly in agreement with what we have discussed so far.


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 by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

  1. Kerry Shephard, Qudsia Kalsoom, Ritika Gupta, Lorenz Probst, Paul Gannon, V. Santhakumar, Ifeanyi Glory Ndukwe and Tim Jowett (2021) Exploring the relationship between dispositions to think critically and sustainability concern in HESD, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (In Press)↩︎

  2. Schneider, K. (2019). What Does Competence Mean? Psychology10(14), 1938–1958. Glaesser, J. (2019). Competence in educational theory and practice: A critical discussion. Oxford Review of Education45(1), 70–85.↩︎

  3. Shephard, K. (2008). Higher education for sustainability: Seeking affective learning outcomes. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education9(1), 87–98.↩︎

  4. Shephard, K., & Egan, T. (2018). Higher Education for Professional and Civic Values: A Critical Review and Analysis. Sustainability10(12), 4442.↩︎