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Higher Education And Social Justice

Policymakers are yet to define the nature of higher education. Is it primarily a service to enhance skill and hence employability? Or is it a tool of inclusivity and growth, catering to the society more than the individual? Defining these elements is important for outlining the policy goals of higher education.

The expansion of educational infrastructure has brought along new benefits: increased income levels, social advancement, wider accessibility, etc. These benefits have made policymakers like UNESCO believe that increasing participation should be the primary goal of higher education.(1)
However, various challenges still exist: the competition isn’t about whether you get into a University, but rather about which University. Barriers identified, include finances, entry-qualification requirements, accommodative learning opportunities, exclusionary cultures within institutions and shortfall of support services. (2) These are some of the areas of concern and they restrict equity in education to merely the entry point of access.  Thus, the expansion of higher education has only strengthened the perception that some universities are superior to the rest. Entry into top universities becomes sought after and less accessible, but the preferential treatment of graduates from these universities isn’t seen as a problem.

Most of the research that surrounds higher education looks at the issues within, especially while examining accessibility, social justice, etc. (3) A relatively less explored area is the impact that higher education can have on global or national social problems.  It is impossible to separate the two characteristics of higher education – how it addresses inequalities within the education system determines how effective it is in responding to problems that the world poses.

We are in a society where social inequality would be justified by broad equality of opportunity for individuals to succeed if they are ‘worthy’. It seems like everyone has a fair chance to succeed however, the grim reality of the education system remains. Multiple social factors (gender, nationality, income level, caste, etc) determine your chances of success, no matter how ‘equal’ opportunities seem.

Are private liberal arts universities in India inclusive of people from non-urban, non- upper-class backgrounds on campus? Is it fair that only some people can afford coaching centers and career counselors for their children? Only some people can afford better colleges and better life prospects? It isn’t coincidental that despite reservation policies in Indian colleges, there are a large number of upper-caste professionals in fields from bureaucracy to academia, while lower caste communities remain grossly underrepresented. The message sent out is clear- ‘Your problems are all your fault, while your privileges are all your own achievement’ which legitimizes inequalities as well.

Expanding universities has undoubtedly opened horizons for those to whom higher education was inaccessible. However, we must recognize the hurdles that make higher education inequitable- to ensure equality of opportunity in practice. A radical reimagination of higher education shows its unique potential as a platform for inclusive growth. Some theorists view the moral responsibility of higher education is to reinforce the idea of public knowledge and awareness. (4)  Keeping academia independent from political pressures is important – and translating this academic independence into larger public cultures of critical thinking and informed opinions is something worth pushing for as an important goal of higher education. Open-sourcing of knowledge through the internet and higher education collaborations with mass media are examples of how the circulation of knowledge can be expanded to those who don’t participate in higher education first-hand. While the higher education system is swamped with social injustices, we must reimagine it for the betterment for our society. (5) The power to shape minds that will shape our tomorrow lies with us.

  1.Mayor, F. (1998) Foreword. Higher education in the 21st Century, UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education
2.Thomas, L. (2001). Power, Assumptions and Prescriptions: A critique of widening participation policy- making, Higher Education Policy, 74(4), pp. 361- 376
3. Brennan, J and Naidoo, R, Higher Education and the Achievement (And/or Prevention) of Equity and Social Justice, Higher Education , Sep., 2008, Vol. 56, No. 3, The Future of Higher Education Research, pp. 287-302
4.McLaughlin, N., Kowalchuk, L., & Turcotte (2005), Analytic Reflections on Public Sociologies, The American Sociologist, pp. 133-150
5. Zajda, J., Majhanovich, S., & Rust, V. (2006). Introduction: Education and Social Justice, International Review of Education, pp. 9-22



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The Case for Politicizing Education

For too long, high school classrooms across the world have shied away from topics that seemed too controversial, topics that could generate potential conflict, topics that forced uncomfortable conversations and introspections. Politics, it seems, is to stay strictly outside the walls of the classroom, and the closest we ever get to it is a dry account in our Civics textbooks. This widespread belief stems from a popular misperception of politics – as a violent, corrupt game played only by political parties, something children should be kept far away from. What most adults, parents, and teachers alike, seem to forget is that politics isn’t a distant phenomenon happening in the nation’s parliament. Politics is present in our everyday lives – the fare of the cab to work, the water supply to our homes, the taxes we pay every year, and yes, the status of our citizenship. Issues that are labelled ‘political’ or ‘partisan’ are very often important issues of human rights and social justice. If education is meant to empower our children with knowledge, why are we afraid to have these important conversations?

The pressure on educators to remain ‘neutral’ comes from a deep-rooted fear of offending parents, school administration, or the government with “propaganda”. Research by Michigan State University shows that even beyond this pressure, teachers feel unequipped to initiate discussions about such issues without passing value judgements, or pitting students against each other. The impact that this vacuum in political education has on the development of students is crippling. Students are denied a space of healthy discussion and argument, and subsequently a chance to develop an independent opinion for themselves. Their only source of information remains dinner table and drawing room conversations – usually one-sided beliefs from authority figures, which are easy to adopt without questioning. Additionally, in times when the safety and stability of certain students’ lives are in doubt, avoiding discussion of certain subjects (be it violence against religious minorities, racial discrimination, or gun violence) is itself a form of exclusion.

Avoiding discussing politics in formal education more often than not produces young adults who are unaware or misinformed about issues happening around them. Having never been taught why problems that don’t affect them personally still ought to be valued, these adults consequently struggle with empathy and inclusion. Having never been taught how to respectfully disagree with an opinion, they are defensive and vitriolic in their arguments. While we might produce renowned engineers and budding entrepreneurs, we aren’t producing sensitive, independently thinking individuals. 

According to data from the Election Commission of India, 45 million young people have been added to the electoral rolls since 2014, expanding it by 5%. In 2020, the youth make up 34% of India’s population. The impact of the youth on politics is only increasing, and so are the perils of having a misinformed opinion, or just as bad, no opinion at all.

How then, can educators facilitate a platform for healthy debate, without becoming divisive and exclusive?  The way forward could begin by anchoring classroom discussions in a framework of concepts like justice and equality. This would involve making justice-oriented pedagogical choices: through revising and updating curriculum to make it more responsive to the current political climate as well as the increased exposure children already have through media, by cultivating respect for differing opinions and sensitivity towards vulnerable minorities through empathy-building exercises like stakeholder debates, through stimulating independent thinking and critical analysis of information and other such methods. The shift towards a proactive, engaged approach to politics will not happen overnight and requires equipping teachers with these skills, along with other skills of conflict moderation and resolution, before equipping students with information. A foundational education in politics does not mandate the teacher to espouse political beliefs. It merely requires them to ask students to think harder about the realities of our society; realities that will only benefit from the active engagement of young minds.

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Competition and the Myth of Success

If each of us got a penny each time we were asked ‘So, how much did you get in that exam?’ by a classmate, parent or relative, we would all be millionaires. This seemingly harmless question exemplifies the sad reality of our education system. The question is not ‘How happy are you with your performance?’ or ‘How have you improved from the last exam?’ Here, you are only as much as your marksheet says.

For too long, the characteristic competitiveness of our system has been brushed off as an inevitable consequence of a large population with limited opportunities to succeed. The social narratives of success and failure that we simultaneously produce and sustain ourselves on are rigid – high-paying, stable professions carrying social status are the only ones worth pursuing. These narratives are also widely flawed; most of us are familiar with the almost impossible odds of getting into an IIT or cracking the NEET, and the increasing unemployment rates of mainstream professions because of the incongruence between demand and supply. Yet we still continue to run the race, believing that if we struggle now, it’ll pay off in the end. The truth is harsh – there is no end to the race, there are no winners.

The intense competition hits those hardest who aren’t adept in subjects and skills that the system values. Being labelled as a failure for not ‘putting enough effort’ towards the predetermined goal and the anxiety of letting down their family takes an immense toll on the mental health of students. According to a 2015 Lancet Report, India’s student suicide rate is one of the highest in the world – one student kills themselves every hour. Even those students who seemingly thrive in this system are not better off. The constant pressure to perform exceedingly well ensures that even academically talented students define themselves solely in terms of their marks and ranks – the sole incentive to do any activity is how good you’ll be at it compared to the rest, and how it’ll boost your college application.

The most explicit manifestation of this competition-driven structure is the shadow education system comprising professional coaching classes, entrance exam driven pre-university colleges and centres like Kota. Competition, however, exists even in apparently liberal-minded circles – the college admissions scandal in the US which saw the conviction of several celebrities for bribing their children’s way into Ivy League universities is the best example of this. We would do quite literally everything it takes to get ahead.

It is ironic that what becomes worst affected by the rigidly competitive nature of the education system is personal satisfaction. The exercise of individual choice to discover and develop interests and aptitudes is at best, respected only in choosing hobbies, and at worst, simply not respected at all. The intense competition we were subjected to as children is something we carry with us into adulthood and subject our children to as well. We think of our salary in comparison to our colleagues’, our promotions in comparison to those of our college friends’, and our children’s mark sheets in comparison to the neighbour’s children’s. A 2013 report by Gallup shows that in East Asia, only 6% of workers reported being happy in their jobs. We simply don’t know how to build an identity and define any milestones in our lives in terms exclusive of others and their success. The satisfaction that ‘success’ promises us remains a myth; we instead suffer from stress-induced conditions of diabetes, hypertension, depression and other mental illnesses.

To create a healthier, happier workforce and student population, we must break down the monistic definition of success that colours our ambitions. Ideas are already trickling in – the overhaul of traditional career counselling methods, skill development conclaves for students across economic strata and opportunities to explore different avenues without the pressure to excel are necessities. Competition might still be valuable, but only when it pushes students to be the best they can be in comparison with what they were. The best college means the one that is best suited to our inclinations, not the highest ranked one. The best career is that which best allows us to explore our passions, not the one with the largest paycheck.

We probably cannot do away with competition altogether, but we can find healthier channels for it; at the very least, we must not allow it to remain the rigid spine of a broken system. It’s time we started viewing our children as individuals with aspirations in their own right, not merely racehorses bred to run infinite lengths.