23 SES 02 C, HE, Diversity, Inclusion and Justice
The connection between higher education and social justice is complicated. At one level, the spaces for assessing educational justice can be limited to access, learning experiences, curricular representation, or educational outcomes (as measured by student achievement and subsequent success in labour market earnings). At a broader level, education can be seen as a means of enacting social justice visions in society. That is to say, the social justice intent of education can be evaluated in terms of value of education as a cultural critique – specifically, in terms of its roles in creating awareness of origins, processes and forms of inequalities in society and advancing debates on the need and means of empowering the empowered, with an overarching goal of building a just society.
Whether or not education plays roles in building a just society depends largely on policy-informed actions and inactions. Thus it is important to critically assess education policies and plans to understand the way they frame social justice goals. In this paper, we aim to develop a capability-based conceptual framework for assessing social justice intents in education policies. Drawing on Amartya Sen’s (1992, 2009) capability approach as an evaluative framework, the paper sheds light on the complexity of the relationship between education and social justice, and highlights subtle but crucial ways of addressing injustice within and outside the education system. We use empirical data from a sample of recent Australian higher education policy texts to illustrate three social justice intents.
The capability approach offers an alternative normative framework to think about the features of individual wellbeing and assess social arrangements in the space of capabilities – real opportunities or freedoms people have to achieve what they value in life (Sen 1992, 2009). Sen (2009) holds: “A person’s advantage in terms of opportunities is judged to be lower than that of another if she has less capability – less real opportunity – to achieve those things that she has reason to value” (p.231). In other words, a deeper understanding of the social justice implications of public arrangements should draw on people’s substantive freedoms to choose the life they have reason to value, not the resources they possess or their self-evaluated level of preference satisfaction. It is with this notion of social justice that we analyse selected policy texts and develop a tentative conceptual framework for assessing social justice goals in education.
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