23 SES 04 C, Critical Approaches to Higher Education Policy
This paper uses Charles Taylor’s theory of ‘social imaginaries’ (SI) to analyse the underlying assumptions of Widening Participation (WP) policies in two countries: Scotland (a European country with a strong history of social justice), and Australia (which has faced many of the same issues that Scotland is now facing with their WP policy). There is a similar concern for the underrepresentation in higher education (HE) of disadvantaged groups in both nations, and to a degree both propose similar policy responses, suggesting an overlapping social imaginary. However, this paper argues that the rationales used in each country to support WP vary in their differing emphases on a) social justice, social inclusion and fairness, on the one hand; b) and competitiveness in the knowledge economy through the cultivation of human capital, on the other.
Taylor’s notion of ‘social imaginaries’ “… incorporates a sense of the normal expectations we have of each other, the kind of common understanding that enables us to carry out the collective practices that make up our social life” (2004: 24). A social imaginary extends beyond an “immediate practical understanding of how to do particular things” (Goankar 2002: 10) to a wider, historically embedded moral order of what should constitute social life. For Taylor, the ideas that are reflected in a social imaginary begin as the domain of elites and gradually (over the course of decades or centuries) penetrate society to become dominant viewpoints and ways of being (Hodge & Parker 2017). Examples of this include the idea of an independent ‘self’ (Taylor 1989) and the prevailing view of social relations as predominantly economic in nature (Taylor 2002, 2004).
This paper analyses policy documents and interviews with key stakeholders to argue how the language used in each nation reflects the different values that inform them, which in turn are indicative of broader social imaginaries. The analysis will reveal the extent to which the prevailing SI has penetrated HE, a ‘niche’ that has historically been relatively resistant to democratising forces as elites attempt to preserve their privilege in the face of the perceived threat of WP (Gale & Parker 2017).
Bradley, D., Noonan, P., Nugent, H., & Scales, B. (2008). Review of Australian Higher Education: Final Report. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Commission on Widening Access. (2015). Interim Report. Scottish Government: Edinburgh. Commission on Widening Access. (2016). Blueprint For Fairness: The Final Report Of The Commission On Widening Access. Scottish Government: Edinburgh. Gale, T., & Parker, S. (2017). Retaining students in Australian higher education: cultural capital, field distinction. European Educational Research Journal, 16(1), 80-96. Gaonkar, D. P. (2002). Toward New Imaginaries: An Introduction. Public Culture, 14(1), 1-19. Hodge, S. & Parker, S. (2017). Accounting for practice in an age of theory: Charles Taylor’s theory of social imaginaries. In J. Lynch, J. Rowlands, T. Gale & A. Skourdoumbis (Eds.), Practice Theory: Diffractive readings in professional practice and education (pp. 39-54). Routledge. Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Taylor, C. (2002). Modern Social Imaginaries. Public Culture, 14(1), 91-124. Taylor, C. (2004). Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.
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