What is the role of universities when it comes to equity and social justice? The University of the Free State's Professor Melanie Walker's responsibility is to grow students' social conscience - by embedding work for the 'public good' into core curricula.
Embracing a capabilities-based approach to human development could unlock universities' full potential to reduce poverty and inequality in post-apartheid South Africa, argues Professor Melanie Walker.
Her capabilities-based approach - outlined in her latest book, Professional Education, Capabilities and the Public Good, co-written with Monica McLean - is rooted in economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum's notion that true equity occurs when all people are afforded the same opportunities to develop to their full potential, according to criteria that individuals deem valuable.
This is in contrast to the utilitarian approach to ethics and economics, which holds that an action's moral value is judged solely according to how much 'happiness', or utility, it creates.
Where universities fit into this equation is in terms of how they educate and encourage professionals. â€œEngineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, nurses, economists, business leaders, social workers and so on are now educated at universities," says Walker. â€œWhat kind of education could produce lawyers, social workers and nurses who act as if the world matters?" And what are the challenges?
The greater good
From the outset, Walker's research exposed some difficult hurdles. After investigating and interviewing a number of professionals, universities (including staff and students) and NGOs, she realised that many people saw public service as inherently at odds with making money. This was most prevalent in the legal and engineering fields.
There was also a pull towards the reproduction of social advantage through a university education, pointed out to Walker by the head of a social work department in which they were collecting data: â€œShe explained that they want to show students alternatives through their teaching programmes. But, she said, that's really hard for graduates to take on board, because everywhere else they are engaged in competition and individualism as a driving force."
Education as experience
Developing and using a capabilities-based approach is not a blueprint for a perfect public-good-professional education, Walker cautions. However, in Nussbaum's words, â€œhuman abilities exert a moral claim that they should be developed" - and not developing them would be tragic, she concludes.
Walker's book proposes an index - containing various elements - that could aid in developing public good professionals. â€œThe proposal is that all the elements of the index - valuable professional capabilities and functioning, educational arrangements and socio-historic conditions - constitute a framework for educating public-good-professionals; who in turn will be equipped, should they make this choice, to contribute to advancing capabilities for all in the society," she says. â€œIt is our hope that university educators in professional fields will use or adapt the index to develop, evaluate, fÃªte and debate about what they are doing, without waiting for perfect social structures or perfectly just institutions to be put in place."
Ultimately, though, the decision about which path to tread rests with students and graduates. Walker draws on work by Davina Cooper to argue that â€œThere can be no social pathways to public-good professionalism without individuals whose personal trajectories have been shaped by their experiences, including their university education, to walk public-good-professional pathways into existence."
With 47% of South Africans living below the poverty line (according to UCT's Professor Haroon Bhorat) there is significant scope for universities to contribute to the country's - and, indeed, the world's - transformation agenda, says Walker. She observes: â€œAs Martha Nussbaum reminds us, people all over the world are struggling for a life that is fully human, a life worthy of human dignity."
Walker is senior professor of higher education studies at the University of the Free State. She was speaking at the first instalment of a UCT-hosted series of seminars addressing poverty and inequality. The next seminar will be held on 30 April 2014, and features Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor for Poverty and Inequality Emeritus Professor Francis Wilson, speaking about macroeconomic policy and development theory.
Story by Yusuf Omar.
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