International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 18 - 20 July 2016
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Advancing social justice in differentiated higher education system

Isaac Ntshoe, Central University of Technology, Free State (CUT),


Divergent perspectives exist about the role of higher education in advancing social justice following global shifts from elitist systems, towards ‘massification’ and expansion of access. In view of the institutionalised social injustices and exclusionary policies prior to 1994 in South Africa, discourses on social justice in higher education are understandably marked by emotional overtones including expanding access, widening participation and equity of access notably for groups previously deprived of participation in the sector. While higher education has a role in redressing political, social and economic injustices in societies however, contending constructions of social justice and their implications for access to knowledge acquired, and distributed by higher education are relatively un-nuanced. This paper contributes to debates about locating social justice in higher education research underscoring constructions of access to knowledge to advance social justice agenda in the differentiated higher education system of South Africa. It analyses prevailing social justice formations predicated on unequal power relations, social constructivist, outcomes-based and formal access and how these constructions advance enduring social justice by inter alai; changing admissions policies, deracialising the sector and increasing funding targeting particularly previously disadvantaged students. The paper also canvases the less explored notions of epistemic access and nature of knowledge to advance social justice in South Africa where higher education institutions still reflect geopolitical patterns of the previous system. The paper is grounded in the social relations of knowledge, the nature of knowledge, and knowledge differentiation narratives pioneered by Bernstein, and modified, and extended by his theorists. I argue that while unequal power relations, social constructivist and formal access formations have been justifiably canvassed since the 1994 democratic elections, research is skeletal on how exposure to epistemological/epistemic access and reasoning, and the nature of knowledge constructions could contribute to achieving greater and lifelong social justice. Thus, unequal power relations and formal access narratives need to be tempered by epistemic reasoning and the nature of knowledge constructions to further lasting emancipatory knowledge and greater social justice. It is further argued that the advancement of social justice imperatives in South Africa is eclipsed by outcomes-based and competency-oriented approaches, and graduate attribute vocabulary that replace epistemic access to knowledge that transcends immediate contexts.


Social justice, higher education research, social constructivism, epistemological/epistemic access, nature and structure of knowledge, powerful knowledge & knowledge of powerful

Link to Full Paper


Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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