Working Paper 23
Higher education and social justice: engaging the normative with the analytical
Published June 2017

Professor Jenni Case from the University of Cape Town looks at whether we are asking the right questions of higher education.

The paper examines the relationship between universities and society, and the implications of this for social justice in South Africa.

Professor Case argues that in South Africa little has changed since the legacy of apartheid, and recent student protests raise questions over the role of universities in building a just society. She points out that the concept of ‘social justice’ is relatively recent in post-apartheid South Africa higher education studies.

She warns against framing arguments about social justice within neoliberal perspectives that justify higher education predominantly in instrumental and economic terms. In addition, universities must find a way to reconcile their contradictory functions. For example, their ideological function is to produce graduates who will critically question the status quo, yet this privilege is only offered to a portion of society. Even in countries with near-universal participation, higher education becomes a mechanism of dominant elites as a result of stratification.

Professor Case concludes that to maintain a commitment to social justice, universities need to meld their disparate functions together. This challenge involves research that enables an understanding of complex causality, along with a continuous questioning of the purpose of higher education.