Diversity and justice in higher education: Exploring the role of instrumental freedoms

Wilson-Strydom, Merridy (2016). 'Diversity and justice in higher education: Exploring the role of instrumental freedoms' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

Drawing on the work of Sen (2009, 1999), this paper argues that we ought to think about diversity in higher education in human development terms, more specifically by conceptualising justice in the context of a university as the development of substantive well-being and agency freedoms. Central to the argument is the importance of fostering instrumental freedoms within universities as critical enablers of capabilities expansion as a matter of justice (defined as equality in the domains of well-being and agency freedoms) for the increasingly diverse students entering the sector.
With global trends of massification and the growing emphasis placed on higher education for economic development, we have witnessed a large growth in participation, and particularly so for student groupings who had previously been excluded. This has led to a growing focus on ‘non-traditional’ or increasingly diverse students within universities, and the complex ways in which inequalities persist in higher education at the global and local levels. While in South Africa, a middle income country, where this research is based, the participation rate has not yet reached massification levels, the sector has nonetheless been confronted with a dramatic growth in student numbers and change in student demographics (race, class and gender) since the fall of apartheid in the early 1990s. Yet, despite significant progress, diversity challenges and (in)justice remain central issues on the national higher education agenda. There is thus much that can be learned from the South African case with respect to promoting freedoms and removing unfreedoms to foster capabilities formation for increasingly diverse students – in the interest of building more just universities.
As Sen (1999, p. 53) states, ‘[I]ndividual capabilities crucially depend on, among other things, economic, social, and political arrangements’ and for this reason we need to consider institutional arrangements and instrumental freedoms which underpin both well-being and agency freedoms. The paper thus begins with a conceptualisation of Sen’s (1999) five instrumental freedoms (political facilities, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security) for the specific context of universities. This conceptualisation is theoretical, but informed by the empirical research (see below). After setting up intrinsic freedoms for university justice, the paper then illustrates the value of intrinsic freedoms by focusing on two of the freedoms that emerged as particularly powerful in marginalised students’ lives – economic facilities and protective security.  An empirical account is presented of how these two instrumental freedoms enable students’ well-being and agency, and when not present (i.e. unfreedoms) create major constraints.
The empirical basis of the argument is drawn from a qualitative longitudinal study (2014-2016) focused on students’ lives and their everyday experiences as students, because ‘justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live’ (Sen, 2009, p. 18). The research participants comprise of 40 students from poor and working class backgrounds who entered one South African university as first-year undergraduate students in 2014. Multiple qualitative methods were used to gather data, including in-depth interviews, focus groups, photo-voice, participatory workshops and visual methods. This large and rich qualitative data set has been managed and analysed using NVivo qualitative data analysis software. For the purposes of this paper, the qualitative data was coded according to the five instrumental freedoms – using the conceptualisation and definitions developed specifically for the university context. This coded data was then analysed across individual student lives to explore how the presence or absence of these freedoms worked to either enable or constrain student well-being and agency freedoms. From this empirical basis, the paper argues for the importance of fostering instrumental freedoms for all students in the interests of re-imagining more just universities, and ends with a short reflection on the policy implications for universities. Using the lens of instrumental freedoms provides an innovative way of approaching higher education research, which is typically organised in terms of the three main functions of universities, namely, research, teaching and learning, and community service. This fresh conceptualisation thus leads to new insights regarding diversity and justice in the space of the university.
Sen, A., 2009. The Idea of Justice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Sen, A., 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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