Nkhoma, Nelson Masanche; Mtawa, Ntimi Nikusuma (2017). 'Service-Learning as a strategy for social change: Perspectives of historically marginalised students in South Africa University.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


AUTHORS: Ntimi N. Mtawa & Nelson M. Nkhoma


Email addresses: &


INSTITUTIONAL AFFILIATION: Centre for Research on Higher Education and Development (CRHED), University of the Free State


CATEGORY/SESSION: Empowerment for social change


ACCEPTED FOR: Full Academic Paper Sessions



This paper interrogates the potential of service-learning (SL) in enabling university students to contribute to social change. The paper contributes to the argument that universities can play an important role in advancing human development (HD) (McLean & Walker, 2013). Such development discourse is gaining momentum at a time when the transformation of the higher education landscape on the African continent continues to enable access to university education to a population that has for a long time been marginalized and undeserved. This group of students is coming face to face with the technologies (dynamics) of power imbued in universities to deal with individual and social change.  An excellent example of such technology of power is SL. SL is positioned to bring about social change by engaging students in communities to deal with various kinds of inequalities. In this paper, we sought to understand how a generation of students who would be at the receiving end of services from the university are themselves agents of social change. We asked, how do students from marginalized backgrounds conceptualize SL as an empowering and expansion of agency project while they themselves struggle with their own social inequalities and disempowerment?


Traditionally SL is positioned as a mechanism through which universities could achieve both educational and social purposes. These purposes include among other things enhancing pedagogical practices, fostering citizenship capacities, advancing social justice as well as developing public good minded graduates. Generally, these purposes frame SL as a potential contributor of HD within and beyond universities boundaries.


The process of promoting HD through SL depends largely on, among other things, the extent to which individuals and group have a sense of ‘empowerment’ and exercise ‘agency’ in the designing and implementing SL activities. Empowerment and agency are intertwined concepts, which carry relatively similar meanings. While Ibrahim and Alkire (2007) define empowerment as an increase in power, control or a real ability to effect change, Sen (1999) defines agency as the ability to act and bring about change. Considering these conceptions, there are four observations that can be made in respect of empowerment and agency in and through SL.  One, the dominant SL frameworks do not provide enough details on how SL can lead into individuals and groups ability to control, deliberate, reason, be architects of their own lives, and act to make a difference in the world.  Two, SL is often criticised for its deficit model, which has major implications on peoples’ sense of empowerment and agency (Preece, 2016; Einfield & Collins, 2008). Third, in spite of the forgoing lacuna, SL has great potential to enlarge and expand people’s sense of empowerment and agency, however exploring these dimensions as outcomes of SL has received insufficient attention in the literature and empirical studies. Fourth, relatively little is explored and known in terms of how students’ underserved socio-economic background shape and influence the extent to which they can contribute to creating an enabling conditions for empowerment and agency in communities.


The study uses notions of empowerment and agency of HD and Capability Approach (CA) respectively, as central framing ideas to argue that in order for students to be able to promote social change, a sense of empowerment and agency ought to be foregrounded in SL.  As such, students would potentially not be able to contribute to meaningful transformative change in communities if they feel disempowered and their agency is constrained.


The empirical basis of the argument is drawn from in-depth qualitative interviews that focused on marginalised students’ SL experiences. The research participants comprised of 20 purposively sampled students at one South African university. From these students, the paper probed how the notion of empowerment and agency in SL are reflected through their voices. The analysis of data found that depending on how it is implemented, SL can act as both enabler of and/or barrier to promoting empowerment and agency in communities especially for students who have historically been socio-economically marginalized. Consequently, this may leads into SL dismantling and/or reinforcing structures of inequalities and status quo in communities. The paper significantly contributes to this year’s HDCA conference theme of challenging inequalities because it foregrounds SL within a relatively new theoretical gaze, which enable to question the extent to which universities through SL can use students to actively participate in addressing inequalities.



scroll to top