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Closing the Gap in Education?

Two Orientations to Education System Reform

Australian and South African Politics of Remaking ‘the Social’

Terri Seddon

Monash University

The conference at Monash South Africa in November 2009 addressed the gap in social and educational outcomes between different social groups in three southern worlds – South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The evidence indicates that in all three white settler societies there are socioeconomic gaps, which tend to be particularly acute between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups. However, the patterns of inequality are complex, rooted in history and influenced by the politics of policy, which reflect the effects of minority and majority white settlement across the three countries. It is notable that progress in ‘closing the gap’ appears to be most advanced in New Zealand, where population numbers of Maori and Pakeha are more equal than in either South Africa with a white minority, or Australia with a white majority.

This patterning of the gaps in the three southern worlds indicates that inequalities are deeply embedded in the ‘social’: the way in which patterns and experiences of social life have been made in each nation state (Smith 1999). The social is constituted within particular spaces and times through the social and cultural practices that form and are anchored in the histories of nation-states, their social relations and governing-state regimes. Understanding the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia requires a consideration of the ‘local spaces’ that contribute to Australia’s national history and also the way these locales of everyday life, their customs and myths, are tensioned by ‘travelling ideas’ that flow globally through policies, transactions and processes of mobility (Jones 2001). Closing the gap in socioeconomic inequality depends on interventions in this stream of history, which necessarily entail the mobilisation of power and authority.

My chapter considers the contribution of national education systems to closing the gap in social and educational inequalities. It is part of a larger research program, which has examined the changing relations between schooling, states and societies and the implications of these sociopolitical contextual changes for education (Seddon 1993; forthcoming). This work, embedded in the tradition of cultural historical sociology (Abrams 1982; Bonnell and Hunt 1999) and informed by notions of path dependency (Mahoney 2000) and policy feedback (Pierson 1993), is necessarily a global sociology. I argue that the institutionalisation of education as a system is a political achievement that is negotiated as a means of making the social within nation-states (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies 1981; Williams 1976). It is formed as an instrument of government, with particular purposes and priorities within prevailing spatialised relations of power. These relations were once uncompromisingly national in focus. Now policies and practices framed by national histories and traditions are tensioned by imperatives arising in the global economy and its cultural consequences associated with intensified global interconnectedness and mobility. This contradictory national–global context and its systemic achievements are realised in processes that make the social through the occupational agency of the education workforce. I call this occupational agency, which is constituted by the ordering of the education system and its limits, ‘educational work’ (Seddon forthcoming).

The failure to close the gap in social and educational outcomes is, I suggest, a consequence of the way the terms, conditions and practices of educational work are institutionalised as a system of endorsed and unendorsed educational agency. I develop this argument by considering the shifting patterns of educational work through two steps. First, I look at the trajectory of Australian education policy in relation to Indigenous education, historically and in our contemporary contradictory national–global context, to show how system reform has reconfigured ways of doing educational work. The visibility and resourcing of innovative practices of educational work that address national–global contradictions is a political outcome that is framed by the political culture in Australia and has developed on the basis of Indigenous–non-Indigenous relations of power. Next, I consider ways in which educational work might be mobilised to address the gap in socioeconomic inequalities by looking to South Africa. I note a different political culture, which appears to support a more overt dialogue about reform of education policy and practice. I then analyse the inaugural speech in 2009 by Jonathan K. Jansen as Rector of the University of the Free State. This speech offers a different mode of thinking about the ways institutionalised educational work might contribute to closing the gap in socioeconomic inequalities. It is a contribution that targets the processes of making the social by addressing both the imperatives of globalising times and social divisions that anchor inequalities and are underpinned by persistent institutional biases in national education systems.

This cross-national methodological process does not claim to be comparative analysis. My comments on South Africa represent insights grasped through my first short visit to that country, based on observations, conversations and subsequent reading. They are, at best, the glimpses of an outsider. However, even as glimpses, they are helpful in disturbing my local Australian understandings of education systems, and the politics of policy and practice that constitute educational work. It is a strategy that offers distance on what is familiar and taken for granted in my southern world, Australia. I conclude the chapter by drawing out the features of educational work that help to remake the social in the light of contemporary national–global contradictions.

Unpacking the ‘gap’ in social and educational outcomes

The gap in social and educational outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is well documented (see the other chapters in this volume). Disparities exist on a wide range of indicators relating to longevity, health, housing and employment as well as education. But unlike other disadvantaged groups in Australia, Indigenous Australians have a particular history of invisibility.

The cultural myth that the British settled an empty land when they put up their flag in Sydney Cove in 1788 provided the foundation for Indigenous dispossession. This view was formalised in the legal principle of terra nullius, which rendered any pre-existing rights of Indigenous Australians invisible within legal frameworks. Indigenous traditions and patterns of governance and decision making were obscured and marginalised in the formation of Australia and its patterns of citizenship. The 1990 Wik judgment in the Australian High Court, which overturned the principle of terra nullius and affirmed the existence of Indigenous land rights, has led to some legal and socio-attitudinal change, as commitments to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have gained greater public affirmation. Until recently the imported Australian democracy has not been required to enter into any compact with its Indigenous population. By contrast, in New Zealand the Maoris retained a political presence through the negotiated 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. In South Africa the compact between racial groups was formalised in its multi-racial constitution that marked the end of apartheid in 1993.

Over time, Australia’s social and cultural practices took on persistent institutional biases because of these racialised social relations. While the developing Australian welfare state has gradually offered equity to migrants, its blindness to Indigenous Australians (who were not landholders) lingered into the late twentieth century. Until the 1970s these Indigenous ‘non-citizens’ were managed as a dependent population of state wards through a system of state- or church-administered reserves, and many did not gain the right to vote in Commonwealth elections until 1967.

Institutional biases persist in education, evident as differences in attainment, participation and practices. These biases rest on contradictory politics, where policies specify the importance of Indigenous education and achievement, but where dominant Anglo-Australian cultural expectations and norms are conveyed through the everyday work of teachers. Mostly, these teachers are non-Indigenous and have very limited opportunity to learn about Indigenous Australia. Everyday cultural dissonances between established education identities in schools, TAFE institutes and universities on one hand and Indigenous learners on the other compound the structural disjunctures between Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds.

Indigenous educator Chris Sarra draws attention to the deep-seated nature of these problems. In an interview on the ABC, he commented about teachers he inherited when he became principal of Cherbourg State School in Queensland. Critical of teachers’ apparent acceptance of Indigenous children who couldn’t read, he recalled asking the staff about this:

Their response was, oh, well, the Department doesn’t support us, or, there’s many social complexities. And I sat in this room here… and said, look, what I believe, what the elders in our community believe, is that our children can leave here with academic outcomes that are just as good as any other school in Queensland. And that they can leave here with a very strong and very positive sense of what it means to be Aboriginal. And if you don’t believe it, then it’s time for you to go. And half the teaching staff got up and left. (ABC 2004)

Of course, the problem does not just lie with individual teachers or schools, but in the institutional biases built into Australian education. Sarra is critical of particular teachers, but they are not simply individual actors, but institutional artefacts of schooling; a consequence of the way terms, conditions and practices are defined to enable the instrumental mobilisation of educational work for purposes of governing (Lawn and Ozga 1981). Like other educational workers, these teachers act as intermediaries between governments and communities. Their job is to enable learning; their skill lies in the way they make social spaces that support processes of socialisation and education that are mixed to suit particular learners and yield learning. Hamilton (1989, 13) clarifies the distinctions between these processes that support learning, noting:

‘Socialization’… is a relatively diffuse process; it generates learning that is ‘picked up’ or ‘rubbed off’ in the course of human interaction. By comparison, ‘education’ is a ‘stronger’ and more visible process; it yields learning that has been deliberately promoted through ‘teaching’.

These teachers use their occupational expertise to enable learning but, in particular, they use workplace terms and conditions defined by the institutionalisation of ‘schooling’. Such schooling is a more socially visible sub-set of these processes of learning because it entails practices that produce ‘learning that, in its turn, has been shaped by formalized and institutionalized modes of teaching’ (Hamilton 1989, 13). It means that some capacities for teaching are formalised and systematised through policy and industrial processes that determine the purposes and priorities towards which educational work is directed as schooling. This nationally defined orientation of schooling orders educational work, the exercise of occupational agency and its capacities to act, in and beyond the boundaries of formalised schooling. It also orders the way teachers mix socialisation and education in local spaces to prioritise particular learning outcomes in the light of community needs and government expectations. These processes of governing through educational work make the social in local spaces at every scale, but in everyday ways that tend to remake persistent social divisions and inequalities over time.

The character of Australian schooling as a system is anchored in Australia’s social and symbolic history and its transforming welfare-state regime. This education system, and those who inhabit or are affected by it, is framed by the state’s authorisation of institutionalised terms, conditions, practices and purposes of educational work. The form and function of educational work as schooling therefore orders occupational agency in and beyond schooling. These system effects are an outcome of institutional rules, resource allocations and narratives that give meaning and legitimacy to particular configurations of power relations. In this way, some forms of educational work rather than others are realised through the contested agency of government because they are endorsed and authorised as schooling.

Shifting systemic purposes and priorities

Since white settlement, the education system has been used to tackle relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Where Indigenous Australians were long managed through mission schools and as a menial workforce, by the 1970s they were recognised as a ‘disadvantaged group’. By the 1980s, the national social justice agenda began to be disrupted by travelling ideas that asserted the benefits of markets over states in human service work, including education (Marginson 1997).

The globalising economy compounded contradictions in government policy making. Lifelong learning reforms were prioritised in pursuit of workforce development and competitive economic advantage. Policy implementation across the Australian education system diversified patterns of educational provision in terms of both programs offered and the types and autonomy of providers (Seddon 2001). Vocational Education and Training (VET) reform, in particular, was a means of increasing Indigenous participation in education and training.

This trajectory of the education system over time indicated growing contradictions in the Australian political regime. Practical politics in everyday life that were framed nationally were exposed to increasing tension due to the global economy and its cultural consequences, which arose from expanded interconnectedness and mobility on a world scale. These practical and lived contradictions between the national and global profoundly disturbed the social, the everyday life, customs and cultural myths that constitute particular space-times, like Australia.

These developments prompted transforming politics at every scale. Since the 1970s, identities, relationships and cultures have been renegotiated in the process of remaking the social in ways that address national–global contradictions in everyday life. Within the education system, the social justice agenda seeking to support those disadvantaged by migration and marginalisation struggled with the economic agenda that stressed the importance of competitive advantage in a global capitalist economy. In local spaces, these large-scale agendas were mediated through educators’ occupational agency in mixing socialisation and education to benefit learners, while also meeting government expectations, institutionalised as accountability frameworks. Localised educational work showed that it was possible to do smart schooling that addressed national and global priorities in ways that also supported learners (Sachs 2003).

Slowly these politics moved towards new levels of understanding and action. By the late 1990s, there was a discernable policy shift towards issues of social inclusion (eg Kirby 2000). Notions of community capacity building increasingly mediated the policy agenda around competitive advantage that justified marketisation and privatisation. This was prompted in part by research on participation rates in employment, education and training among different social categories in the 15 to 19 and 20 to 24-year-old age groups (Dusseldorp Skills Forum 1998; 1999). The message was that lifelong learning had increased participation, but there were significant numbers of individuals who were falling between learning and earning. Economic reforms were returning economic benefits to individuals but these benefits were limited for some groups, due to intractable social and cultural constraints. This policy feedback indicated that economic development was contingent not only on the mobilisation of human capital but also on social development.

Policy dialogue began to focus on the human dimensions of innovation and development. In Victoria and Queensland, in particular, there was a proliferation of partnerships between communities and governments, which anchored problem-solving activities in local places and their communities (Smyth et al. 2005). These policy initiatives acknowledged that there were ‘wicked problems’ that were highly resistant to resolution, cutting across established portfolios and institutional arrangements, and demanding whole-of-government action in collaboration with local communities (APSC 2007). Localised policy making was described as ‘an evolving art’. These complex and intractable problems:

require thinking that is capable of grasping the big picture, including the interrelationships among the full range of causal factors underlying them. They often require broader, more collaborative and innovative approaches. This may result in the occasional failure or need for policy change or adjustment.

Whole-of-government and community problem solving created contexts where different agencies worked together on wicked problems. Small-scale initiatives proliferated as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia worked up partnerships oriented towards community capacity building (eg Seddon et al. 2002; Seddon et al. 2008). In these local places, communities and governments were remaking the social in ways that acknowledged contradictory national–global imperatives and their localised everyday practical manifestations. This complex intercultural work has challenged ways of living the social that were framed by racialised power relations embedded in national histories and politics.

Restating the problem

The education policy trajectory since the 1980s has made some inroads into the gap in social and educational outcomes in Australian education. But it also highlights the obdurate character of socioeconomic inequalities. These inequalities, I suggest, are anchored in the history of the national system of education and the institutional biases that have become embedded in human service work, including education, which makes the social. They are disturbed in contradictory ways by globalising changes in economies and cultures and the consequent effects of political problem solving. Yet the national system of education also houses resources that can be mobilised to remake the social for globalising times.

My argument is that the institutionalisation of education as a system is a key instrument in the work of remaking the social. Education systems help to make the social when they order schooling and its capacities for action as an instrument of government. This history of government investment to institutionalise and formalise teaching creates a social technology, made up of particular social spaces, a technological infrastructure and a human capacity, which is realised as educational work. The particular occupational expertise and associated capacities to act that enact educational work are embodied, individually and collectively, in the form of educational workers. The character of this workforce and the nature of its occupational agency are ordered by the politics of welfare-state development that has, until recently, privileged the learning of children and young people rather than adults. In this political regime, Indigenous learning and outcomes have been more or less invisible, relative to national priorities (including addressing marginalisation) among non-Indigenous Australians. Travelling ideas, such as lifelong learning, problematise this ordering and also its major legitimising myths relating to the formation of national identities (Kuhn 2007).

Educational work, the occupational agency of educational workers, is the critical resource that is made available and ordered through education systems. However, the familiar national patterning of this work between the centres and margins of schooling is destabilised by national–global contradictions that demand political solutions. These practical politics shift the locus of action away from familiar, nationally framed places of work and learning, like schools and other public education institutions, towards boundary zones and multi-agency spaces, which also exist as localised places. In these conditions of rapid change, boundaries slide, creating new boundary zones where different agencies come together in new trans-boundary spaces.

In these processes that respatialise schooling, educational work is reterritorialised and recultured (Angus and Seddon 2000; Robertson 2002). ‘Between spaces’ emerge as territories to be occupied and challenged. Boundaries are crossed, defended and renegotiated. The resulting reconfiguration of educational agency reveals (and also forms) unfamiliar identities engaged in educational work. These educational workers share capacities for intermediary work with those in the heartlands of nationally framed schooling. However, the way they exercise their agency in making the social in specific locales is defined at the nexus where governing is negotiated between different agencies. In this way educational workers’ identities, relationships and cultures diversify and come to embody distinctive relational expertise. In and beyond the formalised education system, educational workers exercise this expertise through their occupational agency, making spaces of orientation that yield learning for living the social.

Bringing these elements together focuses the problem of the gap in social and educational outcomes, and also suggests solutions full of new challenges. Remaking the social in globalised times means reconfiguring the education system as an instrument that yields the kind of learning in civil society that will address inequalities embedded in national histories, as well as global imperatives related to workforce development. This policy solution must target institutional biases, built into national schooling, which endorse and constantly remake social divisions through the institutional patterning of socioeconomic inequalities. Such institutional reform requires the mobilisation of occupational agency by intermediaries, including educational workers, who can use their relational expertise in and between national and trans-boundary spaces to address the fundamental problem of political will. As Haug (2010) suggests, this work in and across boundaries is the ‘art of politics’. It ‘is not about defining the “right” goal and then implementing it… [but] about building connections, about creating a space of orientation which can re-contextualise fragmented struggles’.

The historic contribution of the education system in making the social offers solutions to the problem of the persistent gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The key questions are: What kind of educational work can make a difference for learners? How might we address the problem of institutional bias and political will? My suggestion is that current contradictions between national–global and localised priorities create conditions for educational agency that develop capacities for action in national and trans-boundary spaces. Educational work is a key resource in this regard, offering support to individuals and institutions as they unlearn and relearn ways of living the social interculturally. The next section elaborates this suggestion through reflections on South Africa.

Glimpsing other ways of being social

South Africa is a white minority settler society with a visible history of brutal apartheid. Australia is a white majority settler society with an invisible history of dispossession and discrimination. During a short visit to South Africa in late 2009 and in subsequent reading, I was struck by the visibility of political struggle in South Africa and its intercultural forms of political agency. Four features of education and politics in South Africa strike me as different from Australia and also suggestive of ways of remaking the social in globalising times. These relate to ways of working in a democratic culture, an openness to critique oriented to problem solving, active public debate and imaginative rethinking of possibilities. These cross-national observations offer a vantage point on education systems and their contribution to making the social that gives distance and perspective on the Australian education system and its political culture, which underpins persistent institutional biases.

Democratic culture

I found it remarkable that South Africa could produce a Mandela despite its history of apartheid. The story seems to build through a particular kind of mission schooling, indigenous traditions of governance and an experience of racial violence that prompted some people of all races to work together to end apartheid (Mandela 1995). The national constitution crystallises these principles for working within and across racialised social categories and cultures in trans-boundary spaces that had to be occupied to end apartheid. The first two principles affirm human dignity, equality, advancement of human rights and freedoms, and non-racialism and non-sexism. The ways of working in a less racialised social space, which was constituted as a trans-boundary space because participants crossed historically embedded boundaries and social divisions, are suggested in the opening lines of the constitution, which marked the end of apartheid:

We, the people of South Africa,

Recognise the injustices of our past;

Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;

Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and

Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to—

Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;

Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and

Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.
(Republic of South Africa 1996)

Overt critique oriented to problem solving

The possibility of realising this way of working depends on people being willing to grapple with wicked problems that are embedded in both national and global relations of power. South Africa, like Australia, faces the challenge of closing the gap in social and educational outcomes (the national problematic), but in conditions that are compounded by global as well as local imperatives. Inevitably, these conflicting priorities and purposes mean that policy making is a contradictory process that yields contradictory policy outcomes.

In South Africa, more than in Australia, there seems to be an honest and open-minded engagement in the complex work of building a democratic post-apartheid regime. There is recognition and overt critique of contradictions in education policy and practice, but there is also a willingness to identify ways forward that address national issues and are also responsive to global lifelong learning policy agenda. Wallace (2009), for instance, highlights the double reform agenda being pursued in South Africa, which addresses the need for information and communication technology (ICT) investment in education to build capacity and compete in the world economy, and the need to redistribute resources to address inequalities from the past. She argues that these contradictory imperatives increase regional inequalities because rich provinces can self-fund development while other provinces ‘do not have the time or resources to pursue partnerships oriented towards ICT developments’ (1987).

These critiques are significant because they name the political challenges that confront and constrain education reform in South Africa. There appears to be a willingness to call it like it is, between policy and practice, regardless of the authority of the agencies involved. Critique of the state is explicit, not veiled nor marginalised. For instance, McGrath (2009) criticises standardised VET reforms because they tend to ‘reflect and reinforce broader domestic power dynamics’. He notes that the lifelong learning settlement has had successes but claims too much in terms of its coherence and responsiveness. The ‘move away from state control and towards responsiveness both to market forces and to the wishes of local people’ (464) has disruptive effects in terms of state authority and legitimacy. Despite market rhetoric, he suggests, the South African state continues to address ‘equity and effectiveness’. It is accepted that ‘the market cannot be left to decide on skills or on policy areas more generally’. There are also concerns about ‘the State’s capacity to deliver’ on its development aspirations (465–466).

Active public debate

These features of South African political culture create a space for dialogue that appears more open to imaginative problem solving than in Australia. Initiatives are not just the preserve of policy executives and elites; they can also come from localised places where practitioners grapple with complex problems every day. The perspective of the lowly, like Mandela as law clerk, seems respected. Judgments about the adequacy of these initiatives, as solutions to wicked problems, is not the exclusive responsibility of the state but occurs through wider public scrutiny and dialogue. This context of openness is contested but is also historically embedded; citizens and communities do speak out on public issues rather than seeing such matters as none of their business.

It was these features that distinguished the inaugural lecture by Jonathan Jansen as Rector of the University of the Free State (UFS) from most speeches by Australian vice-chancellors (the equivalent of rectors). Rather than speaking to executive decision makers within government, Jansen’s lecture was presented to and received by wider publics. The press mediated this communication but it fuelled substantial public dialogue because communities within South Africa are responsive to active public debate. The speech was undoubtedly controversial, but it ran the gauntlet of public comment, which served to draw out the rationale of the initiative and also educate the public about the shared problems of building a post-apartheid regime.

Imaginative rethinking

This engaged political culture opens up the possibility of imaginative solutions that address the contradictory national–global context of contemporary South Africa. Jansen’s speech is a public commentary that makes a case for mobilising educational work to address the wicked problems arising from national history and global competitiveness. The way he unpacks these problems in the local space of UFS recognises the contribution that the occupational agency of educational workers can make and the institutional conditions necessary to enable the exercise of that agency.

I consider Jansen’s speech in some detail in the next section for two reasons. First, he offers a perspective on the way educational systems can remake the social in contradiction to national–global conditions, which is relevant to my argument in this chapter. Second, his orientation to educational work is almost unimaginable in the Australian context, particularly at the national scale. There are lots of practical initiatives where localised educational work of the kind described by Jansen is going on in Australia. However, it occurs mostly under the radar of government policy and accountability, and is not endorsed for take-up in large-scale public debates.

A strategy for remaking the social

A case for reform

Jansen’s inaugural speech works the contradiction between national traditions and global expectations. He began by acknowledging the achievements of the UFS, its proud traditions and distinguished alumni, but quickly moved to express shame at a racial incident in Reitz, one of the UFS student residences, in which four young white men violated the dignity of five black workers.

Jansen articulated an institutional response to the incident by redefining the problem that needs to be solved. Reflecting on this incident, ‘committed on the grounds of an institution of higher learning’, he asks, ‘What was it within the institution that made it possible for such an atrocity to be committed in the first place?’

In answering this question, Jansen steps outside the prevailing economic problematic that dominates education policy and practice around the world and, instead, highlights the social. He insists that the racial incident must not be understood as a problem of individual pathology. Noting the shameful behaviour of the white students and associated interventions by colleagues and parents to hose down the incident, he states that the problem is not ‘four racially troubled students’. Rather, it is a problem of ‘institutional complicity’, which embeds these students, Reitz and UFS in institutionalised racial relations of power. Seeing the problem this way suggests a solution that moves beyond issues of workforce development that are prioritised in the prevailing frames of economic and prudential lifelong learning policy and practice. As Jansen notes, his historicised and contextualised way of defining the problem ‘has important implications for how we move towards healing, forgiveness and social justice on our campus and in our country’.

Defining the problem in institutional terms, he maps the dimensions of this problem of institutional culture. First, he captures the complex moral terrain. Jansen distinguishes the general from the particular as a way of clarifying ethical responsibilities that are embedded in history and tradition. The particular incident involved whites, but it is inappropriate to condemn all whites for the actions of a few. Yet, the hurt to five black workers is a hurt to all black people on campus and in the province, because this hurt arises from the ‘long history of exclusion and marginalisation of black people’ at UFS. This hurt feeds further hurts experienced by ‘white citizens of the university’ who were shamed and subjected to over-generalised ‘criticism of whites’ in the wake of the incident.

This line of argument highlights the obdurate political and cultural character of the problem. The roots of these hurts lie in ‘racism and bigotry’, which have grown from a failure to reconcile in the nineteenth century, through a history of exclusion that was institutionalised and naturalised through apartheid. Yet the end of apartheid has left South Africa with ‘unfinished business’. Jansen continues:

Who would have thought that barely a decade after the miracle of our transition [from the apartheid regime] we would be talking about ‘minorities’ in a democracy founded on the principles of non-racialism? Who could have imagined that in Mandela’s country human appointments to jobs would be instructed by the calculating phrase, ‘the demographics of the country’? And who could have predicted the bare-knuckled violence that kills white farmers on their lands and foreign nationals on our streets, or that the poorest of black citizens would be felled by the racial anger of an 18-year-old white boy barely out of high school?

Seeing these everyday problems and their trajectory towards violence as a consequence of institutional culture locates the incident within relations of power. The Reitz incident occurred between white and black identities in localised relationships in a particular student residence. These activities entailed and endorsed cultural practices that confirmed I–we and I–other relationships along historical fracture lines of racialised class divisions. These events all occurred locally, in actual places where actual people interacted, although the symbolic effects rippled beyond the four walls of the student residence and the lives of the individuals concerned.

The problem to be addressed is therefore a collective task about how ‘we’ make the ‘social’. When shameful behaviour is part of a seemingly natural order, individual retribution makes limited sense. As Jansen states, the four white students are ‘outcomes’ of this racialised order of things, which is handed down from the past and enacted through the stewardship of successive generations of adults. In this respect, the Reitz students are ‘children of this country, they are youth of the province, and they are students of our university. They are… my students’.

The challenge is to address the institutional design that naturalises such unacceptable behaviour. This means seeing the problem in terms of a collectively owned history of segregation, the naturalisation of racism, and the dualistic mindsets that see moral behaviour differently for white and black citizens.

The solution is to create institutional arrangements that produce: ‘compassionate humans, critical citizens and ethical leaders in their disciplines and professions’, teaching ‘not only how to give of their skills, but how to give of themselves in service to communities’ (Jansen 2009). Without this, ‘I will still wake up on Monday morning dealing with the same social, cultural and ideological complexities that stand in the way of transformation’.

Yet this shift in mindsets comes up against the established structuring and culturing that has sustained a racialised institutional culture. This agenda confronts established relations of power: not just the students and workers involved, but also wider social forces ordered through the province, the country and the world. Jansen’s commitment, ‘in humility and determination’, is to set in train processes that address the cultural practice that gave rise to the Reitz incident because: ‘As a student of institutional cultures, I know that such embedded practices do not change easily. But as a student of educational change, I also know that through decisive action, these negative cultural practices can be steadily eroded’.

Jansen argues that there is a need to tackle ‘unfinished business’. These are wicked problems, which are rooted in a minority white settler society and the history of apartheid. However, these problems are compounded by the lifelong learning institutionalisation of schooling for three reasons.

First, this globalised institutional design confirms orientations that privilege individuals. This way of seeing the world fails to acknowledge the social and, hence, the socially and culturally embedded actors whose agency is contingent on institutional rules, resource allocations and socially ordered patterns of recognition and responsibility. It implies that individuals are responsible for actions, rather than recognising the way responsibility is realised through relational practices, ethics and agreements about the forms of mutual coercion that we can agree on.

Second, lifelong learning policy configures the university (and by implication the wider social organisation and ordering of schooling) as a service provider. Educational work is to be restricted to building skills for work, serving the economic human capital and ‘inclusion’ agenda, which measures success in terms of economic participation, and managing residual and resistant populations. As Jansen (2009) asserts: ‘A university is not a welfare organisation. It is not a FET (Further Education and Training) College. It is not a giant compensatory programme for students who crawled over the matric finishing line demanding to study for a degree’.

Finally, this institutional design neglects the contribution that the university (and other organisations of schooling) makes to ‘social leadership’ necessary to solve wicked problems. Jansen makes this point by recalling the failure of the Bloemfontein Conference – ‘a last-ditch effort at reconciliation between what was called “two races”. The reconciliation talks failed, [leading to] the Second Boer War’. He attributes this outcome to a profound ‘failure of leadership’, which ‘at such a crucial time as that left scars on the South African political psyche to this day’ (emphasis in original).

To avoid a similar failure of policy and institutional design today, he sets out an agenda for building skills for social leadership. This looks beyond the question of employability and technical skilling for work. Instead, he focuses on the terms and conditions of learning that will help to remake the social in ways that support social leadership, political participation and intercultural learning at every level of the community. Focusing on the local situation at UFS, he proposes practical reforms, which could be scaled up. Jansen:

  1. Reconfirms and uses the institutional division of labour that distinguishes the work of courts from the work of universities. To this end, he indicates that the UFS will withdraw its charges and invite the four students to continue their studies. This was a deeply controversial step in a society that operates on an individualist model and therefore seeks individual retribution.
  2. Recognises the institutionalised powers and therefore the rights and responsibilities of the university. To this end, he states that ‘in recognition of our institutional complicity in the Reitz saga, and the need for social justice, the University of the Free State will not only pursue forgiveness but will also pay reparations to the workers concerned for damages to their dignity and their self-esteem’.
  3. Uses the university as a locus of higher learning that builds capacities for social leadership among all social groups. In other words, Jansen mobilises the powers of educational learning to disrupt socialisation in racially divided society and culture. He does this by endorsing this purpose and prioritising those capacities for educational work that are embedded in UFS to drive and direct student learning in preferred directions. This moral and political agenda seeks to build capacities among all participants at UFS that will help to avoid a repeat failure along the lines of the Bloemfontein Conference. He makes a number of comments about this (Jansen 2009):
  • A university is an institution of higher learning serving the best available talent in the nation and beyond. With this purpose in mind, we will recruit only the best white and the best black students and academics to the University of the Free State.
  • The university will become a place that exemplifies the scholarship and the practice of reconciliation, forgiveness and social justice.
  • The university will move very quickly to become a national and indeed international centre for academic excellence.
  • Scholars and students from around the world will descend on the institution to study and understand the theory and practice of building community across the divides of race but also religion, gender, disability, national origins and, thanks to Athletics South Africa, sexual identity. In this respect the University will soon launch what we hope to call The Reitz Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice.

In elaborating these university-level policy decisions, Jansen targets key initiatives that he believes will make a difference to these entrenched racial orderings of culture in the student residence, the university and, hence, the country. These include creating learning pathways from communities into UFS to support students who carry the cultural debts of a racist history. He targets gender inequity in staffing by committing to the appointment of 25 senior professors who are ‘the smartest and most diverse pool of scholars to this institution’. He identifies the problem of ‘troubled knowledge’ for immediate attention, through the redesign of curriculum, which offers students the opportunity to engage with ‘basic human questions such as who we are and where we come from’, while also ‘learning how to live and learn together in ways that prepare our youth for leadership in the workplace’. Finally, he addresses the ‘sub-cultures of derision’ that confirm ‘small-mindedness among undergraduates who see the university as an uninterrupted extension of high school with authoritarian rituals learnt elsewhere’. Banning alcohol, initiation practices and patriarchal relations between older and younger students are means of addressing racism, sexism and militarism that have become naturalised in the institutional culture.

These initiatives redesign UFS not just as a context for learning but as a space of orientation that helps to remake the social. In this way, Jansen’s speech reminds us that schooling is not just a part of wicked problems but also an institutional instrument that can be turned to their resolution.

Lessons for Australia

Glimpses of South Africa suggest that there are different ways of doing the social. It makes a difference if you are in a settler society with a white majority, like Australia, or a white minority, like South Africa. It means that inequalities, such as those around race, are an artefact arising out of particular spatialised histories. They are a practical outcome arising from the institutionalisation of power relations in the national history and its political culture.

The character and persistence of socioeconomic inequalities in Australia are not inevitable, but closing the gap requires a step change in making the social. Incremental changes in social relations occur over time through ongoing policy debates and implicit as well as overt practical politics, negotiations and conflicts. These processes tend to set up path-dependent social and cultural practices that pattern everyday life in Australia. Revising these terms, conditions, practices and priorities of everyday life requires interventions that reframe not just ways of thinking, but also ways of acting in the world.

The education system is a key instrument in the kind of step change necessary to remake the social in Australia and around the world. Travelling policies over the last 30 years have recognised the power of education systems in shaping everyday life and its path dependencies. There is now significant experience in ways of remaking path-dependent patterns of institutionalisation and driving education systems towards preferred outcomes. For much of this time, the privileged purposes and priorities have been framed economically, focusing on market reforms and workforce development, which tackle challenges in the global economy but, also, consciously or unconsciously, fuel elite formation and suggest that inequality is the natural order of things.

In this chapter I argue that the social can be remade in different ways, depending on the way the education system shapes and constrains the occupational agency of educational workers. The institutionalisation of education does not have to privilege economic outcomes, particularly human capital formation, as the measure of good education. There is also value in recognising the political outcomes of education and designing the political purposes that should be achieved through educational structures and agencies. Addressing these outcomes opens up ways of intervening in the prevailing political culture that locks in social inequalities and confirms the historically institutionalised invisibility of Indigenous Australians. The education system and the occupational agency of educational workers, in and beyond schools, can be mobilised in ways that build individual and collective capacities in using power responsibly to advance localised problem solving, decision making and innovation among all citizens and communities. Mobilising this kind of learning to be a citizen mediates power relations in everyday life. It builds citizens’ capacities to not only work together, but also recognise and problem-solve national and global pressures that inflect and disturb local places.

However, appropriate system reform depends on political will. While the social dimensions of human capital formation development agenda are increasingly recognised by policy makers, there has been little acknowledgment of the links between those agenda and the everyday work of educational workers in and beyond schooling. Yet educational work, the occupational agency of educational workers, makes the social in local places, which aggregates at the national scale. The way this work is organised not only returns skills for work and dispositions for employability, but also builds the capacities of citizens and communities to recognise shared problems, work together and use power responsibly in moving towards solutions.

Currently, openness to dialogue about the way the education system makes the social seems unusual in Australia. By contrast, in South Africa there seems to be a more explicit acknowledgment that remaking the social means addressing historically institutionalised structures of political relations. No one is saying that this is easy work, but acknowledging the politics and inequalities does mean there is a shared recognition of problems to be solved. The way educational work is institutionalised within this more open political culture means that imaginative proposals for closing the gap, like Jansen’s, can surface and be subject to public scrutiny. It also means that the distinct contribution that educational work can make to national capacity is recognised more accurately.

Education systems are not just means of building skills for work, they also build skills for citizenship, whether or not this is an acknowledged outcome. The way individual and collective capacities for action are developed makes the social and its path dependencies over time. This is because educational work mobilises power to realise cultural achievements (including the formation of education systems) that sit at the heart of political action. It is the mediating practices that enable individual and collective learning, which also constitutes particular political cultures and patterns the way citizens use power in complex problem solving throughout everyday life.

Educational work is the agency, the ‘art of politics’, that mobilises and enacts education systems. It is a particular governed agency that makes spaces of (re)orientation where processes of socialisation and education are mixed to yield learning that presses the social towards publicly agreed ends. The education system is the means of shaping the exercise of this occupational agency on behalf of the public in democratic societies. Its history of institutional biases is not given, but open to transformation. With appropriate system design, recognition and respect between policy and practice, and delegation of authority, educational work can remake the social in ways that not only tackle the imperatives of globalisation but also address persistent social divisions in ways that can help to close the gap in socioeconomic inequalities.


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Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen