Academics and researchers from around the globe mused on the challenges and opportunities facing education and social justice during a virtual conference held by the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University (SU).
The conference, held on Thursday (3 June 2021), formed part of the Chair's mission to promote social justice scholarship, consciousness and collaboration to accelerate social justice reform in academia and society.
The theme of the conference was, “Social Justice and Education for the 21st Century: Towards a Decade of Equalising Opportunities and Optimising Social Justice Outcomes in and Through Education".
In her opening remarks, Prof Thuli Madonsela, Social Justice Chair, said in order to unleash the transformative potency of education, it needs to be context-resonant and future-fit.
“In the 21st century we need creativity, and humans have to compete with machines, and what machines can't do needs to be created beyond the learning we've been given," she said.
“Is our education social-context congruent, in other words does it respond to the dictates of our century, including the 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution)? Secondly, is our education social justice-resonant? Is it taking us to that society where there is equal enjoyment of all human rights? And lastly, is it sustainable as per the Sustainable Development Goals blueprint?"
Prof Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor, said in his welcoming address that SU is committed to delivering education that is responsive to the pressing challenges of our contemporary social context.
“This does not only apply to social justice. In the fields of data science, technology, agriculture and service to the African continent we strive to be a leader. Our recent initiatives and research prove this. Our new school for climate studies is one example of our commitment to responding to the challenges of the day."
Prof Fernando M Reimers, Ford Foundation professor of the Practice in International Education and director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative and the International Education Policy Program at Harvard University, delivered the keynote address.
He said COVID-19 has created an enormous gap in educational opportunity and real challenges for social justice around the world.
“The main impact of the pandemic on education is through austerity, through reduced resources both for families and governments, which make the task of educating more challenging. That had made mostly poor families vulnerable. So there is growing poverty, growing stress as the price of sending a child to school has increased all of a sudden. That poverty has also created other stresses in households where there is now a need for online resources. So in many ways, having transferred the site of education from the school to the home has augmented the way which home advantages and disadvantages influence educational opportunity."
According to Reimers the best way to get out of this crisis is to seize the innovation dividends demonstrated by many throughout the pandemic.
“During the pandemic we've seen that the emotional and the social development of children are just as important as economic development. I think we now understand with greater clarity that we can only educate students as whole human beings.
“This pandemic has also augmented our appreciation of the power of science and technology because we now have vaccines that give us some hope of containing the pandemic. So I hope that looking forward our schools are going to prioritise the development and understanding of the sciences.
“I hope there is also going to be more appreciation of the enormous digital inequalities which make it impossible for people to participate digitally and economically in the 21st century. I hope that going forward we'll do everything in our power not to replace a person's school with an online school but to blend the use of digital needs with in-person education.
“COVID-19 has also brought about the tremendous power of collaboration between civil society and government and between parents and teachers, where collaboration has brought about creativity and alternative ways to educate. So I think we are going to see greater appreciation of the importance of partnerships going forward."
Prof Nicola Smit, Dean of Law at SU, said after almost 16 months of the global pandemic it is time to reflect on its impact on education opportunities.
“We have to pause and recognise that decades of educational progress and access to quality education have been wiped out over the last year, especially for the poor and those with limited needs.
“So while recognising that the effect of the pandemic will be long-lasting, we have to acknowledge that without a better and more equal global vaccination rollout the pandemic's impact will present major challenges for education, especially with regards to austerity consequences and unequal teaching losses across social classes."
*Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay