'Education is freedom' - turning the rhetoric of inclusion into action

This blog post is written by Stephen Thompson and originally appeared on the Post-Pandemic University website

Paulo Freire is often quoted as saying education is freedom. Education in general has changed drastically in the 100 years since he was born, yet questions remain as to whether these changes are moving us all closer to the freedom that Freire envisaged or whether some people continue to be left behind. To better understand the positive actions that are needed to drive change and deliver freedom, we must examine inclusive approaches to education and pedagogy much more closely. 

If we focus in on higher education in particular, we see that there has been much change since the 1920s. Massification, the internationalization and the growth of the global knowledge economy have resulted in the proliferation of institutions, universities becoming more internationally-focused, prioritising international partnerships and students, and education and research being highly valued by modern economies. Also, as technology advances, the digitalization of higher education is presenting new opportunities, including online distance learning and the development of new interactive digital spaces. In addition, great strides have been made in terms of higher education international policies and goals. For example, the Salamanca Statement called on the international community to endorse disability inclusive education, including at the tertiary level, while the 4th Sustainable Development Goal focuses explicitly on the delivery of inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. 

Barriers to access remain

However, it could be argued that globally, higher education has not changed enough, leaving many people excluded from its potential benefits. I believe that the freedom that Freire sought to achieve is underpinned by developing educational equity through justice, justness and fairness. While general progress in higher education around the world is undeniable, serious challenges with regards to equitable higher education remain. Globally, people with disabilities are often excluded from higher education due to a variety of social, attitudinal, and physical barriers. Looking specifically at higher education in the UK, ethnic minorities continue to be marginalised in terms of both access and outcomes, and despite much of the rhetoric, the number of universities who are actually taking action to decolonise curricula remains low. Discrimination based on gender, religion, sexual orientation and other characteristics continues to result in some people or groups being excluded. These identities can intersect, with some people facing double or even triple discrimination based on a combination of characteristics of their identity.  

Overcoming higher education links to inequalities and inequities

While inclusivity in higher education is important and would benefit all academic disciplines, it is particularly pressing for my own discipline of Development Studies. I argue that this is due to a combination of historical links to colonialism, pervading power imbalances within the discipline, and in addition the thematic commonality of working to address inequality and improve social justice. It would therefore be paradoxical for universities offering Development Studies courses not to pursue the highest possible standards of inclusivity. 

Making higher education more inclusive is not only the right thing to do from a moral position, but also because to be exclusive is fundamentally challenging to the conceptualization and philosophy of education, as a progressive process that aims to improve and better the human experience. If we are to overcome the deep structural, social inequities and inequalities that have been historically so entrenched in elitist higher education systems, then addressing inclusion is a challenge we need to get to grips with. Universities are important gatekeepers to both knowledge production and the education of future professionals. With these roles comes great responsibility to ensure we are inclusive in both our education practice and policies.  

Turning rhetoric into action

So, how do we turn the rhetoric of inclusion for higher education into action? To achieve this in a meaningful way, academics must consider student experience of higher education in a critical way. We must reflect on our educational practice, learn from others and share the knowledge we have gained. We must invite students to come on this journey of reflection and betterment with us. Students (and particularly those who are commonly marginalised) must be invited to examine structures and systems within universities and challenge them where necessary. For example, while much progress has been made with regards to the diversity and representation of student bodies, the uniformity of many faculties is still problematic.  Having a diverse university faculty has been shown to improve student experience especially for students from underrepresented groups, as well as improving employee performance. To identify and begin to address such issues, the importance of ensuring the views and experiences of traditionally marginalised students are heard in cannot be overlooked or underestimated.

While any process of reflection can be uncomfortable, academics wishing to uphold the basic principles of critical pedagogy must encourage students as active agents in their own education to evaluate the validity, fairness, and authority of their education. Those who are traditionally marginalised must be central to this process. With regards to the education of those who had formally been oppressed, Freire wrote “Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so that they can more wisely build the future.” In my opinion, the only way to ensure that education (and higher education in particular) delivers on the promised dream of freedom, it must be critically dissected and reimagined to be as inclusive as possible, and those who were once marginalised must play a key role in this process. 

Dr Stephen Thompson (PhD) is a Social Scientist who has worked for over fifteen years in international development. He is Research Fellow in the Participation, Inclusion, and Social Change research cluster at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. His research interests are disability inclusion, sustainable development, and participatory methodologies. He has a particular interest in higher education, inequality, and social justice.