Discourses & Debates

The challenges of social justice in and of higher education

Offered in the form of a public address in Kolkata in January 2020 [1], this paper offers a number of reflections on the challenges that face higher education when it comes to social justice. Explicit within the title is the assertion that social justice is both to do with the content and form of the university – extending from the enactment and scholarship of its purposes and processes, through to the nature of the participation of its persons. To situate the discussion within the context and time of its oral presentation, the introduction posits that the constitutional commitments of so called post-colonial countries such as India and South Africa offer moral compasses for ‘social justice’ which require radical commitments. A number of provocative questions are posed to frame the discussion, namely (i) ‘Can systemic change be regulated within higher education?’; (ii) ‘How may the agential, the cultural and the structural be bridged, when the goal is change?’; (iii) ‘In the larger inter/national goals of social justice and large scale geopolitical change, in what ways is higher education a ‘special case’’?  A number of the challenges for higher education are outlined, before touching on the ‘openings’ which are present in the current moment, leading to a call to readers to ask, ‘‘How does one study the university, for social justice transformations?’  Throughout the paper are entangled the author’s reflections, positionality and concerns, drawn from her insights, expertise, networks and experiences as a researcher in Critical Higher Education Studies in the margins.  

[1] This paper was first presented by Dina Zoe Belluigi on the 27th of January 2020 at a public talk at Jadavpur University, hosted by the School of Women’s Studies. The talk coincided with a visiting lectureship funded by RUSA. A publication of it is in process. As such please use this reference:

Belluigi, D. Z. 2020. Recording of public talk ‘The challenges of social justice in and of higher education’ at Jadavpur University. Published on Broken Vessel.

Discussion on ‘The university in transition: Visual Higher Education Studies’

Following a British Education Research Association event for Early Career Researchers on ‘Overcoming Educational Research’, where I was fortunate to be a discussant, I was asked by the organiser Dr Sin Wang Chong to engage in a conversation about arts-based methods for Higher Education Studies.

This link leads to the edited recording of that interview. https://t.co/84zySEcpVP?amp=1

It is one episode of a series of podcasts focusing on Alternative Research Methods in Higher Education. The abstract, copied from this site, reads:

“In this episode, Dr Dina Zoe Belluigi engages in a conversation with colleague Dr Sin Wang Chong about the ways in which visual and creative arts methods productively unsettle the dominant gaze and modes of representation of research on higher education. She retrospectively traces the detours and divergences that led her to appreciating the validity of creative arts research from her most recent project, Counter-Narratives of Higher Education (a collaboration with artists of Analogue Eye: Video Art Africa). The recording includes discussion of video papers; arguments made about the figurative in studies of higher education transformation; reflections on the praxis of methodological irresponsibility and specific arts-based methods; and an archive of non-empirical representations of the lived experiences of academia, to which she’d love listeners to contribute.”

I thought it may also be useful to share here the notes I had made prior to the conversation. I am a ‘slow thinker’ and self-doubting at the best of times and so rely on writing, note-taking and often scribling and drawing to get my thoughts into something worth sharing. (This has always been the case, even prior to the brain sludge of current COVID19 mental-emotional matter!). I share them here with Dr Chong’s permission, as the questions I attribute to him were my suggestions for the actual event, which you’ll hear did not approximate our conversation.

Negotiating Social Injustice Within the University: A dialogue between Dr Jason Arday and Dr Grace Idahosa

In November 2019, I was fortunate to be able to host two scholars whose academic work I have learnt from and highly value, and to organise a seminar to share their insights with colleagues across an institutional context in Northern Ireland. Below is a recording of one of the speakers, and some notes and images from the day for your interest.

Welcoming introductions by Dr Dina Zoe Belluigi

I am Dr Belluigi, I have been an academic in critical HE studies at the school of social sciences, education and social work here at Queens for two years. I would like to welcome you all to this seminar. I hope you are comfortable and find the discussion today of value.

Universities are the strangest of spaces. Nowhere more amazing a change has there been, in the last 50 years, than the project of access – and where now, finally, author-ity is in transition in academic spaces at various contexts across the globe, and the participation of those finally in such powerful spaces is filled with opportunities for recognition of what has been misrecognised, for generating counter-narratives and counter-archives for ways of being, knowledges and groups marginalised to be centred, and more generative and equitious imaginaries to be created.

But it is also a fraught myopic place: with an inheritance rich in mythologies of itself as the bastion of colonial, imperial and essentialising notions of quality as exclusion, a resistance to nurturing and celebration, and a continued domination and domestication of nature and the peoples and groups associated with the ungodly, irrational, creative and bodily.

The continuation of the legacies of othering, inherent in the western-oriented unis notion of social formation and knowledge formation, is perhaps the most monstrous within these elite spaces many of us frequent daily; and which many choose to remain oblivious, wilfully ignorant, despite the stark numbers, the repeated pleas for graciousness, and the obvious harm from micro-insults through to macroaggressions. When will there be a rupture to the cycles of gatekeepers’ creating, reproducing and valorising images of themselves?

Just 8 days after a month of celebrating Black contributions and histories and herstories to the world, on the 8th November 2019 IRise and SSESW Education Research group were pleased to host these presentations of two researchers whose work I admire and appreciate, and whose input I seek as critical friends, to speak about their research on negotiating social injustice within the university.

I asked them because the reality is that there cannot be ‘championing’ or ‘ambassador-ing’ or whitewashing the ugly realities which face those who are not the same as the image of whiteness in the UK academy, as Jason will tell us; nor the incredible difficulties of enacting agency to affect transformations within the acutely racialised and gendered conditions of SA settler colonial and apartheid-nationalist universities, as Grace has theorised. These two researchers are not undertaking their work in the interests of the status quo nor personal prestige. Being a researcher in the field of cHEs is a precarious exhausting endeavour of double consciousness. Despite that risk, they bare their sense of moral and historical obligation to bear witness to injustice in their time and midst, and have contributed significantly in their sphere of influence.

Grace, Jason and I in front of the main building of Queen’s University Belfast just before the talk.

1. Mental health & BAME staff in the UK context: The impact of negotiating racial inequality & discrimination at university – Dr Jason Arday (Durham University)

In this discussion, Jason drew from a working paper to propose that Black students, and, more widely, BAME people, experience mental health differently. Mental health problems for BME individuals are interwoven within different systemic issues concerning access, discrimination and inequality. Often those diagnosed amongst BAME communities are treated differently within mental health services in universities and society more generally, resulting in disparities regarding rehabilitation, satisfaction and positive outcomes.

Jason offered suggestions and recommendations for how mental health support systems can be diversified for ethnic minority people within universities. Conclusions drawn also considered how existing systems can function to work against the racism and isolation in wider society that puts ethnic minorities at risk in the first place, by acknowledging that this community are more likely to struggle, and less likely to receive the support required.

Dr Jason Arday is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at Durham University; a Visiting Research Fellow at The Ohio State University in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion; a Research Associate at Nelson Mandela University at the Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation; and a Trustee of the Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading Race Equality Thinktank. Jason’s research focuses on Race, Education and Social Justice.

In addition to numerous other texts, Jason is the author of the following titles: Considering Racialized Contexts in Education: Using Reflective Practice and Peer-Mentoring to support Black and Ethnic Minority educators (Routledge); Being Young, Black and Male: Challenging the dominant discourse (Palgrave); and Exploring Cool Britannia and Multi-Ethnic Britain: Uncorking the Champagne Supernova (Routledge). He is the Co-Editor of the highly acclaimed Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy (Palgrave). Jason is also the Lead-editor of the book series on Race, Social Justice and Education (Palgrave) and serves on the Editorial Board of Educational Philosophy and Theory. Jason is the recent co-author of The Broken Pipeline Report: Barriers to Black PhD Students Accessing Research Council Funding.

2. Social action & agency within South African higher education: Institutional & contextual histories impact on the conditions for change – Dr Grace Ese-osa Idahosa (University of Johannesburg)

Grace drew from her recent book Agency and Social Transformation in South African Higher Education to discuss how individuals are capable of acting to enable transformation of structures and cultures through the lens of South African higher education. The book examines the role of agency in effecting change amidst the rigid conditions within South African universities. Arguing for a focus on transformation from below, it explores transformation and agency from the perspective of academic staff. Through discussing moments at which faculty members embedded in rigid structures and cultures perceive themselves as having had the agency to interrupt and transform them, despite their rigidity, this book describes the nuances of social action and agency within the South African higher education institutional context and the ways in which contextual histories may provide enabling/limiting conditions to individuals within them. This book makes an important contribution to the field of agency and social transformation theoretically, methodologically and geographically as it details the motivations for transformation, how individuals become agents of change and the practical experiences of these individuals from a localised perspective.

Dr Grace Ese-osa Idahosa is a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. With a background in Political Studies, her doctoral research was a hermeneutic phenomenological study which dealt with the subject of agency in the context of South African higher education transformation. Grace’s current research draws on the premise that if universities are to contribute to societal development, they will first have to transform themselves. She employs a structure, agency and transformation framework to understand how and under what conditions, individuals have the agency to effect transformation within their institutions. Her research interrogates how social factors like gender, race, class, sexuality and ethnicity, intersects to enable/limit agency within specific contexts. This is most recently explored in her new book ‘Agency and Transformation in South African Higher Education: Pushing the bounds of possibility’. Her research interests include, higher education, social/organisational change, institutional culture, and body politics.

Her current project, titled ‘Mid-level Managers Agency for Transformation in Post-Conflict Higher Education’ (funded by the SRHE; on which we are collaborating) interrogates the ways in which university middle-management, who are potentially in key positions to engender social change within the higher education sector in Northern Ireland and South Africa, perceive they can be better empowered to enact their agency; and in what ways this is impacted by their social location. The study hopes to contribute to comparative transnational findings regarding the challenges and possibilities for change within two post-conflict contexts.

‘Negotiating Injustice within the University: A dialogue’ was held on the 8/11/2019. The event was organised by Dr Belluigi and co-hosted by Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Social Science, Education and Social Work ‘Education Research Group’ and IRISE, the institution’s staff network of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority staff and international staff.

‘Counter to advance? Observations on the traditions, trajectories & openings of the re-emerging field of ‘critical university studies’ – talk by Dina Zoe Belluigi for Liverpool Hope University

Below is a recording of the talk Counter to advance? Observations on the traditions, trajectories & openings of the re-emerging field of ‘critical university studies’ which I offered online on the 18 March 2020 at Liverpool Hope University.

Against a backdrop of increasing strife, dis-ease and uncertainty expressed by students and academics within higher education in many places across the globe, Critical University Studies (or Critical Higher Education Studies) has seen a re-emergence. This talk presents a number of reflections in an attempt to productively question our engagement with this ‘field’ within the academy – clues of which are embedded within the discord suggested in the title. ‘Advance’ is a sense of the agency of those of us within, to shape the field and be shaped by it, and the currents and imaginaries to which such movement relates. ‘Counter’ relates to resistance, to a concern with whom and what is counted as important in and for this area of enquiry, and whom or what can effectively counter the dominant and the oppressive within and about higher education. It relates to the geo/politics of this field, and its internal processes of de/ legitimation as it becomes disciplined into a discipline. Against this to-and-fro discord of countering to advance, are ‘observations’ to situate this talk within the speakers’ particular perspective, concerns and positionality about possible traditions, trajectories and openings of this area of enquiry and its possible ways of operating.

It was shifted to a fully online engagement due to travel and other restrictions in response to the coronovirus. As such, I have uploaded it to share with you.

The talk is 32 minutes long and asks the viewer to link to one specific video related to the Counter // Narratives project. For that link go to this site:https://counternarrativefilm.wixsite.com/counter/the-bell

The discussion also related to A Higher Education Studies Arts Archive. See that here https://padlet.com/d_belluigi/h0gt6acbb0v1

Thanks to my Frank Su for his interaction about this talk.

Fragments of ‘At the Margins of the University: Scholarship and practice of higher education transformation and disruption in contexts of post/ conflict, inequality and oppression’

This audio recording, with selected stills of the event and powerpoint, documents the introduction by Dr Dina Zoe Belluigi of the seminar ‘At the Margins of the University: Scholarship and practice of higher education transformation and disruption in contexts of post/ conflict, inequality and oppression’ on 20 September 2019 at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland.

At this event, as part of School of Social Science, Education and Social Work’s research focus on Peace in Societies, reflections on three intentional interventions (a roundtable; a cross-institutional academic development programme; a network) were presented by those concerned with social justice in and of the academy:

  1. Building solidarity through comparative experiences of post/conflict academia: Reflections on two days of dialogue – Tom Parkinson (University of Kent)
  2. A capacity development model for women in higher education institutions in East Africa – Naomi Lumutenga (HERS-EA)
  3. Reflecting on ‘Emancipatory Imaginations: Advancing Critical University Studies’ Event – Jenny Boźena du Preez (Nelson Mandela University), Dina Belluigi (QUB), and Tony Gallagher (QUB)

Due to the nature of this frank reflexive conversation, the contributors of the first two sessions have not provided permission for those digital artefacts to be reproduced here. The audio recording below documents the third reflective discussion.

Reflecting on ‘Emancipatory Imaginations: Advancing Critical University Studies’ Event – Jenny Boźena du Preez (Nelson Mandela University), Dina Belluigi (QUB), and Tony Gallagher (QUB)

Between the 15th and 20th of August 2019, over 40 invited scholars and practitioners with an interest in the critical study of higher education from Ghana, India, Kenya, Ireland, South Africa, Uganda, the UK, Europe, Canada and other countries, gathered for the GCRF-funded Emancipatory Imaginations: Advancing Critical University Studies Winter School at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa. As part of the collaboration between Dr Dina Zoe Belluigi (SSESW, Queen’s University Belfast) and Prof André Keet (Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation, Nelson Mandela University), the aim was to challenge and ‘denaturalize the dominant higher education imaginary’ (Stein 2018, p.1) and consider the prospect of ‘other’ ways to study universities that are meaningfully different from the various strands of conventional higher education studies. In doing so, the School also intended to explore a flexible configuration of a Critical University Studies programme that is capable of thinking plural forms of emancipatory higher education imaginations and futures.

The Emancipatory Imaginations Winter School, in bringing together scholars from multiple locations to Africa, has explicitly situated itself at the nexus of the various intellectual, intergenerational and geopolitical tensions in this emerging field, in the hopes of responding to the already extant traditions of Critical University Studies, unpacking its tensions and co-creating new ethico-political possibilities for social justice and solidarity in this field. This seminar will bring together three of the attendees of the Winter School – Dr Jenny Boźena du Preez (Nelson Mandela University), Prof Tony Gallagher (QUB and Dr Dina Belluigi (QUB) – to reflect on the processes and outcomes of the School, including emerging themes, contestations and possibilities for collaboration.

Below are links to the videos from the Winter School event. The report can be accessed here.

Jenny Boźena du Preez is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET) at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa. She is currently working on the critical and transformative potential of literature and Literary Studies and what it might have to offer Critical University Studies. Jenny was instrumental in organising the Emancipatory Imaginations: Advancing Critical University Studies Winter School, and leading the CRISHET team through the event. She holds a PhD in Literary Studies in English focusing on representations of gender and sexuality within literature by African women. She has published an article entitled “Liminality and Alternative Femininity in Sol T. Plaatje’s Mhudi” in English in Africa and an interview with South African writer, Makhosazana Xaba, in Tydskrif vir Letterkunde. She has taught a range of courses in Literary Studies in English and Media, Communications and Culture at Nelson Mandela University.

Tony Gallagher is currently Professor of Education at Queen’s University Belfast. He has held various leadership posts in Queen’s including Head of the School of Education, Pro Vice Chancellor and Acting Faculty Dean of Research for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. His primary research interest lies in the role of education in divided societies, especially as this relates to work on social cohesion and equality. In addition, he works with the Council of Europe and an international consortium on the civic and democratic role of higher education. (Twitter: @tgeducation)

Dina Zoe Belluigi is an academic in Higher Education Studies at the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast (Northern Ireland), prior to which, she was a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL) at Rhodes University in South Africa. Her scholarship and practitioner work has circulated around how those with responsibility for representation, at first artists and then academics, bear witness to the problematics and im-possibility of such representation and such responsibility, and moreover how such agents are constructed, enabled and/or ‘schooled’ as agents of social change and critical consciousness. Dina organised this seminar, and is honoured to bring these speakers to Belfast. (Twitter: @DZBelluigi)

Funding for the event was provided by SSESW’s Contested Societies research group (Queen’s University Belfast) and the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF)..

Conversation with Dr Jason Arday about race in UK higher education

(40 mins)

Jason has been working on race matters in the UK context for some time. I was fortunate to have him respond to a plea I made when first coming to the UK in 2017 – and his continued scholarship and responsiveness to my perplexed requests, have been a source of strength and learning for me.

The recording above (40 mins) is a hastily grabbed moment in the midst of an intellectual gathering in Port Elizabeth, South Africa – as is this selfie near the sea during that time.

Jason has not yet curated his work into a space – but when he does I promise to update! Many of the publications are online, as are some YouTube recordings.

Access information on the Runnymede Trust here or follow them on Twitter (@RunnymedeTrust)


Audio conversation (10 minutes)

Emmanuel has his academic roots in literature, language and education, as he touches upon in this informal conversation with me, as we drove through East London (South Africa) this June when working on a inter-institutional, inter/national project he was leading.

Read more about Emmanuel’s publication’s https://scholar.google.co.za/citations?user=296cHr0AAAAJ&hl=en and the SARIHE project https://sarihe.org.za/

Conversation with Dr Cath Camps about inclusion and internal colonisation in UK higher education

Cath and I were fortunate to contribute to two roundtable discussions hosted by the Council of At Risk Academics (CARA) recently, in relation to their work with Syrian academics in exile.

While in Istanbul, we took the opportunity to talk about Cath’s interests in higher education, and what continues to inspire, concern and perturb her. Much of the conversation involved a teasing out of decolonisation in the UK context, and the affordances of campus-wide academic development programmes.

The playful image above was taken during at our hotel in Istanbul. Cath feels it is ripe for captioning!

Follow Cath on twitter @CathCamps or find out more about her areas of work on her institutional site http://staff.southwales.ac.uk/users/10566-ccamps

Conversation with Dr Tom Parkinson about academic development

tom picture Oct 2019

Tom has a background in the arts and arts education, as he discusses in our conversation, where aspects of that interest have been retained as traces in his academic development work in the UK and in his role for with displaced academics through the CARA Syrian Programme. He acted as the external advisor for a master’s level course in Higher Education Studies which I developed – in the pic above he was in Belfast for that purpose.

Tom is leading on a network with colleagues from Syria, Turkey, South Africa and other relevant contexts on academic development which is responsive to post/conflict needs. Our first workshop will be in June 2019.

The recorded discussion comes from a December meeting we had in London.

tom picture Dec 2018

For more on Tom’s work see http://kent.academia.edu/TomParkinson

Reference the content: D Z Belluigi. 2018. Discussion with Tom Parkinson. Audio recording downloaded from the website Broken Vessels, courtesy of Dr Belluigi.