Higher education as student self-formation

10th February 2022 : 14:00 - 15:00

Category: Webinar

Speaker: Simon Marginson, University of Oxford

Location: Zoom webinar, registration required

Audience: Public

The paper argues higher education is most usefully understood not as a process of other-formation of graduates as employable human capital, but as a process of reflexive self-formation by students themselves, through immersion in knowledge. In higher education people work on themselves in relation to their personal development, goals and projects. Only the student can do the actual learning and developing. The essential elements of higher education as self-formation are the autonomy of the learner, reflexive agency, the will to learn, and engagement in knowledge facilitated by teaching and cohort interaction. The factor of knowledge distinguishes self-formation in higher education from reflexive self-making in other domains.

In other words, the key agent in higher education is not the government as imagined by policy-makers, not the institution as imagined in university rankings, or even the teacher as imagined in most educational studies (though teachers play a vital role in relation to knowledge), but the student, individually and also collectively. Self-formation constitutes an empirically researchable phenomenon as well as a norm to be achieved. Not all students undergo full self-formation, but the growth of agentic capabilities is key to the contribution made by higher education in any sphere of life, from the economy to the arts.

The essential task of higher education therefore is to foster the conditions which maximise the potentials for agentic self-formation. The paper assumes an open ontology with heterogeneity of structure and agency, and draws on a range of theorists to define the central notion of self-formation: (1) social theory, primarily Archer and Foucault, on agency freedom, autonomy and reflexivity; (2) empirically-based work on autonomy, proactivity and reflexivity in psychology, primarily Vygotsky, self-determination theory and social cognitive theory; (3) traditional approaches to reflexive learning in Confucian self-cultivation and the educational practices of Bildung and American pragmatism; (4) selected contemporary research on student development through immersion in knowledges. The conclusion discusses conditions and circumstances which facilitate self-formation, reflects on the question of whether higher education should introduce into self-formation particular notions of social relations, and compares the self-formation approach to higher education with contemporary focuses on consumerism and employability.

This webinar is part of the free public seminar programme hosted by the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE).