IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Higher education as self-formation

29 November 2017, 6:00 pm–7:15 pm

Professor Simon Marginson

Higher education can be understood as a process of self-formation or self-cultivation, immersed in complex knowledge, that enables the student to become more capable and more autonomous and self-determining. Here, the self-forming individual in education brings into practical form the idea of freedom to be and to do that is central to the human condition.

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Kate Thomas


Jeffrey Hall
UCL Institute of Education
20 Bedford Way
United Kingdom

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There are many perspectives on higher education that connect with this notion of self-formation - from human capital theory that sees education as an investment in future employment and earnings, and sociologists that understand it as a means of advancing social position, to JH Newman and Basil Bernstein who focus on how learned knowledge shapes people's values and capabilities, through to German notions of 'Bildung' and Confucian ideas of self-cultivation that understand individual education as enmeshed in society.

In this lecture, Professor Simon Marginson will reconcile these contrasting approaches and develop an argument for a 'socially-nested' form of self-formation that embeds individual life paths in the common good.

The lecture will draw on a sweep of ideas from the fields of education and social science, including the late work of Michel Foucault on the formation of autonomous human subjects, Amartya Sen's forms of freedom and idea of capability, and Vygotsky's positioning of individual development in social and cultural context.

Professor Marginson will also remark on the apparent paradox of today's high participation higher education systems: while they have made self-formation more democratic and educated human capabilities more widespread, the opportunities to use those capabilities seem to be shrinking as societies (i.e. social formation, as distinct from self-formation) become more unequal.

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About the Speaker

Professor Simon Marginson

Director at Centre for Global Higher Education

Professor Marginson joined the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) in 2013, prior to which he was based at the universities of Melbourne and Monash. He is one of the most cited researchers in the field of higher education studies.

Simon draws on and integrates a range of social science disciplines in his work, primarily political economy and political philosophy, historical sociology and social theory. His work focuses on globalisation and higher education, international and comparative higher education, and higher education and social inequality. He is currently researching the implications of the worldwide trend to high participation systems of higher education.

More about Professor Simon Marginson