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How to turn professionals into people who serve the public good

There are eight skills that future professionals should develop to work for the good of society. Shutterstock

Development, argues Indian economist Amartya Sen, is the expansion of people’s freedoms to lead lives that matter to them. Doing so might include being treated with dignity or ensuring that their children get a decent education.

How can this sort of development happen in a highly unequal society like South Africa? Many South Africans live in extreme poverty. Only a minority have access to higher education - a space that, at its best, produces people who can change society. Universities obviously can’t do everything. They cannot compensate directly for poverty. But they can ensure that they’re educating professionals who are committed to reducing inequality. These people can go on to contribute to a more just society.

For two years, my colleague Monica McLean and I conducted research to find out what kind of professional education in universities could equip graduates with the knowledge, skills and values to work for the public good. This means working to make the broader society more just and equitable so that people can “develop” according to Sen’s definition. We wanted to know how university graduates can enable dignified lives for others as envisioned by Sen and US philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

What emerged was a list of eight “public-good professional capabilities” that should be considered when educating social workers, public health practitioners, lawyers, engineers and other professionals who can go on to work for a more equitable, just society. Not all of these future professionals start out with ideas of public good foremost in their minds. But when characteristics on this list are developed through their university education, they may go on to work for the public good. For example, engineers might advance sustainable and affordable energy or initiate simple infrastructure projects in rural communities.

The list

Our research needed to define a set of capabilities agreed on by professional education groups. These were collected through in-depth interviews with students, lecturers, academic leaders, university alumni, non-governmental organisations and professional bodies. We examined what professionals do and how their university education has equipped them.

We used this data to draft a list of eight broad qualities - what Sen would call capabilities and functionings - that universities should consider when trying to produce public-good professionals.

1. Informed vision: This involves being able to imagine alternative futures. Graduates must understand how their profession is shaped by historical and current socio-economic, political contexts both nationally and globally. They also need to understand how structures shape individual lives.

2. Affiliation: Professional graduates must understand their obligations to others. Care and respect for diverse people is crucial, as is understanding the lives of poor and vulnerable people. Graduates with this capability can develop relationships and rapport across social groups and status hierarchies. They respect different cultures, and are courteous and patient.

3. Resilience: Quite simply, this involves perseverance in difficult circumstances.

4. Social and collective struggle: Professional graduates must be dedicated to empowering communities and promoting human rights. They should be able to help formulate and implement policy, as well as identifying spaces for change. They must be equipped to lead and manage social change to reduce injustice. Such graduates are comfortable working in professional and inter-professional teams - and listening to all voices in any conversation. They must have the skills to build and sustain strategic relationships and networks with organisations and governments.

5. Emotional reflexivity: This involves showing empathy and compassion, as well as being able to integrate rationality and emotions. Graduates should be emotionally reflexive about power and privilege.

6. Integrity and courage: Professional graduates must act ethically. They should be responsible and accountable – not just to the communities they serve, but also to their colleagues. They are honest and aim to provide high-quality service.

7. Assurance and confidence: Graduates who embody this capability have the confident to act for change. They can express and assert their own professional priorities and are confident that their work is worthwhile.

8. Knowledge and skills: Finally, professional graduates must have a firm, critical grounding in disciplinary, academic knowledge. But they must also value indigenous and community knowledge. These graduates are enquiring, critical, evaluative, imaginative, creative and flexible. They are open-minded problem solvers who integrate theory and practice.

Bringing the list to life

There are a number of contextual constraints on public-good professionalism. The legacy of apartheid still poses tremendous material constraints, for instance. Interviewees talked about under-resourced and often poorly managed public services, a brain drain of skilled professionals either into private practice or jobs abroad, a dearth of black professionals in some fields and race-based discrimination.

Despite the constraints, it’s our belief that there are always grounds for hope in an imperfect world. This research revealed strong, clear visions of public-good professionalism among the interviewees. South Africans can’t wait around for perfect social structures, perfectly just institutions or even perfect professionals. The sort of approach our research proposes offers a contextualised, collaborative and feasible vehicle for designing and evaluating curriculum and teaching methods. It animates ways to walk new professional pathways in non-ideal circumstances - all while holding to the ideal of what it means to be a public-good professional.

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