Safeguarding Student Learning Engagement

Social Justice and education

What is social justice?

While there appears no single definition of social justice, the literature suggests that the notion of social justice coexists with expressions of human rights, fairness and equality (Bates, 2007, Sturman, 1997). For Gale (2000) social justice is not just `making’ but `acting’ and he draws on the sixth century Roman Justinian who referred to social justice as ` the constant and perpetual will to render to everyone their due’ (Isaacs 1996 cited in Gale, 2000). Lummis (1996 cited in Gale 2000) considers this a reformist approach to social justice, which Gale labels as a recognitive perspective on social justice.

Social justice and education

Examining the literature on social justice and education is a complex process because it interfaces the development of society with the role of education and, in terms of purpose and outcomes, means that educational institutions are directly involved in and reflect the social, cultural and economic activity of society.  Gale (2000) and Gale and Densmore (2000) explore social justice from an educational perspective and classify explanations of social justice as distributive, retributive and recognitive. The authors summarise these perspectives and differentiate distributive and retributive from recognitive justice arguing that recognitive includes a positive consideration for social difference and the centrality of socially democratic processes in working towards its attainment. In essence the recognitive perspective of social justice emphasises process and action over state and form.

While there has been little discussion of social justice in the Australian higher education literature, Gale and Tranter (2011) provide a comprehensive historical overview of social justice in Australian higher education policy detailing policy post-World War Two through to the 2008 Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education  (Bradley, Noonan, Nugent & Scales, 2008).  This account of social justice in higher education policy again illuminates the authors’ views of social justice as “distributive, retributive and recognitive” (p.29). The authors suggest that these perceptions should be addressed by policy and practice embracing a recognitive perspective of social justice so that widening participation is not solely considered in terms of comparative representation.

For more information see the full literature review 


Bates, R. (2007). Educational administration and social justice.  Education, citizenship and social justice,  1(2), 141-156.  doi:  10.1177/1746197906064676

Bradley, D., Noonan, P., Nugent, H., & Scales, B. (2008). Review of Australian Higher Education. Canberra:  Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

Gale, T.  (2000).  Rethinking social justice in schools:  How will we recognise it when we see it? International Journal of Inclusive Education, 4(3), 253-269.  doi:  10.1080/13603110050059178

Gale, T., & Densmore, K. (2000). Just schooling: Exploration in the cultural politics of teaching. Birmingham, UK: Open University Press.

Gale, T., & Tranter, D.  (2011).  Social justice in Australian higher education policy:  an historical and conceptual account of student participation.  Critical Studies in Education, 52(1), 29 – 46.  doi:  10.1080/17508487.2011.536511

Sturman, A. (1997). Social Justice in Education (Vol. 40). Melbourne: The Australian Council of Educational Research.