By Rille Raaper and Julie Rattray*

This blog post aims to introduce our recently commenced Erasmus+ project titled  ‘Developing, Assessing and Validating Social Competences in Higher Education’ (DASCHE). The project is led by the Warsaw School of Economics in Poland and includes colleagues from a further five EU countries: the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, and the UK.

It aims to develop an understanding of how the concept ‘social competence’, as outlined in European qualifications frameworks in higher education, is understood and enacted at the local and pan European level. In this blog post, we aim to set a tone for our research and to explore the role of universities in developing socially competent citizens. We will be drawing on the principles of critical pedagogy as a suitable framework for this project. Before moving on to our discussion, it is important to clarify how the term ‘social competence’ has been defined in EU policies:

Social competence is linked to personal and social well-being which requires an understanding of how individuals can ensure optimum physical and mental health, including as a resource for oneself and one’s family and one’s immediate social environment, and knowledge of how a healthy lifestyle can contribute to this. For successful interpersonal and social participation, it is essential to understand the codes of conduct and manners generally accepted in different societies and environments (e.g. at work). It is equally important to be aware of basic concepts relating to individuals, groups, work organisations, gender equality and non-discrimination, society and culture. Understanding the multi-cultural and socio-economic dimensions of European societies and how national cultural identity interacts with the European identity is essential. (Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning (2006/962/EC).

As in the example above, the EU policy discourses explain social competence in relation to personal and social wellbeing which is essential for ensuring successful co-existence of various social and cultural identities in Europe. This definition is certainly helpful when attempting to understand the importance of social competence in the context of lifelong learning. However, it could be questioned whether the focus on wellbeing and mutual respect is enough to challenge the prevalent neoliberal reforms which have been reshaping Western higher education over the past few decades. Universities have become increasingly consumer-oriented, positioning students as passive receivers of education and ‘potential victims of circumstances they face’ (Furedi 2017, 9). It is therefore unsurprising that the rhetoric of students as Snowflakes – a fragile generation of students who require protection from ‘harmful knowledge’ – has become prevalent in many countries, particularly in the UK where market forces have had a fundamental effect on the higher education sector. These tensions highlight a need for a more radical approach to university practices, making us look for critical pedagogy as a way to define the place of social competence in contemporary universities. Like Giroux (2014), we perceive the aim of universities to promote rather than constrain social agency. In other words, developing socially competent citizens requires a shift from pedagogical practices that enforce ‘deposit-making’ to education as a social practice in a Freirean sense:

Education as the practice of freedom—as opposed to education as the practice of domination—denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent, and unattached to the world; it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from people. (Freire 1970, 81)

It is through dialogue and meaningful interactions that the student and the teacher both become responsible for the processes of learning and change (Freire 1970). Like bell hooks (1994), we argue that learning and teaching processes should not only seek to empower students but require teachers to be willing to learn from and with their students. Therefore, a university education that supports social empowerment and change cannot rely on abstract discussions of particular social issues but requires active student engagement in examining the issues of justice/injustice in their own lives and society more broadly (Adams 2016). By emphasising the importance of social competence for empowerment and action, we promote what Giroux (2012) calls ‘the educated hope’:

Educated hope takes as a political and ethical necessity the need to address what modes of education are required for a democratic future and further requires that we ask such questions as: What pedagogical projects, resources, and practices can be put into place that would convey to students the vital importance of public time and its attendant culture of questioning as an essential step towards self-representation, agency, and a substantive democracy? (Giroux 2012, 122)

As part of this research, we are exploring some of these ‘projects, resources, and practices’ that already exist in the UK universities and elsewhere and promote an understanding of students as social beings with responsibility and agency for socially just societies. These practices might be institutional or perhaps more often rely on individuals’ good will and initiative. We hope that this project gives voice to some of these good initiatives to counteract the dominant neoliberal discourses that often portray universities as primarily entrepreneurial institutions where critical engagement, social consciousness and empowerment have lost their place and prominence.


Adams, M., Bell, L.A., Goodman, D.J., and Joshi, K.Y. (2016). Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. 3rd ed. Oxon: Routledge.

bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress. Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of The Oppressed. New York: Penguin Books Ltd.

Furedi, F. (2017). What’s Happened to The University? A Sociological Exploration of Its Infantilisation. Oxon: Routledge.

Giroux, H.A. (2012). On Critical Pedagogy. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Giroux, H.A. (2014). Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. Chicago: Haymarket Books.


*Julie Rattray is Associate Professor in Higher Education at Durham University. She currently holds the role of Director of Education at the School of Education, having strategic oversight of its teaching and learning strategy. Her research interests include the threshold concept framework, liminality, affective dimensions of learning as well as other aspects of policy and pedagogy in higher education. In particular, she is interested in the ways that learners deal with troublesome knowledge and the extent to which affective characteristics and attributes might influence this. Her most recent project is DASCHE (Developing, Assessing and Validating Social Competences in Higher Education) which focuses on the identification of practice in relation to the development of social competence in higher education.