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Education for Social Cohesion: “The media could play an active role in integrating different societal groups”

How does the level of education influence a society’s cohesion? Manuel Heckel and Salma Abdelrahman (University of Stuttgart) investigated this question with regard to Sri Lankan society and won the first prize of the GIZ University Initiative “Between Lecture Hall and Project Work” 2016.

Students from various disciplines took part in the competition “Between Lecture Hall and Project Work” by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). It was the initiative’s 15th edition in 2016. Numerous German universities challenged their students to analyze a GIZ project in teams of two or alone. Using a scientific research question, students turned their skills from theory to practice and made recommendations for the GIZ projects accordingly.

Manuel Heckel and Salma Abdelrahman from the master’s programme “Integrated Urbanism and Sustainable Design” at University of Stuttgart impressed the jury at the final symposium in Berlin with their presentation on “The Influence of Education on Social Cohesion – The Case of Sri Lanka”, and received the first place.

How is education related to social cohesion?

Manuel: While reviewing current research on social cohesion, we found two strands. Robert Putnam, a US-American political scientist, stresses the importance of social networks and finds a strong correlation between education, trust and memberships in associations. Andy Green and John Preston, social scientists from the UK, however, contest this understanding, saying that to achieve social cohesion on a societal level (not among groups), other factors, such as cultural, institutional and economic ones, are more important. Education, they state, correlates only indirectly through these other factors with social cohesion when it comes to the whole society. When working on the project and our recommendations, we followed the approach to social cohesion by Green and Preston.

Definition of social cohesion

A society’s social cohesion is expressed in the willingness of its members to act in solidarity. A distinction must be made between concrete and abstract forms of solidarity. Mutual support within a community, such as a family, a neighbourhood or a group are regarded as a form of concrete solidarity. An abstract form, however, is the form which characterises social insurance […]. Promoting social cohesion is the aim of every kind of social politics.

Source: Wörterbuch der Sozialpolitik (in German only)

What is the situation in Sri Lanka and how did it grow historically? What importance does education have in this country?

Salma: After the end of colonialism, education was widely and freely available in Sri Lanka, which led to a rapid increase of well-educated graduates faced with the challenge of finding jobs. Since opportunities were rare, unemployment increased and, amongst other factors, contributed to the conflict that later turned into a civil war.

Manuel: Nowadays education is very segregated in many aspects such as language, religion, gender and space. Furthermore, access to qualified teachers is limited to few Sri Lankans, which additionally increases and reproduces existing inequalities. The Sri Lankan government attributes education a significant role – maybe overestimating its capabilities – on its way to reconciling as well as developing the country. For the society, education is important to find job opportunities, although due to the segregation in the country, many who receive public education are nevertheless left without jobs.

Please tell us about the GIZ project that you investigated.

Salma: We investigated the project “Education for Social Cohesion” as part of the “Between Lecture Hall and Project Work” seminar offered as an elective course at the university. The project is based in Sri Lanka and tackles issues related to social cohesion.

Manuel: The project is now in its second phase which started in April 2016, continuing the previous work on different levels. On the micro level, for example, the focus is on disseminating the concept of the 200 pilot schools previously implemented. The concept of those schools concentrated on three components, namely multilingual education, psycho- social care and peace and value education. The second phase is planned to end by March 2019.

Salma: To achieve the goals, GIZ works with several partners in Sri Lanka. On the macro level, for example, with the Ministry of Education, on the meso level with pedagogical universities and local authorities, and on the micro level with the pilot schools that Manuel has mentioned, and in this phase also with further interested schools.

Between Lecture Hall and Project Work

The initiative “Between Lecture Hall and Project Work” is building bridges between theory and practice. In 2016, a total of 24 GIZ projects were analyzed in 20 partner countries. Watch the films of all the participants of the 15th edition of “Between Lecture Hall and Project Work” on the website of the initiative!

Discussion on “Between Lecture Hall and Project Work” in the Community

What was your motivation to choose this project?

Salma: There were many interesting projects available to us, actually. I find the topic of integration generally very interesting and I was curious to find out to what extent research attributes education a role in it. I have learned a lot through our research process, so I am very glad that this was the project we were assigned to research.

Manuel: I was a little hesitant at first, as it was a topic that seemed to be not clearly related to our studies (urbanism). So it was my second choice. But in retrospect, I’m very grateful we picked and also got this project to work on, as it gave me many new insights into a field previously not well known, which is nevertheless very relevant to our studies. I think it helped to learn to see our studies more holistically and their relevance to various topics.

Which questions did you investigate?

Salma: Our knowledge of Sri Lanka was rather general before we started this project. To start our analysis, we looked into the project documentation provided by the project director of this particular project. To understand the Sri Lankan context, we needed to understand more about the country’s history since the end of colonialism and the relation between education, culture and economy and the roles they played since the civil war. Some of the questions we investigated to get a more in-depth understanding of the issues the country is facing were how segregated the society really is, mentally as well as spatially, and what the challenges of the current education system are.

Which methods did you use during your investigation?

Manuel: Since we could not be in Sri Lanka, our investigation is mainly based on reviewing the GIZ project description and documentation, the Sri Lankan National Action Plan and academic papers related to education, social cohesion and Sri Lankan history. Additionally, we conducted semi-structured interviews over Skype or telephone. We had interviews with the GIZ project director, a GIZ employee and a professor of Sociology at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Video: “The Influence of Education on Social Cohesion – The Case of Sri Lanka”

What are the outcomes and recommendations of your investigation?

Salma: To contribute to the project, we developed three recommendations. We linked them to both our theoretical findings and the national action plan of the Sri Lankan government. Our recommendations build on each other and they relate to our education as students of urban planning as well, as we felt we can contribute best to the project in that respect.

Manuel: Our first recommendation is to extend the pilot school programme to strategically selected schools (ideally in a participatory way), which would address spatial segregation by reaching more remote and peripheral areas. Our second one is based on the realisation that education happens not only formally, but to a great extent informally. We relate to the current German discourse and recommend thinking in terms of “educational landscapes” by opening up schools to the community (and vice versa), to allow for the cultivation of a common citizenship. This, we believe, is especially important for segregated societies.

Salma: And lastly, our third recommendation is to design a game to engage students in learning and practicing cooperative values and democratic participation. The aim of the game is to support peace and value education as well as to gain insight into community issues and dynamics.

“Representatives of all societal groups should come together and work on a plan to integrate the society”

What is your personal assessment: How can this situation be improved in the long term, also beyond the GIZ project?

Manuel: We believe that education is, as Green and Preston show, only indirectly relevant. To improve social cohesion in Sri Lanka in the long run, we think it is vital for the government to continue its commitment to justice. Moreover, we think (and this also came out in the interview with the Sri Lankan professor) that it is important to get representatives of all societal groups to come together and work on a plan to integrate the society. We believe that the plan should also include effective elements to foster equity among Sri Lankans.

Salma: To elaborate on that, one of the tools that could bring people together is currently not well taken advantage of: the media. The media could play an active role in integrating different societal groups and help promote and cultivate a common citizenship. Currently, however, channels and broadcasts are exclusive to particular linguistic segments of the society.

In comparison to Sri Lanka: What is the situation in Germany regarding education in relation to social cohesion?

Manuel: While education was once a strong element to build nations, its role was later reconsidered and considerably weakened, especially after World War II. However, Germany, like many developed countries, faces increasing levels of individualisation and education is seen once again as a way to promote social cohesion (largely based on the findings of Putnam). Furthermore, there is a discourse about “Bildungslandschaften” in Germany. Education, especially seen as educational landscapes, is more and more often linked to neighbourhood development programmes such as “Soziale Stadt”. We think this approach can be fruitful, which is also why we included it as one of our recommendations.

“Formal as well as informal education is an essential part of living a fulfilling life”

How important is education for you personally?

Salma: I think education is an essential part of living a fulfilling life. And by that I mean both formal and informal education. By the time I turned 16, I had attended six different schools in four countries and I feel very lucky for the experience. For me, gaining new knowledge and meeting new people gives me energy and meaning to my life, and so do the long discussions I have with my friends and family, my grandparents especially. But then again, where and how does anyone learn? In school, through books and the people they talk to! In some way we are what we learn, I guess. So that seems pretty important to me.

Manuel: I agree with Salma and maybe want to add that education, in my opinion, has no end. I feel the more I learn, the more curious I become, up to the point where I feel overwhelmed by what I do not know (yet). I realised that in those moments it is important to relax and let my thoughts wander, since during this “day dreaming” I can connect to my creativity and let education become productive. Which may link a bit to a course like “Between Lecture Hall and Project Work” – it is about the in between, the swinging back and forth between learning and creating.

The first prize of “Between Lecture Hall and Project Work” was a GIZ internship. What are your plans for the future?

Salma: Well, the reason I chose the master’s programme that I am doing now is because I wanted to look at cities and people from another perspective. Having been brought up in different countries around the world, I am fascinated by the complexity and diversity of cities. I am already looking forward to the experience I will gain during the internship at GIZ offered to us, as I can definitely see myself working for international development and with international organisations in the future.

Manuel: In the near future, over the next year, I will continue and finish my Master of Science in Cairo, Egypt, an experience I am looking forward to. Afterwards I would like to work for international development, which is why I am very happy to have been offered an internship at GIZ. I would also like to work for the UN, or possibly an NGO operating in this field. After some years of practical experience, however, I intend to do a doctorate. I think that I not only want to see change in the world and contribute to bringing it about, but also want variety in my life.

September 2016

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