Capabilities, Belonging and Equity in HE: Developing Inclusive Approaches

Year: 2015

Author: Jane Burke, Penny, Bennett, Anna

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Research reveals that access to higher education is profoundly tied to processes of (mis)recognition about capability (Southgate & Bennett, 2014). The meanings and discourses associated with ‘capability’ are rarely made explicit, despite the significant implications for equity and inclusion. Meritocratic views significantly frame questions of equity in higher education, including assumptions about who is capable of being a university student (Karabel, 2005). Although ‘capability’ carries multiple and contested meanings, there has been little attention given to the problematic way that judgements of capability are made, often unwittingly perpetuating social and cultural inequalities in HE. For example, research by Burke and McManus (2009) in the UK context has shown that the recognition of ‘potential’ and ‘ability’ – or conversely being misrecognised as ‘lacking potential or ability’ – often depends on the ways that those with the institutional authority to make such judgements construct ‘capability’ in particular disciplinary and institutional contexts. Carole Leathwood (2008) argues that the meanings that circulate around capability mark out differences between types of students (gendered, raced and classed), different subjects of study (in particular those designated as vocational and academic) and differentiated HE institutions (selective, research-intensive, teaching- focused and so forth). This often contributes to the legitimisation of inequality in patterns of HE access and participation and impacts on students’ perceptions of self-worth (Leathwood, 2008). This body of work points to the need to develop richer and more nuanced analyses of how ‘capability’ is constructed in order to develop more sophisticated strategies to support equity in higher education.

The paper will present an analysis of surveys of 772 students, as well as qualitative interviews and focus groups with staff and students, to bring to light meanings of ‘capability’ and how these shape student experiences, practices and sense of belonging. Utilising a mixed-method approach, the paper will explore the ways that capability discourses construct student identities as well as experiences of and sense of belonging in HE.