This isn't for the likes of us': Taste and capability in aspirations for higher education

Year: 2012

Author: Parker, Steven, Gale, Trevor, Bok, Jessica

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Student aspiration for higher education is high on the policy agenda of OECD nations. Typically it is derived from a suturing together of an economic and social inclusion agenda, aimed at widening the participation in higher education of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In Australia, the 'problem' of student aspiration is particularly acute, not simply because of decades of under-representation by marginalised groups but also because on current estimates, government targets for increasing their participation are unlikely to be achieved. Australian universities charged with doing the government's bidding on achieving targets have ramped up their aspiration-raising outreach activities, with some institutional success but an overall sector-wide shortfall. We argue that this is because current policy and practice 'dissociate aspirations from the objective situation [economic circumstances and social norms] in which they are constituted' (Bourdieu 1990: 16). Little wonder that many students from disadvantaged backgrounds are convinced that higher education 'isn't for the likes of us' (Bourdieu 1990: 17). Far from a deficit account of their aspirational tastes, their 'adaptive preferences' (Nussbaum 2011) reflect their 'awareness of impossibility and of prohibition' (Bourdieu 1990: 17) in the invitation and destination. That is, the objective realities of students' different circumstances produce differential relations between the desire for and possibility of higher education: what is desired by the advantaged tends to mediate what (for them) is possible; what is possible for the disadvantaged tends to mediate what (for them) is desired. Building on Bourdieu and informed by the aspirations of students from advantaged and disadvantaged Central Queensland schools, we find that all students are capable of conceiving of and planning for one's life in relation to 'the good' (Nussbaum 2003), including conceptions and plans that involve higher education. Indeed, our data confirm other research findings that large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds do aspire to undertake higher education (Sen 2009). However, the data also suggest that the established 'tour' to these destinations is conditioned by a particular aspirational 'map' (de Certeau 1984) that requires certain 'navigational capacities' (Appadurai 2004). We conclude that as long as aspiration for higher education remains a matter of taste, widening participation agendas in their current form will fail to attract the numbers desired to meet government and institutional objectives. What is required is an alternative appreciation of aspiration as a matter of capability (Sen 1999) and then an appetite to reposition higher education from aspirational destination to aspirational node.