Capability in Australian education policy: opportunity or performance value?

Year: 2013

Author: Molla, Tebeje, Gale, Trevor

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper explores the recent emergence of the term ‘capability’ in Australian education policy. It reports on a discourse analysis of Rudd/Gillard Government education policy documents, tracking the use and development of the meaning of ‘capabilities’ over time. In particular, its focus is the Australia in the Asian Century white paper, which mounts a case for fostering Asia-relevant capabilities in workers and school students, and the Australian Curriculum framework of ‘General Capabilities’ (ACARA). Primarily developed as an alternative to narrow measures of advantage and well-being such as income, utility, resources and negative freedoms, the capability approach places strong emphasis on people’s substantive opportunities and agency freedom. The developer of the approach, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, defines capability as a set of real opportunities from which an individual can choose in order to achieve a life he or she has reason to value. As a broad normative framework, the capability approach has become a tool for understanding and evaluating social arrangements (e.g. education policies and development programs) in terms of individuals’ effective freedoms to achieve valuable beings and doings. ‘Capability’ has strong policy appeal and has informed policy decisions and discourses at international (notably the United Nations Development Program) and national levels. This paper identifies meanings ascribed to capability in the Australian context and reveals how these are at odds with the scholarly literature (e.g. Sen, Nussbaum). In particular, the social justice intent of capability theory appears to be overtaken in recent Australian education policy by an emphasis on outcomes, performance and functionings that serve the nation’s economic interests more than the interests of the disadvantaged.