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Capability, Belonging and Equity in Higher Education: Developing Inclusive Approaches

In discourse focused on access to, and participation in, higher education, the topic of merit inevitably arises. If a student – regardless of their background – has the capability and inclination to study at university, many believe they should have the opportunity to do so.

In determining which students are eligible for university entrance, however, what precisely is meant by “capability”? How do we decide which students are capable? And on what judgement criteria do we base such decisions? Particularly when judgements of capability have historically resulted in the (often unwitting) perpetuation of social and cultural inequities.

A new research study involving researchers from the University of Newcastle, and funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, aims to understand the way that “capability” is constructed by students and higher education staff.

“In the UK context, the recognition of ‘potential’ and ‘ability’ often depends on the ways that those with institutional authority judge ‘capability’ in specific disciplinary and institutional contexts,” said Professor Penny Jane Burke, project lead and Co-Director of the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE).

“It is argued that the meanings around the word ‘capability’ are indicative of the differences that exist between types of students, subjects or courses, and the various, differentiated, institutions that offer them.”

“As such, there is a real need to develop richer and more nuanced analyses of how capability is constructed so that we can subsequently develop more sophisticated strategies and resources to support student equity in higher education.”

“My colleagues and I are looking to answer some fundamental questions: What does being capable of study at university involve and mean to students, academic staff and equity practitioners? What are the different meanings of capability in play in higher education? And in what ways do these meanings shape, constrain and/or enable equity in higher education?”

“Our findings will lead to the creation of (digital) continuing professional development resources for academic staff and equity practitioners, as well as the presentation of such in CEEHE-hosted workshops.”

Professor Burke’s project is scheduled for completion in late September, after which time her team’s final report will be made available here on the NCSEHE website.

Posted 26 August 2015 Posted in General