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Capability, Belonging and Equity in Higher Education

A mixed methods research project funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education has found that approximately two-thirds of first-year university students surveyed in their final weeks of study felt confident about their academic ability, with male students particularly likely to feel confident about their intelligence and capability.

The study, undertaken by a group of researchers from The University of Newcastle Australia, also found that students with a higher ATAR were more confident about their capability and less likely to question their intelligence. Mature-age Enabling Program students similarly tended to have greater levels of confidence in their academic ability.

Chief investigator, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education Director Professor Penny Jane Burke, using data from a 2014 pilot study examining students’ beliefs about ability, intelligence and subsequent feelings of confidence, said the notion of “capability” with respect to potential university students was an equity issue.

“Student equity in higher education is framed by constructions of capability that imply that a student’s intelligence, potential and ability is innate,” Professor Burke said.

“The assumption that underpins many national widening participation agendas is that all students with the potential to benefit from higher education should have fair access to higher education regardless of social background.”

“The problem with this assumption lies in the suggestion that ‘potential’ or ‘capability’ is an easily identifiable attribute. Our research confirms that these notions are, in actuality, far more complex and socially constructed than they may at first appear.”

Professor Burke’s research shows that self-perception, recognition and identity formation profoundly shape students’ sense of capability. Student identity is produced in and through educational and subject contexts and constructions of capability are connected to feelings of belonging and fitting in.

“Students are often aware of the ways that deficit discourses influence perceptions and judgments about their capability,” Professor Burke said.

“For many students, fear, shame and anxiety create feelings of lack of capability and a lack of belonging. It is, therefore, important that universities pay closer attention to the ways that assumptions and judgments about capability might unwittingly reproduce inequalities in student access, participation and success.”

The report, co-authored by University of Newcastle colleagues Dr Anna Bennett, Ms Cathy Burgess, Dr Kim Gray and Dr Erica Southgate, recommends that universities support lecturers to develop teaching practices that create environments of trust, belonging and inclusion.

Professor Sue Trinidad, NCSEHE Director, reiterated the importance of higher education in addressing social inequality.

“There is no one ‘type’ of student capable of university study. University graduates come from many different backgrounds, and we should encourage all students to consider higher education as one of their educational options,” Professor Trinidad said.

“I congratulate the researchers on this important report and look forward to discussion on the findings.”

Posted 22 March 2016 Posted in Disability, General, Indigenous, Low SES, Non-English speaking background, Regional