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

Written by Professor Penny Jane Burke, Dr Anna Bennett, Ms Cathy Burgess, Dr Kim Gray and Dr Erica Southgate (The University of Newcastle Australia)


The problem with ‘potential’
This project makes a unique contribution to understanding the more subtle dimensions of equity in higher education by examining constructions of ‘capability’ and experiences of ‘belonging’.

Student equity in higher education is framed by constructions of capability that imply that intelligence, potential and ability is innate. The assumption that underpins many national widening participation agendas, namely that all students with the potential to benefit from higher education should have fair access to higher education regardless of social background, is problematic (Archer & Leathwood 2003). The problem rests in the suggestion that ‘potential’ to benefit from higher education is an attribute that can be straightforwardly identified in order to ensure fair access. It also implies that potential to benefit from higher education is about natural talent, ability and/or intelligence and is detached from social, cultural and educational dis/advantage and inequalities (Morley & Lugg 2009, p. 41).

The project
This mixed methods project draws on extant data from a 2014 pilot study examining students’ beliefs about ability, intelligence and how this is related to levels of confidence. The extant data was generated through a survey instrument drawing on the work of Carol Dweck (2000; 2013). As part of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) funded study, further qualitative data were generated. In total, 772 students were surveyed, 41 students took part in either focus groups or in-depth interviews and 19 university lecturers participated in focus groups or were individually interviewed (refer to Appendix A and B for demographic details).

The aim was to:

  • explore and identify the different meanings attached to ‘capability’ in particular contexts (such as subject or course);
  • consider the ways these meanings shape the experiences, practices and sense of belonging of students from non-traditional backgrounds; and
  • help improve the educational opportunities and completion rates for university students from non-traditional (non-ATAR) and other educationally disadvantaged backgrounds through contributing a more nuanced understanding of capability.

Key findings and themes
Key findings from the survey:

  • Students with a higher ATAR were more confident about their capability and less likely to question their intelligence.
  • Approximately one-third of students surveyed in the last weeks of their first year of study did not feel confident about their academic ability.
  • Enabling program students aged 20 years and older tended to have greater levels of confidence about their intellectual ability.
  • Males were more likely to feel confident about their intelligence and capability than females.
  • Mature age learners and students from non-traditional study pathways were more likely to have a strong growth view of their capability.

Key themes emerging from the qualitative analysis:

  • Capability is deeply entwined with identity formations that are produced within, across and between different social contexts and spaces.
  • Constructions of capability are contested and not fixed and stable but are tied to feelings of belonging and fitting in.
  • Students are often aware of the ways that deficit discourses influence perceptions and judgments about capability.
  • Teachers’ expectations about students’ dispositions to learning, time management and willingness to work hard can lead to the misrecognition of a student as lacking capability.
  • Family influences are important in shaping confidence and feelings of capability but do not necessarily determine educational aspirations, expectations and success.
  • Fear, shame and anxiety create feelings of lack of capability and not belonging for many students.
  • Students feel most confident in an inclusive pedagogical environment in which trust is established and belonging is fostered.
  • Discourses that blame individuals tend to exacerbate feelings of incapability in both teachers and students.
  • Pressure on teachers to meet expectations of excellence and equity was described as stressful and highly challenging within existing structures.
  • Academic confidence was seen to have a significant impact on students’ academic success.
  • Teaching staff perceived competing discourses of collaboration and competition as negatively affecting student capability.

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Burke, P. J., Bennett, A., Burgess, C., Gray, K. & Southgate, E. (2016) Capability, Belonging and Equity in Higher Education: Developing Inclusive Approaches. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Posted 22 March 2016 By ncsehe