Our research project is funded by the ESRC and DfID and we plan to undertake a systematic, integrated, and longitudinal mixed-methods investigation over four years (September 2016-August 2020). This investigation will explore the multidimensional dynamics or factors shaping and/or inhibiting disadvantaged students’ capabilities:

  • to access;
  • participate and succeed in higher education, and
  • move from higher education to work. This is necessary because we do not know in fine-grained detail from students how they understand and experience disadvantage, equity and quality in relation to learning outcomes, nor how higher education fosters agency and decision-making that empowers young people to work to change their own lives and those of others.

 Our aim is to build a Human Capabilities-Based Higher Education Learning Outcomes Index that offers a normative multidimensional model for identifying and improving equity and quality in higher education for rural and township youth, using South Africa as the country case study. Aligned with this main aim, the project will address how interacting and complex biographical, socioeconomic, policy, and educational factors enable or inhibit pathways for students from challenging backgrounds into, their experiences in, and their transitions out of higher education, and relate these specifically to the learning outcomes achieved. We will define and measure multidimensional learning outcomes by conceptualising them as capabilities (effective freedoms that individuals have reason to value), shedding light on evidence-informed practice and policy options which advance both equity and quality. Our research methods include a participatory component involving rural and township students supported by the Thusanani Foundation. Central to the project are consultative processes with a diverse range of stakeholders through engaging them in workshops and colloquia which will lead to policy and practice recommendations. By using the capability approach to understand, evaluate, and measure educational equity and quality, the project will generate new knowledge about the achievement of valuable outcomes in higher education for youth from two challenging contexts.


Research Questions

How do ‘disadvantaged’ youth from rural and townships schools access, participate in, and succeed in higher education, and then move into work? [data]. [What can the TF programme tell us about what works well for these students.]

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Theoretical Framework

The capability approach and human development as the broader outcome, we think, could go a long way to helping us to think well about practices of transformation and decolonisation for quality higher education and in guiding government policy on how to allocate money to universities.


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Complex data-sets are required because the distribution of capabilities is embedded in families, schools, university educational, and social arrangements, and work-readiness activities. Insights into these processes will be gained by exploring student pathways, experiences, aspirations and plans for their future careers.

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