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.

The capabilities approach was developed by Indian born Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in response to the question ‘equality of what’, that is, on what informational basis do we decide if people are equal in comparison to each other. Sen’s response has been to argue that the question we need to ask is whether people enjoy the real freedoms (‘capabilities’) to choose the lives they have reason to value. Someone born into poverty is expected to compete for access and success in higher education alongside those from socio-economically advantaged circumstances so that access exists on paper but in reality, poor students may not be able to attend a decent school, be advised on choosing and applying to university, or be able to afford university even if they succeed in getting the South African National Student Financial Aid Service (NSFAS) funding. Once at university they may not feel they ‘belong’, or they may not experience teaching and learning which is confidence-enhancing, while also being critical knowledge-making. Their rights are not secured.

The capabilities approach asks us to look at people’s lived realities to determine whether they truly possess the real freedoms to make meaningful higher education and life choices. It further asks us to consider what people do with their higher education as agents. Do they make contributions to the public good and social change in society or maximise their own self-interest? What does their university encourage them to do?

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