Walker, Melanie (1); Hoeppener, Mikateko (1); Wilson-Strydom, Merridy (1); Bathmaker, Ann-Marie (2); McLean, Monica (3); Masutha, Mukovhe (4) (2017). 'Rural youth and accessing higher education: intersectional conversion factors and capabilities' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


This paper draws on the work undertaken in the first year of a four-year mixed methods longitudinal research project funded by the ESRC-DfID, focusing on inclusive higher education learning outcomes for rural disadvantaged youth in South Africa. As a constituency, rural youth in South Africa have been overlooked in higher education research, even though they neither access university in the same numbers as students from urban areas, nor do they do as well once in university. Overall access for rural students, the focus of this paper, is a very under-researched area. There is a need to gain fine-grained detail from rural youth about how they understand and experience disadvantage, equity and quality in relation to learning outcomes; and about how or whether once accessed higher education fosters agency and decision-making that empowers young people to change their own lives and those of others.

From its early stages, the project is strongly emphasising engaging diverse publics with the impact of the project - understood conceptually (as changing thinking), instrumentally (as policy reform), and as capacity building (in the research team and beyond, including young people as researchers). The project is therefore working in close partnership with the youth-led Thusanani Foundation (, a non-profit, youth-led, organization aimed at bridging the educational and technology information gap between rural and urban youth to create equal opportunity for all to access and succeed in institutions of higher learning and other post-schooling opportunities. The research applies and interrogates the capability approach for its robustness as a theoretical framework for researching inclusive higher education learning outcomes. A key outcome is the iterative development with diverse academic and non-academic stakeholders of a capabilities-based higher education learning outcomes Index.

Aligned with the capability approach, the research project assumes that, in many ways, education contributes to a flourishing life and acts as a capabilities multiplier for intrinsic personal development, instrumental opportunities to earn a livelihood, and social development opportunities, including democratic participation. Education is also a space for the formation of values, enabling reasoned choices about valued functionings.  It is then a matter of justice, for individuals and for  society, who gets access to educational opportunities and who is excluded, and what the intersecting enabling and constraining conditions – economic, social and political – are in particular historical and social contexts in the formation of human well-being and agency to make choices about education. The project’s aim is to investigate the multi-dimensional dynamics or factors shaping rural students’ effective opportunities to access higher education, flourish and participate, and move from higher education to work.  We are using the capabilities approach as a conceptual frame because it asks us to consider the lived realities of rural youth to determine whether they have 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 maximize their own self-interest?  What does their university education encourage them to do and to be?




For this paper, we draw specifically on: 1) a set of rich reflective life-history interviews with 15 second-year university students from one district in Limpopo (a rural province in the north of South Africa). In these interviews the students discuss and reflect on choosing higher education, and the part played by their school and teachers, friends, parents, community, the Thusanani Foundation, and the university they now attend.  They also discuss how they were able to access university having made their choice; and their aspirations for their university studies and their lives and careers beyond university. 2) Secondary statistical data from the national census, household surveys, community surveys and labour force surveys for the same Limpopo district to establish the intersectional contextual conditions for choice and access to higher education along dimensions which include educational outcomes, services (such as housing, water, electricity and sanitation), employment, income, community affiliations, access to technology, transport, food security, and peaceful/non-violent environment. 3)  Macro higher education systems data, including enrolments, qualifications, fields of study, and completion rates over six years, which all South African universities are required to submit annually to the Department of Higher Education and Training.  We examine these three data sources to understand quantitatively and qualitatively (especially student voices) the enablers and barriers for rural youth in being able to choose and to access higher education.  We outline what – at this stage - are the capabilities valued by young people in making their choices to attend and to access university, and what are key learning outcomes for the ‘getting in’ stage of higher education.  We make some preliminary comments on how this combined data set might inform the first iteration of an inclusive learning outcomes Index. 


The significance of the project lies in its attention to rural youth as a neglected constituency, the focus on community partnership and youth voices, and in the production of an Index as a policy tool for multiple stakeholder groups to improve access, participation and success in higher education for rural youth, as well as public higher education and universities’ accountability for fostering inclusive access.

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