Students becoming agents: operationalizing capabilities praxis in higher education

Calitz, Martha Lydia Talita (2014). 'Students becoming agents: operationalizing capabilities praxis in higher education' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

From a human development perspective, universities' pedagogical arrangements should play a pivotal role in creating more just societies where opportunities for greater well-being achievement are possible for an increased number of university graduates. Yet the unequal patterns of access and participation for university students specifically within South African higher education maintain unjust socioeconomic conditions, which are complicated by racial, gender and class divisions (Council on Higher Education 2013; Soudien 2009; Unterhalter 2003). These social inequalities result in very low graduation rates for historically disadvantaged students, and up to fifty percent of university students will never graduate (Council on Higher Education 2013). Unequal access to and participation in higher education is exacerbated by teaching and learning arrangements that privilege particular forms of student capital, knowledge, identity and resources (Matthews 2011; Odora-Hoppers 2001; Pym & Kapp 2013). Because South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world, higher education institutions have a responsibility to respond with greater urgency to widening socioeconomic and educational inequality.

Recent evaluative reports make the case for shifts in pedagogy and teaching and learning arrangements, in response to unequal access and participation, and high undergraduate attrition rates in (ASHESA 2013; Council on Higher Education 2014).The application of the capabilities approach to South Africa's low participation, high attrition system could respond to the unequal development of capabilities and opportunities for functioning for vulnerable students, since the absence of higher education opportunities narrows the capability sets that people need to choose valued lives.

The main argument presented in this paper is that an application of a capabilities praxis to higher education is able to respond to unequal access and participation by fostering pedagogical arrangements that prioritize student agency, freedom and well-being. The paper joins the current research conversation about the implications for a capabilities approach to pedagogy as explored by educational scholars (Nussbaum 2011; Deneulin 2006; McLean & Walker 2013; Wood & Deprez 2012; Wilson-Strydom 2012; Crosbie 2013). The development of capabilities praxis is significant within higher education research because vulnerable university students arrive at higher education institutions with less resources and forms of valued capital than other students. This means that they face significant barriers to agentic positioning within the institution, which affects their opportunities for developing capabilities that allow them to function as agents and active citizens in society.

In this paper, the capabilities approach offers a whole-person view of the student: the individual is understood as a part of a complex set of political, historical, socioeconomic and cultural structural arrangements (Deneulin 2014) which enable or constrain her agency freedom. This student-centered capabilities praxis locates the development of capabilities and functionings within a contextual framework that explores the educational experiences, aspirations and opportunity freedoms for students. The capabilities praxis also enables an integrated perspective of students' educational experiences, tracking well-being, freedom and agency in multiple aspects of students' university activities. This approach is comparative in assessing one student's opportunities for functioning relative to another student by focusing on the conversion factors and adaptive preference that emerge in such comparisons.

 The data presented in this paper was collected over a twelve-month period of engagement with a cohort of undergraduate students. The research is located within a broader project that tracks the application of capabilities praxis within a foundational university course. The student collaborations produced eight individual case studies, which explore the lives and educational experiences of volunteer students from a capabilities perspective. Each case study includes a series of three in-depth narrative interviews conducted over a four-month period and presents a voiced representation of the lives of students as they engage with intersecting social and educational environments. During the research, a capabilities praxis was applied within the classroom to investigate students' capabilities and functionings, which will be illustrated in this paper using the voices of students who reflect on their wellbeing, agency, freedom and opportunities for functioning within the institution. By focusing on the role of the student, the research intends to avoid an approach that imposes new solutions for educational problems by failing to consult the people who are most affected by these problems.

The findings discussed in this paper illustrate how the application of a capabilities praxis in an undergraduate programme enables students to renegotiate their agentic positioning, expand their opportunity freedoms within university classrooms, and engage in transformative ways with knowledge when teaching and learning arrangements are tailored to fit such a praxis. While the social and educational environments present significant obstacles to student's wellbeing, freedom and agency, the capabilities praxis opened up some critical pedagogical spaces where students could engage in transformative ways with knowledge. During the project, students identified their valued educational capabilities, which were then collaboratively adapted to existing pedagogical arrangements.  The data illustrates how students' educational functionings shift from a narrow focus on obtaining instrumental results to developing more complex opportunities to function, including the collaborative engagement with knowledge production, the development of meaningful interpersonal connections, personal confidence, and critical thinking capabilities. During the project, students became increasingly focused on their aspirations, and were able to reflect on the ways in which their lives intersected with education, and the barriers that made learning difficult or impossible. The application of a capabilities praxis therefore contributed to visible shifts in teaching and learning arrangements, as revealed by the increasingly agentic positioning of student participants. These important transitions within higher education pedagogy could increase the equal participation of diverse student cohorts in higher education, thus expanding the development of valued capabilities and expanding students' opportunities to function beyond the university environment. A capabilities praxis could ultimately expand opportunities for student functioning because it produces more just teaching and learning environments that prioritize student wellbeing, agency and freedom

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