Young adults and vocational education and training in disadvantaged areas of melbourne, australia: exploring the potential of the capabilities approach

Brown, Justin (2018). 'Young adults and vocational education and training in disadvantaged areas of Melbourne, Australia: Exploring the potential of the capabilities approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.

Abstract

Youth unemployment in Australia has been described as a source of ‘capability deprivation’ (Henry, 2014). Since the late 1980s, a recurring set of policies and programs have been implemented in Australia to tackle youth unemployment by lifting rates of participation in school-based and post-school vocational education and training (VET). More recently, the introduction of policy reforms to marketise the Victorian training system has transformed the composition of VET providers in the training system and, by extension, the types and quality of courses being offered. The impact of these reforms has been documented in the media and through government reviews. However, very little is understood about the impact of these reforms on VET ‘opportunities’ for small populations of young learners at the local level. Even less is understood from the perspective of the learners themselves.

To address this gap, my research contributes a critical examination of post-school training opportunities available to young adults in the small local area of the Frankston-Mornington Peninsula region in Victoria, Australia. This particular region has a youth unemployment rate that is five percentage points higher than the greater Melbourne and Victorian state averages. Drawing on the conceptual framework of the capabilities approach (CA) pioneered by economist Amartya Sen and extended by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, my study conducts a sequential explanatory mixed-method design (Creswell et al., 2003) set within critical realist (CR) ontology (Bhaskar, 1979/1975). I bring together the philosophical approach of CR and the conceptual framework of the CA to better understand how the problem is constructed.

By applying these alternative lenses, I propose approaches to understanding the problem in a more meaningful way. The capabilities approach is structured around three core concepts: capabilities (understood as what people are able to be or to do); functionings (understood as what people, having capabilities, are doing); and agency (understood as the ability to choose the functionings). My research builds on this framework to identify the extent of alignment between available opportunities (as espoused in policy) and accessible opportunities (as stated by young people).

Through an assessment of administrative, survey and primary qualitative data, my research produces new insights into the misalignment between (1) loosely-defined policy rhetoric advocating ‘choice’ and ‘opportunity’ in training ‘markets’ and (2) the real training opportunities accessible to young adults in a disadvantaged location. It is envisaged that the findings will have application for policy makers and practitioners in similarly disadvantaged contexts, particularly where there are limited post-school opportunities available to young people. For researchers, there are lessons arising for applying the capabilities approach to the context of young people and VET in disadvantaged locations.

This research draws on Dr Brown's PhD dissertation titled 'Young adults and post-school training opportunities in the Frankston-Mornington Peninsula region of Victoria, Australia'. It was completed through the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and the University of Melbourne in May 2017. He was awarded the inaugural Jack Keating scholarship for educational research for this dissertation. The scholarship was established to support graduate researchers who are pursuing policy research in the field of education where the research is likely to impact on greater equality of opportunity and education outcomes and the advancement of social justice.

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