Gore, Oliver Tafadzwa (2017). 'Youth voices on experiences of (dis)advantage: a case study at a South African' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Inequalities and inequity of outcomes in higher education (HE) persist in South Africa despite the government introducing policy that seeks to address the social injustices brought about by previous apartheid policies. Interventions such as increasing enrolment, student funding, student academic development programmes etc.  have not translated into equal student success and social justice in higher education. Specifically, HE policy (e.g White Paper 3 1997; DoE 2006) conceptualises inequalities under the concept of historic ‘disadvantage’ that is, primarily race-based.


Drawing from the capabilities approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, the paper argues that (dis)advantage can be more richly understood in terms of students’ capabilities, functionings and agency, as opposed to a sole focus on race. Students with a limited set of capabilities and low agency to exercise valued educational functionings could be perceived as disadvantaged, and the converse is true.  From a capabilities perspective, social justice in higher education would mean that all students have equal opportunities to convert effective opportunities into valued functionings, and thus equal opportunities to succeed. The paper also draws from, and applies Wolff & De-Shalit’s (2007) concepts of ‘corrosive disadvantages’ and ‘fertile functionings’ to help us think about (dis)advantage, and identify and develop capabilities-informed dimensions of (dis)advantage. In doing so, the paper offers a conceptualisation of socially just HE and makes the argument that a more expansive definition of (dis)advantage should consider: a) economic- including finances for tuition, food, accommodation, descent clothing, text books etc, b) personhood aspects- which includes social and academic support, having confidence, all students participating equally in university activities, ability to speak the language of instruction, having good analytical  and writing skills, and belonging to social groups. More specifically, and theoretically drawing from the capabilities approach and Wolff & De-Shalit, the capabilities identified from literature on capabilities and higher education (e.g. Calitz 2016; Mutanga & Walker 2015; Nussbaum 2000; Wilson-Strydom 2015; Walker 2016; Walker 2006; Loots & Walker 2015) are as follows: participation and voice, affiliation, intellectual, economic, aspiration, and emotions.


Some literature on South Africa (e.g.  Calitz 2016; Wilson-Strydom 2015; Walker 2016; Loots & Walker 2015) further makes it clear that students from different socio-economic backgrounds, ‘races’, and genders have varying resources when enrolling at university and these resources then play out as enablers or constraints of (dis)advantage. Consider the following cases: Lerato who is a black female student from a rural and low income background, and Ntebo who is also black female student but from a middle class urban background. Lerato and Ntebo have different bundles of resources, which gives them different effective opportunities for success during their studies. Although Lerato graduated, she did so with a lower class degree as she was constrained by the conversion factors during her studies e.g university environment, financial struggles and her poor schooling, hence we might consider her as disadvantaged. On the other hand, Ntebo graduated with a better class degree, with her conversion factors intersecting to produce more advantage; her parents social, financial and cultural capital meant that she had a wider set of capabilities and agency to exercise functionings.  


This paper therefore seeks to address the following questions: 1) How do students and university staff conceptually understand advantage and disadvantage? 2) What are students’ concrete experiences of advantage and disadvantage in relation to their histories, lives and higher education specifically? 3)What are students’ effective opportunities for success at university? 4) What are the implications of these findings for promoting an equal and just university environment, fairer outcomes for students, and wider and deeper student capability sets?


The study draws on qualitative interview data with honours (fourth year) students from four different university departments, university staff and Student Representative Council members at a South African university. The departments were purposively selected to ensure student diversity. Data was collected using semi-structured interviews with participants before transcribing interviews in full. The transcripts were coded before thematic analysis. The student interviews, which are the focus of this paper, illuminate the dimensions of (dis)advantage, the capabilities important for students to succeed in the university, and ways for universities to think about (dis)advantage in a more nuanced way. Preliminary results show dimensions of disadvantage differ between students from poor families and those from well-off families, how race-based (dis)advantage plays out, and how gendered HE experiences are. Using theory and empirical data in conversation, the research shows that there is need to rethink the definition of (dis)advantage, particularly on how different forms of disadvantage intersect with each other.

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