These are simply a selection of quotes that are broadly representative of how students articulated these capabilities and capitals – a more thorough overview of this articulation is provided in forthcoming publications related to this project.
When exploring these capabilities and capitals closely, it is clear these exist on a continuum with each defined in relation to the other. For example, when we reflect upon ‘Sisu’, it is clear that this ‘grim, gritty, white knuckle form of courage’ is frequently developed or derived from various forms of experiential capitals or even familial capital where the desire to succeed is firmly grounded in previous difficult or contested situational contexts. To further explore this continuity and the relationship between capabilities, the following sections provide a brief summative overview of each capital / capability based on the additional data generated from the participant interviews and surveys in this study.
When students reflected upon Sisu is was often situated as a quality derived from their family or personal backgrounds but it was characterised in different ways. For some, it was regarded as a trait or quality that was correlated with being ‘working class’ or ‘poor’. As Erin so eloquently described:
…it [perseverance] was something that we were taught when we were younger that if you really want something, nothing in life is ever going to be handed to you on a silver platter and that’s probably because of that working-class ethic in our family, just to never give up – where there’s a will, there’s a way. (Erin)
Equally, Sisu was developed through facing adversity or difficulties in life that provided a stubborn mentality or a desire to achieve that students variously characterised as being ‘a fighter’; ‘digging deep’ or an ‘unwillingness to take no for an answer.’ As Dyahn explains:
I think coming from a family where I had nothing, I don’t want to provide that for my family so I’m determined to finish uni and secure the job that I want so that my children have a really good life. (Dyahn)
Closely linked to ‘Sisu” and at times informing its character, is what I have termed as ‘familial capital’ where the connection between the act of persistence and the family (or members therein) are explicitly linked by the participant. Again, this featured strongly in the data and was generally characterised by individuals making explicit links between persisting at university and their family background, circumstances or support. Importantly these references to family or family were not always positive in nature but equally could reflect a level of negativity or criticality towards this educational undertaking. However, regardless of the nature of this support or the ways it was manifested, this was a capital that provided an impetus or desire within the learner to continue in their educational endeavours:
I guess that value of putting in an effort, yeah, treatment, achievement, seeing the task through to the end. We’ve got a bit of a family mantra that you don’t give up, you’ll do what you said you were going to do. We don’t do things half-heartedly. (Nicole)
Yeah, and I just didn’t do it because there was no much pressure to… “No, university is no good. You just read books” and the whole family is dead against it; “Get a proper job” – they didn’t even like me doing Year 11, like, “No, get a job. Everyone else got a job. Why can’t you?” But I’d say to myself now, “Just do it. Don’t listen. Just do it”. (Aaron)
While the quotes from Aaron and Nicole represent different attitudes and perspectives from others on their educational decisions, both indicate a resource used for persisitence derived from the family unit.
The ability to actively seek out help or assistance was also a capability identified in the data, student participants reflected upon this behaviour as being key to their persistence and success within the HE environment. This capability is action-orientated and involves the student defining or describing the ways in which they strategise to obtain information and also, a recognition that this is a quality that has assisted them to pursue their educational endeavours. Bradley for example, explained how his ‘help seeking behaviour’ was a capability he had developed over a period of time, as he gradually overcame his sense of being ‘overawed’ by the university:
I was a bit overawed by the university website at the time and seeking information on that website was kind of like “Oh, there’s too much here. Where do I start?” Overcoming that, I had to use people like careers advisors and year advisors (Bradley)
Similarly, Fiona explained how recognising that her own knowledge set was somehow limited forced her to explore other options and to actively seek out alternative sources of critical information:
…not knowing what uni was like in any small or great aspect and not really getting prepped that much by school or anyone that really knew what to expect and then early on, just like with help and kind of if you didn’t go “Stuff it, I’m struggling. I’m going to ask 20 people how to get myself out of a hole” then I wouldn’t have probably passed a few of those papers. (Fiona)
As mentioned previously, experiential capital is closely aligned to familial capital in some cases and also underpins the capability termed as ‘Sisu’ in this project. This form of capital was key to a number of students’ narratives of persistence, with many reflecting on how apriori experiences and the coping mechanisms developed in response to these, enabled them to maintain their persistence in the face of adverse or difficult circumstances. This capital was derived from a range of contexts and circumstances including family, employment, personal issues and also, broader relational situations. Again, the common theme in this capital was a direct correlation being made between the actual experience and the act of persisting at university. As the following quotes highlight :
I have had some negative experiences which I believe have actually benefited me in ways because I am more motivated to set high goals and work hard to achieve them. (survey respondents)
I think my resilience. I think I’m very proud of that. Very, very long stories that I could go through but I’ve had to be resilient – I dropped out of high school, I was homeless for a while, the father of my first born child passed away, then I got married, my husband and I had a child that passed away – I’ve had a whole huge massive difficult life (Isabel)
This capability reflected on individuals’ capacity to reflexively develop and grow from previous events or situations, this action underpinning their perspective and attitude on university persistence. Reflexivity is more intangible than the other capitals and capabilities identified in the data but largely this referred to an examination of feelings, attitudes or perspectives that positively impacted on perseverance within higher education. Sometimes this ‘reflexivity’ took the form of a personal sentiment or ‘maxim’ that individuals referred to when encountering difficulties or obstacles:
I’ve always found it’s not about how you fail, it’s how you pick yourself up and learn from it and apply that to the next situation. (Leon)
For others, this capability was manifested in terms of recognising the need for internal change and an openness to implementing such change in order to persist and achieve at university:
Yeah, I had to change my perceptions of myself to be able to be like, “Okay, everyone’s path is different. You’re not the same as everyone else” and that’s why I had to overcome that barrier. (Layla)
You know, I’ve really pushed myself to my limits in this and I think I keep finding new ceilings of those limits. I think, “Okay, I can’t possibly do anymore” and then I find something else that I can just stretch a tiny bit more. So I think finding those capacities that, you know, is reaffirming – that’s been good. It’s also been really hard but yeah, just finding those inner strengths I didn’t know that I had. (Miriam)
Beginning university as an older or ‘mature’ learner remains largely constructed as a non-normative transition as the foci in the HE sector remains fixed on the school leaver age group. However, the older cohort is a significant proportion of our student population in Australia with 39% of HE learners being aged 25 years or older (Department of Education & Training (DET), 2016). This older cohort continues to be defined in terms of a ‘narrative of disadvantage (Woodfield, 2011, p410) with one recent study reporting that age increases the likelihood of early departure from tertiary studies (Burke, 2017). These characteristics are particularly interesting when we consider that the older students in this study that had successfully persisted to the end of their degree largely regarded this maturity in positive ways, a capability that enabled them to maintain momentum in their studies:
Being a mature age student as well, I think I’ve had plenty of years to reflect and think about what I would do if I could go to uni if I had that opportunity and I think it’s more pronounced as you get older because you can narrow things down and you can follow that path because you know that that’s what you want. (Helen)
Having this maturity and the associated life experiences could also compensate for the initial gaps in understanding related to being the first in the family. In this way, maturity was reflected upon as a compensating factor for FiF status:
I feel like if I was younger and I went into university as the first person in my family, I didn’t have support at home and then all of the other students then looked down on me, I would not have been able to cope with that and I probably would have dropped out. (Isabel)
Considering maturity as a form of capability has important implications for how students are constructed particularly older learners, and will be returned to in the recommendations section of this report.
Related to maturity and also, experiential capital was the ways in which students reflected upon their ability to apply learnings about being disciplined to areas of study. This cross fertilisation of knowledge provided learners with additional capability tools that could be applied to their persistence behaviours within HE. The references to this discipline included a diversity of referents that centred on an ability to productively apply approaches or skils used in other facets of life (i.e. sport, work or parenting etc) to the HE space:
I’m very organised. I think that comes from my background of event organising too. I know what has to be done and I set myself up before each semester, beginning of every week, I know exactly what has to be done that week. (Trish)
The final capability that emerged strongly from the data was participants’ capacity to question and, in some cases, reject the ‘status quo’. The latter defined as the expected and/or existing situations or contexts that participants encountered in their learning journeys. This capability was sometimes articulated in terms of an individuals’ deliberate contravening or rejection of social or relational expectations or requirements. For women this was often the act of disrupting perceived gender norms and choosing university instead of caregiving or marital responsibilities. Belinda described this in terms of her ‘drive’ to do something different to what was expected by those around her:
…that drive to want to get out and see the world was really important. Yeah, it sort of made me then probably wanting to decide what I wanted to do because I didn’t really have any idea; being in such a small community it was just you were expected to probably remain in small communities or marry a farmer or something like that. I knew that wasn’t for me but because I really hadn’t seen much of the world… (Belinda)
Others spoke about how their persistence was galvanised by the limitations that were assumed by their life circumstances and/or those around them; questioning and rejecting such expectations providing a solid framing from which to maintain their persistence behaviours:
…other students’ negativity and the put-downs, “You can’t do it. You can’t achieve it from the low social background and you can’t do it. People don’t go to university from families that are born in low social backgrounds”. Other than that, but I overcame that. (Raina)
Firmly rejecting the expected or anticipated life course provided a number of students with the determination or motivation to continue their study despite hardships:
If anything, I think about what life would be if I didn’t go to uni, and aim away from that by continuing to study. (Survey)
Definition adopted for this study: The range of capabilities and cultural strengths that students mentioned as underpinning their persistence behaviours. Cultural Strengths: The capitals that inform individuals’ movement and successes within fields. A capability is an ‘ability to do valuable acts or reach valuable states of being’ (Sen, 1993, p.30).
There were eleven sub-nodes identified under this ‘parent’ or high-level node; the following hierarchy chart indicates the relative weightings or references associated with each of these categories. These weightings are represented through the ‘slice of the pie’ allocated to the various themes in order to provide a pictorial representation of the relative distribution across themes:
As the size of the slices suggest, the top four nodes that were coded include:
Definition adopted for this study: Fertile functionings relate to the various parts of a person’s state of being that refer specifically to what they can ‘do’ or ‘be’ in life or in this case assist in persistence.
The second high-level or ‘parent’ node that underpins this persistence framework has been called fertile functionings associated with persistence; this conceptually moves the data analysis along from just considering particular attributes or states of being that impact on persistence to actually consider access to ‘fertile functionings’ that enable or facilitate particular ‘states of being’. Sen (1993) defines functionings as directly relating to the various parts of a person’s state of being that refer specifically to what they can ‘do’ or ‘be’ in life; whereas capabilities refer to the ‘alternative combinations of functionings the person can achieve and from which he or she can choose…’ (p.31)
This overarching node also had a total of eleven subthemes or child nodes as follows (in no particular order):
Table 6: The nodes associated with the ‘fertile functionings’ theme
The top four for this particular theme were as follows:
Finding a passion
Individual effort or independence
Developing a sense of the self as persistent
The following Figure 5 also indicates how the data spanned these themes indicating a relational matrix around key ‘ways of being’ that seemed to underpin the act of persisting:
Definition adopted for this study: The access to substantive freedoms or conversion factors that these learners required in order to perform or enact persistence.
The final node or theme that fundamentally relates to this persistence framework is one that seeks to provide context to our understandings of the field. The overarching node is entitled: Access to substantive freedoms / conversion factors to achieve goals, which refers to the contexts and conditions under which agency goals are developed. In other words, what this node seeks to consider is the substantive freedoms people actually have to perform or enact their aspirations.
This node was not as broad as the other two and consisted of four main categories. As a context node, this is largely descriptive rather than analytical in nature. The four sub categories or nodes are:
Table 7: Details of the substantive freedoms / conversion factors
It is important to note that capabilities or capitals do not equate to personal qualities as such, in this study the students spoke about personal qualities in their persistence (including persistence, motivation, resilience etc) but capabilities relate more to an ability or opportunity to reach desired states of being. What this actually means is that people can attest to have characteristics or qualities that assist them but still not achieve what it is that they desire in life perhaps because their access to substantive freedoms or their fertile functionings may be limited or constrained. Equally, the substantive freedoms and conversion factors identified by these participants are also only partial, as these rely on thematic commonality as opposed to individual contexts or idiosyncrasies. The result of this analysis is the creation of an ideal-theoretical framework initially, which is then further refined to produce a more applied framework for the field. As stated, this is not presented as an unique or comprehensive overview but rather as one translation of how this particular cohort of first-in-family students represented and articulated their persistence behaviours.
Once the coding of all the data was completed, the initial analysis was then revisited to consider possible overlaps between themes and those that seemed to be repetitive or could not be differentiated were collapsed into a broader node. This stage of analysis required constant reading and memoing, this deep engagement with the data enabled patterns and replication to be recognised across nodes. This was an iterative process that required movement between the nodes, their definitions and the data. Appendix Two details exactly how various nodes were grouped and / or collapsed to create new nodes (based on existing data). This stage also involved constant reflection to ensure that this analysis remained deeply embedded within the data. Two examples of how these were collapsed is presented in Figure 6 but for more detailed explaination please refer to Appendix Two:
The two examples above show how nodes were grouped, analysed and then collapsed:
Example One: The conversion factor ‘Access to productive relational networks’emerged from two nodes, namely 1) Social networks of support and 2) Networks of influential people. When the content of both of these was examined it was clear that each detailed relationships that are supportive in nature, support was both emotional and strategic in nature. To capture this nuance, the resulting conversion factor was further delineated to differentiate between ‘emotional’ champions or ‘cheer leaders’ for students as well as more strategic relationships with people in relative positions of power.
Example Two:The conversion factor: ‘Contextual applications of learning that are immediate and authentic’was derived from closely analysing the content in the following two nodes: 1) Engagement with industry and 2) Discipline and complementary institutional experiences.Overall, this data collectively related to an opportunity to apply learning to practical situations, so having access to a job or volunteer role that allowed immediate application of learning was defined as another key conversion factor for these learners.
Both examples above relate to conversion factors but equally a small number of the capabilities were also collapsed. The most complex of these is detailed in Figure 7, where three nodes: 1) Grit or determined persistence, 2) Fearless or daunting and 3) Obstinacy and tenacity all similarly referred to a level of determination, an ability to keep going even in the face of adversity or when feeling fearful of what is ahead. Having reflected at length about this, I realised that there was not a word in English that accurately captured what this capability spoke to; however, there is a word in Finnish! This capability was renamed ‘Demonstrating Sisu’ as the term sisu more accurately captures the inner strengths and capabilities that these students referred to in their narratives (see Table 8 for details).
Tables 8 & 9 further detail the final list of capabilities and conversion factors with clear definitions, this is followed by Table 10 where each of the capabilities is situated in relation to existing lists, extant literature and also example statements from the students themselves.
Sen (2002) argues that we need to deeply examine the actual freedoms people have to actually ‘formulate capabilities’ or valued doings and beings. Such conversion factors allow the resources to be converted into valued functionings (pp. 86-94). Key to Sen’s theories are the concepts of personal freedom and agency, but the conversion factors identified by the students in this study included the value of certain lived experiences and the need for a well-developed self-concept.
Table 11: Mapping the conversion factors against the literature
Table 8: Details of overarching list of capabilities with definitions
Table 9: Details of the overarching list of conversion factors with definitions
Each of the capabilities, capitals and conversion factors emerged inductively from the data and so initially had no bearing on existing lists or literature in the field. However, this initial pass over the data was then mapped against existing capabilities lists including those related to the higher education (HE) field such as Walker’s (2006) Ideal-Theoretical list of HE capabilitiesand Wilson-Strydom’s (2015) list relating to transition to HE. In addition, Nussbaum’s list of ten central human capabilities was also referred to in this process (2006).
By mapping this capabilities list against other existing lists, the intent is to consider any possible gaps or oversights in the analysis. Such mapping required a continual movement between the actual data (how students themselves articulate their persistence), the literature (how research and policy reflects upon persistence) and existing lists (how other theorists have translated the Capabilities approach within and beyond the HE sector). This mapping process further ensured Robeyns’ stage of ‘explicit formulation’ (2003) in the creation of this list and also, sought to develop a solid methodological justification.
Table 10: Mapping the final list against existing capability lists and relevant literature
Students were recruited from nine Australian universities in 2017, mainly via email and could choose to complete an anonymous online survey or participate an interview. The study was approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee from the lead institution (HREC 2017/078) and met all additional requirements of the participating universities.As a courtesy, permission for the research was also sought and gained at the institutional level from senior executives of a number of Australian universities based on ethics approval from the lead institution. Once all permissions were received, key personnel distributed the recruitment email on behalf of the researchers or via other channels (such as student newsletter or digital screen advertising).
The main criteria for involvement was that students be first in their immediate family to attend university, and be in the latter stages of an undergraduate degree (i.e. they had completed at least two years of full time study, or equivalent). Both the interview and the survey commenced with questions relating to these criteria, to ensure that all participants similarly met these requirements. Students inititated interest in participating by either completing the anonymous online survey or contacting the researchers to arrange an interview. None of the students were known to the researchers.
The guiding questions
Both the interview and survey guiding questions were the same, although the semi-structured interview format enabled some aspects of the experience to be explored in more depth. Even so, the qualitative data in the survey responses was rich, even if not of similar depth. Both interviews and surveys began with eliciting demographic information, followed by questions around three broad areas: self-reflections as a student; reflections on higher education; higher education participation and support from family/community, the institution and others.
Of the 306 surveys returned 239 were female, 50 male and 17 skipped; of the 69 interviews (with 70 interviewees i.e. one paired interview) 52 were female and 18 male. Participants self-selected the equity categories applicable to them (as detailed in the Intersectionality section). In addition to this 69 survey participants had children, 143 were partnered and 146 were single; 32 interview participants had children, 36 were partnered and 19 were single. Table 2 details the demographics of students, please note that students could choose more than one demographic category to ensure the diversity of this cohort was captured.
All the data was imported into NVivo11 and initially line by line coding was conducted on each of the interviews and the survey responses (N=376). Line-by-line coding was deliberately chosen to ensure that the framework emerged inductively from the data rather than a preconceived capabilities framing being applied to the data. This approach does differ to others in the field, for example, Wilson-Strydom (2015) who applied the ideal-theoretical list developed by Walker (2006) to the development of capabilities needed to access higher education. This difference is not an implied criticism of such an approach but rather offers a point of differentiation based on the methodological underpinning of this study which is informed by constructivist grounded theory.
Constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz, 2006) focuses on the ‘phenomena’ that is being studied and regards facets of the research experience that include relationships with participants and shared experiences as intrinsic to the creation of data and analysis. This perspective emphasises the interpretative nature of theory generation and so reveals how theory is necessarily a construction that relies on researcher engagement with the data as well as being contextually bounded by temporal, geographical, cultural and situational contexts (Charmaz, 2006; Addison, 1999). As a constructivist grounded theorist, I am situated within the Symbolic Interactionist framework, which recognises the multiple realities of lived experiences as well as the negotiated framework that meanings exist within. When applied to this study it has ensured that the capabilities that have been developed are based inductively in the data; that is, these emerged through a reiterative engagement with the text, involving line by line coding, with the emerging themes being grouped into three overarching ‘nodes’ with a series of sub-categories underpinning these.
This approach was adopted in order to avoid imposing an ‘analytic frame’ to analysis (Charmaz, 2006, p. 62). The questions that were asked related to the actual data rather than preconceived and rigid categories. This is one of the strengths of constructivist grounded theory. The researcher engages with the data in an open-minded manner seeking to act on and react to the material, which places emphasis on the data itself rather than existing frameworks or models obtained from external sources such as literature, policy or previous studies. Yet it is important to realise that ideas do not emerge solely from the data, instead deep understanding is generated via a movement between reading the data and reading the literature. While there is a definite place and indeed need for extensive consultation of existing literature, I deliberately timed this to occur after a preliminary engagement with data in order to avoid unintentional prescription or the imposition of existing frameworks on material. Hence, it was only after I completed the initial analysis of the data that I then engaged with the lists that have been developed by Wilson-Strydom (2015), Walker (2006) and Nussbaum (2006). The emerging nodes were mapped against these lists in order to address Robeyn’s (2003) criteria of ‘explicit formulation’ and ‘levels of generalisability’. This mapping process also ensured that the result was both connected to existing lists but equally nuanced to the particularities of both this student cohort and the Australian higher education context.
The main themes that emerged from the line-by-line coding of the interviews (n=72) and surveys (n=306) resulted from open-coding. I deliberately coded based on what ‘jumped out’ of the data in a more holistic sense, rather than limiting coding to understandings of persistence; this form of open coding is vital in order to thoroughly interrogate the data being examined. These high-level nodes were inductively derived from the data and were populated with relevant content from across both the surveys and interviews. As this coding continued, patterns began to emerge in the data and as these emerged, sub-nodes were created. The coding continued until all the Australian data was exhausted and then each of the sub-nodes (or child nodes) was analysed, with those that seemed to be repetitive or very limited in application removed. Each of the nodes had also been carefully defined at the onset of coding; these initial definitions were later refined based on the emerging data. This was a rigorous process that required a continual dipping into the data, followed by written reflections and also, critical analysis.
A total of 24 overarching codes (See Appendix One) emerged across the data but these related to a diversity of areas that, while broadly related to persistence, were not related to the act of persistence, which was the primary focus of this study. The resulting nodes were varied and have contributed to insights into students’ understandings of ‘success’ (Delahunty & O’Shea, 2019; O’Shea & Delahunty, 2018); the ‘felt’ nature of border and boundary crossing (O’Shea, under review) and the ways in which communities of practice operate within the HE environment (Groves & O’Shea, under review).
Out of the 24 broad based nodes, there are three main nodes that directly relate to this study:
Access to substantive freedoms or conversion factors to achieve goals
Capabilities and cultural strengths underpinning persistence
Fertile Functionings associated with persistence
Table 3 (below) details these three overarching nodes with the definition that emerged from analysis as well as the number of affiliated sub or child nodes, which numbered 26 in total:
Table 3: Details of nodes and descriptors after the first pass over the data
Figure 2 (below) shows how these three overarching nodes were perceived to relate to each other. Based on my analysis and understanding, each was embedded within the other and existed in a relational state; meaning that all three were key to the successful enactment of persistence within HE.
Figure 2 conceputalises these as non-hierachical, continually evolving relationships i.e. the capabilities and cultural strengths offer the potential for students to achieve what is valued (in this case it is persisting and ultimately degree attainment); fertile functionings relate to the outputs / outcomes that enabled persistence; and substantive freedoms/conversion factors relate to who and/or what experiences (or intersecting dimensions) are influential in this enactment. Thus the enactment of persistence is drawn from the past (positive and negative experiences, cultural/social capitals, behaviours), which are then drawn upon in the here-and-now (especially when the ‘going gets tough’), and which are likely to inform future situations (informed by past positive and negative experiences, new cultural/social capitals, behaviours). Obviously, a person who has limited access to all of these areas would have difficulty in persisting but equally, if an individual was unable to achieve fertile functionings or had only limited access to substantive freedoms, this too would arguably foreclose or limit the act of persisting.
Figure 3 provides a simplified overview of how all three overarching themes were considered in the development of this framework, each was given equal weight in this development. The interrelationship of these nodes meant that each has informed the range of strategies and approaches that underpin the suggested framework. These suggested strategies are designed for practitioners in the field and again, are all directly informed by the data that has been analysed.
The following sections provide the necessary detail for each of these overarching nodes and then defines the various sub-nodes related to these. There is also an overview of the ways in which the coding occurred, including an indication of which nodes were most apparent in the data. As this volume or number of references indicates a greater thematic commonality, this numerical value partially informed inclusion within the final framework.
 Comments in ‘other’ often included more information about the category/ies selected or indicated uncertainty about a category, such as being from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander backgroundsbut not identifying as such. Categorising one’s situation as LSES was sometimes difficult such as “I wouldn’t say low-socioeconomic background but we definitely by no means rich” (Survey), or “My parents were [LSES] but I’m not now” (interview). Often ‘other’ was used to describe situations in more detail such as being or coming from coming from a single-parent family, divorced family or dysfunctional family, having to leave home to study, leaving home at an early age, being mature aged, being homeschooled, having mental health issues; returning to study after having a child, leaving prison; born or parents born elsewhere. Participantswho identified as homosexual or LBGQTI indicated this, as did others their religion, such as Muslim.
This document outlines the theoretical and methodological processes that underpinned the development of a capabilities and capitals-based framework (or matrix) that focusses on how first-in-family students persist at university. This project was funded by the Australian Research Council (DP170100705) and its overall objective has been to increase understanding of how students persist at university in order to provide targeted support for those individuals considering departure, particularly those from educationally disadvantaged or ‘equity’ groups. The project builds upon related findings that have outlined how first-in-family students utilise existing cultural, familial and knowledge capitals during their transition into, and engagement with, university (for example O’Shea, 2018 ,2016; O’Shea, May, Stone, & Delahunty, 2017; O’Shea, Stone, Delahunty & May, 2018) as well as related studies on experiences of higher education participation for Indigenous students (Harwood, Chandler & O’Shea, 2014-2018) and rural / remote students (O’Shea, Southgate, Jardine & Delahunty, 2018).
The research drew
on narrative inquiry methodology to foreground the embodied nature of this
university experience for the first in family cohort. Broadly, the project was
informed by sociological perspectives (Bourdieu, 1986; Yosso, 2005) combined with
philosophical understandings of social justice (Nussbaum, 2006; Sen, 1992), in
order to provide rich insight into what individuals ‘actually do’ (or the
capabilities and freedoms able to be accessed) that enables persistence at
university. It was this in-depth understanding that has underpinned the
development of the first capabilities–informed framework that will inform
approaches to university student retention.
framing paper details how this study’s methodology and theoretical
underpinnings provided the scope for the development of this framework and is
intended to provide context for end users, it could also be usefully applied to
similar studies in the field which are developing a methodology or theoretical
framing (with acknowledgement!). This overview deals will some relatively
complex theories and also details the various stages of the research design and
data analysis, as a result not all sections will interest a broad readership
and for this reason, most sections can be read in isolation and the reader is
encouraged to dip in and out at their discretion.
Wilson-Strydom (2015) defines two ways in which the
capabilities approach can assist in understanding education participation and
achievement. The first refers to the ‘capability’ to actually engage in
education while the second refers to how the ‘fertile functioning of being
educated’ (p.57) impact on the development of associated capabilities such as
locating employment or participating knowledgeably in political processes or
similar. A key part of the first understanding (the capability to engage)
implicitly relates to persisting and achieving in education.
There are four main
reasons why the capabilities approach is a valuable theoretical framing
when examining or theorising social justice in education. Primarily, this
particular approach allows recognition of both the ‘intrinsic’ and
‘instrumental value’ of education while also (and importantly) foregrounding social
justice and its redistributive properties. Another rationale for using this
approach is that it centralises ‘agency’ within the educational access field
and finally provides a ‘space’ to consider the particular capabilities required
to achieve ‘educational / pedagogic rights’ (Wilson-Strydom, 2015, p. 58). The
capabilities approach also fundamentally provides a rich lens for conceptually
understanding the ways in which students enact persistence in HE, focussing on
what students actually ‘do’ and the skills or experiences they draw upon to
negotiate the stratified nature of university. As Wilson-Strydom so clearly
articulates (and drawing on Walker’s (2006) work), if we consider broad
widening participation activities from a capabilities perspective, this allows
insight into how ‘higher education pedagogy can generate both capabilities and
capability deprivations, producing both equity and inequity, belonging and
exclusion’ (p. 59). Simply put, the capability approach focuses on the
flourishings of individuals, offering a counter narrative to attrition data
that says ‘nothing useful about individual experiences of higher education’
(Walker, 2003, p. 170).
This study sought to deeply explore how it is that students actually
enact persistence in HE and thereby achieve their desired ‘fertile
functionings’. Specifically, the study focussed on identifying the types of
‘capabilities’ and ‘capitals’ that underpin or inform successful persistence in
this environment. The study also
examined ‘conversion factors’ as a sensitising concept in the actual enactment
of preferred fertile functionings. Conversion factors recognise the intricacies
of the situatedness of individuals or their ‘intersecting dimensions’ and draw
attention to what is required for individuals to attain ‘particular
functionings’ (Walker & Unterhalter, 2007, p. 10). Further, including
Bourdieu’s conception of capital provided a richer understanding of the range
and type of ‘conversion factors helping and hindering the development of
capabilities’ (Hart, 2012, p. 53).
To achieve these objectives, the participants selected for this study were all at the culmination of their studies and, while each was recruited on the basis of being the first in the family to attend university, all were highly intersected (please see Figure 1). Recruitment included providing participants with a choice to complete the survey and/or participate in an interview. Those interested only in being interviewed contacted the researchers by email, while the survey was accessed via a link. At completion of the survey an option to be interviewed was given (participant details were removed to retain survey anonymity). 42 survey participants indicated interest, with 15 actually participating in an interview. In total, 376 Australian students participated in either interviews (n=70) or surveys (n=306) (see Table 1). Both of these approaches aimed to closely examine how individuals defined and reflected upon the act of persistence within university and the strategies employed in this enactment. The methodology adopted was deliberate in its intent to enable rich understandings of how individual learners, who are intersected by various equity categories, can work within and around HE systems for productive outcomes. Essentially if widening participation activities only focus on providing ‘the mechanisms of fair competition’ (Marginson, 2011, p30) then it fails to consider the ‘capacity’ of learners to function or compete equally once within HE. Like Marginson (2011), this study advocates for a realist perspective on social justice that ensures focus remains on how people actually action and achieve justice within different contexts. The deeply intersected nature of this student cohort also provides great insight into how persisting at university is negotiated by those who do not fit neatly into pre-defined categories. Intersectionality is key to understanding how multiple indicators impact on the persisitence of our university students as Hankivsky (2014) explains:
… inequities are never the result of single, distinct factors. Rather they are the outcome of intersections of different social locations, power relations and experiences (Hankivsky, 2014, p. 3)
In this study, students were able to self-select a range of equity
categories which they considered were applicable to them. Many identified more
than one category as reflective of their circumstances, which clearly indicated
the extent to which these participants were intersected by a number of
potentially limiting factors to gaining a HE degree. The following
diagram represents this diversity of the participants through a series of ‘chords’; as expected,
many students fell into one or more categories with the creation of additional
‘grouped codes’ (where two or more categories were selected) to further
represent this multiplicity.
Figure 1 shows the multiple equity categories that participants selected as representative of their situations. The diagram visualises both single categories selected (e.g. LSES or Rural or NESB etc) as well as the inter-relationships between them if more than one equity category was selected. Each category is represented by colour on the outer rim of the circle (i.e. LSES = blue, NESB = purple, Rural = pink etc). Selection of a single equity category is shown by the chord ‘looping’ back on itself (i.e. single selection of Rural shown by the pink chord looping back within its own domain).
Where more than one category was selected these are joined by a chord. The chord’s thickness indicates the number of participants who selected this combination as representative of their background or circumstances. Selection of two categoriesis shown by the chord joining the other domain e.g. Rural+LSES, Rural+Disability. Selection of more than two categories is more complex and shown as groups coded as A, B, C, D, for example some participants selected three categories (A) LSES+Rural+another category, or five categories (E) LSES+Rural+NESB+Refugee+another category. The chord diagram purpose is to illustrate the complexity of intersectionality and the multi-dimentional realities of these participants.
Data was collected from both urban and regional universities, but the latter is over-represented in the data sample (see Table 1). This focus on regional institutions was deliberate and recognises that these universities attract a more diverse student population who are studying in a range of modalities and in varying patterns of attendance. Table 1 also indicates the spread of data collection from each of the institutions as well as the spread of attrition rates for each of the institutions. The exact rates have not been replicated in order to avoid identification of the institution and similar to the diversity of institutional type, these rates also vary across institutions. Overall, the mean attrition rate across these insitutions is 21% which is above the national attrition rate of 15% (HESP, 2017). All rates are based upon the modified attrition rates (2014) used in the Higher Education Standards Panel (2017) recent report: ‘Improving retention, completion and success in higher education’.
Table 1: Data Collection Summary
The approach taken in this study intentionally created a space for students themselves to consider their journey through HE and the ways in which they achieved (or not) the functionings (or outcomes) desired. The study design was also participant-centred; students were not only encouraged to reflect deeply upon these journeys but also, were all given an opportunity to nominate the equity descriptors that best described their personal and demographic status. As discussed in the previous section,when exploring persistence strategies it was also important to consider other social and contextual factors that are influential in this HE experience.
Such a democratic approach arguably provided an opportunity to foreground alternative and perhaps, hidden, understandings of valuable ‘fertile functionings’ within the HE persistence space. Such functionings may or may not fit with meritocratic understandings of what ‘successful persistence’ looks like or how this is measured within the sector (O’Shea & Delahunty, 2018). Instead, any understanding of persistence needs to be situated closely within students’ own perspectives of how individual ‘fertile functionings’ are enacted and achieved. In other words, how learners themselves considered achievement was key to this study particularly what it was that each individual valued, regardless of whether this value was recognised by the university they attended (Delahunty & O’Shea, 2019).
This research adds to our understanding of how social structures impact on the persistence of students from equity backgrounds and also the necessary ‘conversion factors’ required in order to enable or enact this persistence. Like Sen, this study recognised the need to deeply examine the actual freedoms people have to ‘formulate capabilities’ or valued doings and beings, as these conversion factors that allow the necessary resources to be converted into valued or fertile functionings (Sen, 2002, pp. 86-94).
Based on this understanding, the creation of a Capabilities based framework that underpins strategies and interventions designed to support students through this HE journey is proposed. This framework will be embedded within the list of capabilities that have been derived from analysis of both surveys and interviews. Two lists were developed: one which was ‘ideal’ and a second which was more pragmatically focussed. Before highlighting these lists, it is first necessary to explain the rationale for focussing on a canonical list and how this informed the findings of this study.
There is some debate around the usefulness of developing lists of capabilities. According to Sen (1999), lists do not capture the unique nature of contexts and instead he suggests that capabilities should be defined at a local level. For Sen (1999), understanding capability requires dialogue across the community; he is not opposed to lists per se but rather cautions against the applicability of these at a general level. Instead, any list needs to be identified as being both particular and situated, bounded by time, place and space. Sen’s approach is then to offer a conceptual framing that enables thinking to emerge but this should always be embedded in dialogic discourse and debate; lists should never be regarded as fixed or canonical but rather emergent and changeable depending on context. However, for some, this approach is too vague and allows much latitude in interpretation, Nussbaum (2006) for example has developed a list of central human capabilities, Walker (2006) has focussed on the HE environment and developed the ‘ideal-theoretical list of HE capabilities’ which refers to the capabilities developed throughout study at university, whereas Wilson-Strydom (2015) focussed on the capabilities that underpin transition to university from the schooling environment.
This study drew upon the voices and words of students to embed the capabilities list within the context of this cohort but equally recognises that these data are necessarily bounded and limited contextually. The study focused on first-in-family (FiF) students, but given that this was a highly intersected and diverse group (see Figure 1), this generalisability will always be limited. To broaden the context of the study, surveys and interviews were also conducted internationally with FiF participants in the UK, Ireland and Austria. This international focus was designed to test the applicability of this data across locations but equally acknowledging that the proposed list is still bounded in nature. Like Wilson-Strydom (2015), the impetus for developing a list was to enable ‘close-up’ work on specific areas rather than more broad application to human development. This list can then also be used to underpin pedagogical interventions specifically targeted at developing capabilities or creating a recognition of what might be useful (or a necessary conversion factor) within the HE environment. As Walker (2006) argues:
We need to ask not only which capabilities matter, but how well we are doing practically in higher education in fostering these capabilities. (p. 142)
If the capabilities that assist persistence in HE are identified then there is an opportunity to consider how these are (or might be) encouraged and supported. Hence, like Wilson-Strydom (2015), this study recognises that ‘a theoretically and empirically grounded capabilities list…provides a useful practical tool for advancing social justice in the context of university access’ (p. 65).
When examining the capabilities, it is vital to consider who can develop these capabilities and who may not have the ample opportunity to do this. Equally, such analysis provides the opportunity to explore what might impact on the agency and the necessary ‘well-being freedoms’ (Wilson-Strydom 2015, p.66) that underpin such development. By focussing on human development with specific reference to how individuals enact their preferred ways of being, this research avoids assuming that these ‘ways of being’ are aligned with dominant discourses and policy initiatives. The list then not only serves to identify what might assist students to achieve their preferred ‘fertile functionings’ but also, provides the foundations for addressing possible gaps in requisite capabilities and conversion factors.
The main objective of this study was to develop an empirically validated list that identifies the persistence capabilities of the first in family students that participated in this study. However before outlining the persistence framework, it is important to clearly identify how this list has been developed; an approach informed by five overarching criteriadeveloped by Robeyns’ (2003). While these criteria were developed in reference to the field of gender equality, the explicit nature of this approach enabled replication and it has been successfully applied to other lists focused on the HE sector (Wilson-Strydom, 2015). Details of these criteria are outlined below:
Explicit Formulation: This requires the development of the list to be defined explicitly but also to be defendable and critically discussed.
Justified methodologically: How the list was developed methodologically should be clearly outlined and justified, this should be a very detailed account with the appropriateness of this approach explained.
Sensitive to context: Recognition of the specific context that the list refers to is required and this needs to be referenced and contextualised within the list through language choice and references.
Levels of generalisability: Robeyns suggests developing two forms of the list, an ideal one that is unconstrained by restrictions imposed by funding, policy or data and then a more ‘pragmatic’ list that considers these factors.
Exhaustive and non-reductive: Each capability should have depth and include various elements, there may be some overlap between the capabilities and some may require additional detail and description
By drawing on these five criteria, this study sought to examine the ways in which students used existing and available resources and converted these into valued or productive capabilities that underpin ‘fertile functionings’ within the university environment. This list not only recognised how attending university may be considered an individual act or a personal choice but also, how such actions are deeply constrained and influenced by socio-economic and cultural issues; as Wilson-Strydom (2015) explains:
… the freedom of agency individuals have is qualified and constrained by social, political and economic factors and opportunities. (p. 73)
If we only considered the outcomes of persistence, in this case successful graduation, then this may mask the ways in which learners had to adapt or change in order to get to the point of graduation. Exploring how students reached this point and the capabilities that they perceived as leading to this functioning (in this case graduation) potentially offer insight into the invisible constraints or differences that were encountered en route. This forces us to question the educational opportunities or choices available to different populations and explore how choices and actions have been shaped by social constraints. As Wilson-Strydom (2005) further explains this may require asking ‘searching questions’ and avoiding a reliance on markers such as ‘happiness’ or ‘satisfaction’ as indicating equal access or freedom of choice. Of specific focus in this study is how participants identified the capabilities that assisted them in persisting and equally, how they converted these capabilities into valued functionings within this environment, with specific reference to the ‘conversion factors’ required to achieve this.
 There are currently six targeted equity groups in Australia, including people from i) low socioeconomic backgrounds, 2) rural and isolated areas, 3) non-English speaking backgrounds as well as 4) women in non-traditional areas of study, 5) Indigenous peoples and 6) those with a disability.