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The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Inclusive higher education learning outcomes for rural and township youth: developing a multi-dimensional capabilities-based higher education index

Research Partners:

Photo: A high school in South Africa. Photo credit: Konrad Glogowski/Flickr under license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Principal Investigator: Melanie Jane Walker. Lead Organisation: University of Free State

Co-investigators: Merridy Wilson-Strydom; Monica Jane McLean; Ann-Marie Bathmaker

South African higher education (HE) is characterised by inequalities of access, participation and success, and hence youth disadvantage, yet it is also seen as central to economic development and social mobility.

The aim of the research, captured in the production of an innovative HE Index, is to develop an integrated, policy-oriented theorisation of pathways to learning outcomes that foregrounds equality and quality for young people from rural areas and townships when they are preparing for university, their experiences at university, and their graduate outcomes, and to understand what enables the realization of the transformative potential of HE for them.

The project conceptualises raising learning outcomes as a process of multi-dimensional 'capabilities' expansion and realization of plural valued 'functionings'. Using the capability approach allows an understanding of how various factors interact to inhibit or enable capabilities that are valuable to individuals and to building a decent society.

The project will uncover interrelated personal, educational and social challenges that account for the inequities in outcomes experienced by young people from challenging backgrounds, and standing in the way of quality HE for all. In particular, the project will focus on HE students supported by Thusanani Foundation (, a youth-led not-for-profit organisation. Working with the Foundation provides access to disadvantaged youth and their educational pathways into, in and beyond higher education, and is a site through which important user insights can be gained. The mixed-method study will explore contextual factors - families, schools, university educational and social arrangements, and work-readiness activities - that enable and inhibit higher education pathways for these students. In particular, it will investigate what learning outcomes are valued by students themselves and by other stakeholders, why they are valued, and whether and how they are achieved. Engagement with stakeholders and impact activities are built into the project from the outset; the evidence-informed and consultative process will generate practice recommendations and policy options.

The main research participants are Thusanani Foundation supported students, attending four historically diverse universities, over four years from 2nd HE year to post graduation. Against a backdrop analysis of documentation, literature and national statistical data of inequalities and learning outcomes (cohort analyses), we will use quantitative (survey of n=700 Thusanani supported students; final year students n=1600), longitudinal qualitative methods (life histories; interviews, n=48 x 4 years), as well as notes of stakeholder meetings and visual methods to explore, at macro and micro levels, student experiences and learning outcomes. The methodology includes a participatory element with young people (students plus mentors) as researchers (n=32) and the interviews they conduct (n=40), to allow co-construction of ideas and to explore how participation in research might enhance learning outcomes. Interviews with Foundation student mentors (24); Foundation Board members (5); and, ethnographic field notes of Foundation work with school pupils will provide insight into the motivations, strategies and possibilities of raising learning outcomes. The project thus provides an integrated analysis of access, higher education experiences and graduate outcomes, with attention to educational, social and economic impacts.

The data will be analysed in terms of:

  1. structural distributive patterns of opportunities and achievements, including an analysis of the differences made by Thusanani Foundation
  2. a framework of capabilities inhibition and expansion, profiled inductively and deductively; and
  3. multi-dimensional HE learning outcomes Index of practical use to policy makers and development agencies, going beyond narrow measures of completion rates.

The beneficiaries have a common interest in social inclusion related to raising the achievement of higher education (HE) learning outcomes for young people from disadvantaged circumstances. All groups will gain understanding of what enables or inhibits pathways into and through higher education for these young people. Through engagement with research evidence and developing a capabilities-based HE outcomes Index, they will gain understanding of which capabilities allow for HE access, participation and success and of how to support this. Impact will include academic impact through contributions of the knowledge produced by the project. This knowledge base in turn will contribute to society, benefitting individual students and society through the contributions they will be in a position to make socially and economically, and through research to advance understanding and practical educational application towards quality of life and well-being.

Key Beneficiaries

The key beneficiaries are students from challenging rural and township contexts, whose HE achievements have been constrained. The production of the HE Index, to be developed in collaboration with, and as a result of research with young people, will be of direct benefit to students from challenging contexts who seek to participate and achieve worthwhile learning outcomes through HE. They will benefit from the processes of participatory research which provide spaces for them to voice perceptions and experiences which will contribute to socially innovative conceptions of higher education learning outcomes and to policy making about how to raise them. Students as key beneficiaries are linked to benefits for specific stakeholder groups: the Thusanani Foundation; South African Union of Students (SAUS), National Student Bursary Fund (NSFAS), South African Graduate Employers Association (SAGEA), Rural Education Access Programme (REAP). Below we list further beneficiaries.

Policy-makers and policy brokers

Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the Council for Higher Education (CHE), Higher Education South Africa (HESA), the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Gauteng and Limpopo provincial governments. This group of beneficiaries will benefit from knowledge about how learning outcomes for youth are mediated in challenging contexts, which can be used to inform policy decisions about enhancing well-being and development. These beneficiaries will deepen their understanding of the potential of the capabilities approach (CA) by participating in developing capabilities measurement dimensions and methods (resulting in a CA-based HE Index). 

NGOs and donors

British Council, Carnegie Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Oppenheimer Foundation, Equal Education (for NGOs). This group of beneficiaries will benefit from participation in developing the Index, which will be of practical use in raising learning outcomes of disadvantaged young people from challenging contexts. The knowledge they gain through development and application of the Index will be of use in helping to convince policymakers of the benefit of this intervention designed to support such young people to enter into and succeed in higher education.

HE practitioners

Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC), Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association of South Africa (HELTASA), DHET, CHE, HESA. This group will benefit from increased understanding of how educational arrangements in HE enable and constrain development of capabilities and learning outcomes which predict success, in particular transformative individual experience and contributions to society after graduation.

Academic researchers based in universities & research organisations

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), National Research Foundation (NRF), South African Educational Research Association (SAERA). The capacity of this group will be built to research the relationship between contexts and educational outcomes from a human development perspective.

Primary theme: 
Grant Reference: 
Project Status: 
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Fund Start Date: 
September 1st, 2016
Fund End Date: 
August 1st, 2020
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Fund Value: