The capacity to aspire to higher education: ‘It’s like making them do a play without a script’

Jessica Bok



To cite this article: Jessica Bok (2010) The capacity to aspire to higher education: ‘It’s likemaking them do a play without a script’, Critical Studies in Education, 51:2, 163-178, DOI:10.1080/17508481003731042


Aspiration is a prominent concept in higher education policy debates. However, reference to this concept is often made in terms of low socio-economic status (SES) students simply lacking aspiration, which schools and universities must work to instil. In contrast to this potentially deficit view, this paper draws on Appadurai’s notion of the ‘capacity to aspire’, which reframes aspiration as a cultural category rather than an individual motivational trait. It discusses the proposition that low SES students do have substantive aspirations, but may have less developed capacities to realise them. Bourdieu’s theories of cultural capital, habitus and field provide a supplementary theoretical framework, which draws attention to the complex relationships between socio-cultural background and life-world experiences that inform students’ and families’ dispositions toward school and their capacities to aspire to higher education.

Keywords: Appadurai; aspiration; Bourdieu; disadvantaged schools; equity; higher education; parental attitudes


Discussions around higher education policy have increasingly come to focus on equity issues, including persistently low university participation rates for students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds. This paper explores the aspirations of students from a public primary school serving a community on the urban fringe of an Australian capital city. In particular this work focused on analysis of social and cultural factors, at the level of the home and classroom, that influence students’ imagined futures. The work is an exploration of how students from a school in an area categorised as low SES are able to imagine and articulate their aspirations to HE and their broader understandings of the ‘good life’.

Students’ capacity to aspire is influenced by past experiences with reading and successfully following their ‘map’ of aspirations, in combination with their confidence to explore unmapped possibilities. People from more affluent and powerful groups often have more experience reading such maps and Appadurai (2004) argues that they ‘share this knowledge with one another more routinely’ (p. 69).

In order for students to develop their capacity to aspire, their families, other people within their local communities and those they encounter in their daily lives must have experience navigating particular fields and pathways. Higher education is a field that may be relatively unfamiliar to students and families from low SES backgrounds.

Aspirations are relatively evenly held – having particular desires for the future is not exclusive to more affluent and powerful groups. However, the capacity to aspire, which is shaped by social, cultural and economic experiences, and the availability of navigational information, is not equally distributed. Exploring the notion of aspiration as a cultural capacity, rather than an individual motivational trait, enables the effects of the unequal distribution of social, cultural and economic capital on the capacity to aspire to be considered.

This study found that experiences across generations, access to information networks beyond the local community and academic achievement supported at school are important factors that contribute to students’ knowledge of and capacity to navigate educational pathways toward desired futures. While the school site selected for this case study was located in a suburb categorised as low SES, it is evident that homogenous notions of populations and place do not provide sufficiently nuanced descriptions of the aspirations, achievement levels and capacities of students and families in these areas. The findings of this study suggest a more complex theorisation of aspiration – beyond simplistic ‘high’ versus ‘low’ dichotomies – by exploring the notion that all people aspire, although socio-economic and cultural factors enable some to more powerfully pursue their aspirations than others (Appadurai, 2004).

The discourse of aspiration raising has recently gained prominence in Australian and UK higher education policy, reflecting the rise of ‘aspirational politics’ which emphasises individual responsibility. However, the policy rhetoric of ‘raising aspirations’ is inadequate for describing the needs of students in disadvantaged contexts. As such, these findings counter discourse that suggests that students attending schools categorised as low SES ‘lack’ adequate desires for their future.

The students participating in this study do not lack aspirations; rather, they have levels of access to ‘scripts’ – comprising economic, social and cultural resources – that make it relatively difficult for them to produce the performances required to realise them.

Bok 2010 The capacity to aspire to higher education It s like making them do a play without a script