Abstract: In the light both of persistent inequality of education opportunities for low income families and a wide equality gap in South Africa, this article explores students’ university access by applying Amartya Sen’s capability approach to a South African case study. The article demonstrates empirically that access is more than an individual project, shaped both by objective conditions and subjective biographies, that is by general conversion factors and a person’s social and personal options. Key conversion factors are material (income) and social (family, community, school, information), which produce an interlocking system of opportunity. Access thus requires more than formal opportunity to enable social mobility for all. The case study comprises qualitative interviews with diverse students in their first year at one university; illustrative narratives are selected to show different pathways, conversion factors and choices. Agency and self-efficacy emerge as especially important for making choices but also for constructing a higher education pathway where none exists for that person and her family. The article suggests that higher education has the potential to advance social mobility provided that it moves in the direction of expanding the capabilities of all students to have the choice of higher education.
Keywords: capability approach; fair access; South Africa; university