International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 18 - 20 July 2016
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From ‘Mobility Capital’ to ‘Mobility as Capability’: Imagining new frameworks for research into student mobilities

Kirsty Finn, Educational Research, Lancaster University


In an increasingly internationalised higher education (HE) system the issue of student (im)mobilities continues to receive scholarly attention (i.e. Brooks and Waters 2011). Whilst questions about who moves, where they move, and, conversely, which students remain localised are pertinent globally, the UK HE context has its own particularities. Historically, some kinds of mobility (i.e. the semi-permanent move associated with leaving home and migrations over distance) have been privileged over more routine movements, to the extent that moving away is regarded as key characteristics of the ubiquitous ‘student experience’ (Holdsworth 2009). Thus, a broad range of mobility practices are often misread as ‘immobility’ and the debate has become framed around dichotomies and oppositions – local/non-local; mobile/immobile; traditional/non-traditional – which shape the nature of our thinking, the questions we ask and, crucially, how we seek to answer them in our research. Following Jan McArthur’s conference think-piece, this paper problematizes these binaries and demonstrates the importance of recognising and valuing the many ways in which different students experience mobility through their HE engagements. This is done largely through a consideration of theoretical models for thinking about student mobility, but also by drawing on data generated by an ongoing SRHE-funded research project (2016) with Lancaster University students who live locally and rely on regular, everyday mobilities to engage with HE. The paper takes the notion of ‘mobility capital’ as its starting point because this concept, which is an extension of Bourdieu’s (1984) framework of social, cultural and economic capitals, has become dominant for explaining students’ orientations and outcomes vis-à-vis educational mobility (Crobett 2007; Murphy-Lejeune 2004). Although offering insights into the classed nature of students’ mobility decisions, it is argued here that mobility capital, and related concepts such as ‘im/mobility habitus’ (Cairns 2015), can lead to a deficit model and a sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mobilities which do little to dismantle some of the harmful separations that have become entrenched in our thinking. The paper proposes, then, that an understanding of mobility as capability (Kronlid 2008) can enliven this debate. The capabilities approach (Sen 1993; Nussbaum 2011) allows greater scope for thinking about ‘what students are able to do and who they are able to be’ (Robeyns 2003) through their diverse mobility engagements and link this to emotional wellbeing and personal value, and not simply the accumulation of economic advantage.


Capabilities; Cultural capital; Mobility; Student engagement; Wellbeing

Link to Full Paper (If submitted)


Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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