by Sarah O’Shea and Sally Patfield

The notion of being ‘first in family’ has received increasing attention in recent years, gaining momentum within institutional practices as well as in public and political consciousness. When sworn in as education minister, Jason Clare was quick to declare he was the first person in his family to not only go to university, but to finish high school as well.

In Australia, first-in-family students constitute a significant proportion of university enrolments, with the most recent data indicating that just over 50 per cent of all Australian university students are the first in their families to attend university, based on parent education levels.

Research indicates that those who are the “first” often encounter additional and somewhat ‘hidden’ barriers to higher education participation. Indeed, this group is recognised as being at a higher risk of discontinuing or departing from their studies early.

These findings have led many universities to target first-in-family students through specific funding and targeted support to enable their entry and progression within the university field. However, as institutions adopt this label and put it to use in different ways, there are a number of key points to bear in mind:

* first-in-family students are highly diverse – a large proportion fall into multiple equity categories but equally some do not. As a cohort, this group contains substantial intra-group complexity which means that sensitivity to the use of the first-in-family categorisation is warranted.

* being the “first” should be a cause for celebration– these students are often trailblazers for their families and even communities. Given that equity policy and practice can sometimes be associated with deficit, first in family student positionality must be normalised within the university setting. Indeed, within some universities, first-in-family students are actually the majority rather than the exception, and many academics and staff are also the first in their families to attain a university degree.

* ultimately, identifying first-in-family status can offer an alternative way of thinking about equity and social justice – a perspective that helps to address the recognition and participation of marginalised social groups but also forces us to move beyond simplistic, binary terms which have long plagued equity policy.

First-in-family students are pervasive in the contemporary student landscape. But let’s not simply ‘package’ these learners according to outdated equity typologies. The fact we are now in the “era” of the first-in-family student brings with it a renewed opportunity to think, not only about who our students are and what they hope to achieve from higher education, but how we – as a sector – can rise to the challenge of welcoming and supporting these students to realise their education aspirations.

Professor Sarah O’Shea, Director, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education [email protected]  @seos895

Dr Sally Patfield, Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, School of Education, College of Human and Social Futures, University of Newcastle sally[email protected] @SallyPatfield


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education