Don’t lock the doors on students who are first in their family to go to university. Aspirations matter

The funding freeze imposed on Australian universities by the Federal Government brings grave concerns that the chances of securing a place at university will be dramatically reduced. Vice-Chancellors warn they will need to cut the number of places they offer and say the budgets of regional universities will be hardest hit.

Universities Australia, the voice of Australian universities, claims the ‘doors of opportunity’ will be slammed shut on many prospective students, especially those from backgrounds of least advantage.

A specific group of those students is the focus of my doctoral thesis. I looked at the educational aspirations of students who would be first in their family to go to university.

The government recognises six different groups to target for equity provisions in higher education but first-in-family status is not specifically mentioned as a target. My research leads me to believe that dealing with issues of equity in higher education is much more complex than when these groups were identified and set into policy, and that first-in-family status should now also be recognised in both policy and practice.

As part of my study, I looked at how the aspirations of first-in-family students can be affected as early as in Year 3 in primary school, and how important parents and carers can be in inspiring someone who is the first in their family to go to university. Contrary to some perceptions, parents and carers were often cited as a major source of inspiration by first-in-family students.

Equity in higher education

While equity has long been of importance in the higher education sector, it is timely to consider new directions for increasing equitable access. Six equity target groups have been inscribed in higher education policy for close to 30 years: people from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, people from regional and remote areas, people with disabilities, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, women in non-traditional areas of study, and Indigenous Australians.

However over this period, the higher education landscape has transformed dramatically. These groups remain core to conceptualisations of equity in higher education, fundamentally shaping how educational inequalities are, and should be, addressed. But I believe they no longer enough to fully shape our higher education policies.

So where does ‘first in family’ fit in?

First-in-family students: A new direction for equity

Australian universities have increasingly recognised students who are ‘first’ within their families to pursue university (reflecting the immense attention directed towards first-generation entrants to higher education in the United States). In general, ‘first-in-family’ students are understood to be individuals who do not have a parent/carer with at least a bachelor-level degree.

The importance of looking at this population of young people is highlighted in recent data from the OECD that shows having a university-educated parent almost doubles the chances of an individual being enrolled in university.

When first-in-family students do enter university, they can face considerable challenges, such as feeling like ‘fish out of water’ or ‘strangers without codebooks’ due to the unfamiliarity of the new environment. These analogies help to explain why such students have significantly higher rates of attrition in comparison to their peers with at least one university-educated parent.

My research: The aspirations of prospective first-in-family students

As part of my doctoral thesis, I looked at the educational aspirations of school students who would be first in their family to go to university. Working on a four-year longitudinal project (2012–2015) called the Aspirations Longitudinal Study, led by Laureate Professor Jenny Gore, I was able to draw on a substantial body of data from 64 government schools in NSW, comprising annual online surveys completed by 6,492 students (each of whom I categorised as prospective first-in-family or non first-in-family depending on their highest level of parental education), together with focus groups conducted in a subsample of 30 schools.

What I found highlights the need to recognise first-in-family students within Australian higher education policy and practice, perhaps even more so when framed by the recent uncertainties in university funding.

A profile of prospective first-in-family students

First, I looked at creating a profile of prospective first-in-family students.

I found that many of these students had overlapping socio-demographic characteristics with one, or a number of, the existing equity target groups, highlighting overlooked complexities in how equity is currently conceived within government policy.

In comparison to their peers with at least one university-educated parent, prospective first-in-family students were significantly more likely to identify as Indigenous and come from a lower socioeconomic status background. However, importantly, first-in-family status did not neatly overlap the existing target groups, as they were also more likely to come from English-speaking backgrounds – the opposite of how language background is currently captured within policy.

In addition, there were prospective first-in-family students who did not fall under any of the existing equity categorisations. For example, there were many students who lived in metropolitan areas and who identified as non-Indigenous, potentially signalling that these young people may be unintentionally disregarded in school outreach initiatives run by universities that are usually tailored towards the existing equity target groups.

Educational aspirations

Next, I looked at the post-school aspirations of students. Over four years, the Aspirations Longitudinal Study tracked the educational aspirations of four separate cohorts of students. In 2012, students were in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9; they ended the study in Years 6, 8, 10 and 12.

Rather than follow one cohort of students longitudinally over ten years (for example, from Year 3 through to Year 12), this design allowed us to follow multiple cohorts over a shorter period of time, while providing data for the full trajectory of the whole population of interest (students in Years 3-12). As part of an online survey completed during class time, the students were asked to identify the highest level of education they planned to complete.

From as early as Year 3, I found that prospective first-in-family students were less likely to aspire to university. As the graph below shows, this trend continues throughout schooling. However, Year 3 also represented the time point where the overall proportion of students aspiring to university was most similar between prospective first-in-family (FiF) students and their peers.

These findings support the view for beginning careers education in primary school, through informal and holistic activities across all key learning areas, rather than leaving it until the later years of secondary school.

Aspiring to university: The importance of parents and carers

While first-in-family students who end up getting to university can be perceived as succeeding despite their family background rather than because of their family, my research also offers important insight into how aspirations for higher education are shaped and nurtured. Among the prospective first-in-family students who aspired to university, their parents/carers were often cited as a major source of inspiration, highlighting how they are drawn on as a key resource although they may not have had firsthand experience with this pathway themselves.

Concept of ‘habitus’ in my research

The concept of ‘familial habitus’ is helpful in explaining these findings.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu refers to habitus (ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions) as our set of deeply internalised, socialised dispositions toward the world. These dispositions are structured by our position in the world, which in turn, structures how we feel we are able to act in it.

Habitus is attached to an individual, but is also shaped by other collective elements, such as through the family, which is where a person mainly learns how to understand the social world around them and how to react to it.

While habitus is often used to explain how disadvantage is reproduced from generation to generation, it is also important to consider how innovation and change emerge from family contexts.

I identified three key ways in which the familial habitus shaped aspirations for higher education among prospective first-in-family students, as reported by the young people themselves:

  • The projected habitus, whereby parents/carers verbalised expectations for higher education, and the hope that this pathway would lead to a ‘better’ future;
  • The meritocratic habitus, whereby parents/carers focused on the importance of hard work and academic ability, particularly in the context of schooling;
  • The supportive habitus, whereby parents/carers accentuated their child’s own decision-making, providing more open-ended encouragement and support.

While the parents of first-in-family students might not possess the ‘right kinds’ of social and cultural capital valued in the field of higher education, they nurture aspirations in different kinds of ways.

Hopefully, the ‘doors of opportunity’ that higher education represents for these young people and their families will not be locked shut by the time they finish their schooling.


Dr Sally Patfield is a post-doctoral researcher with the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle. With an interest in equity research and practice, her doctoral thesis investigated school students who would be the first in their families to enter higher education. Sally has presented her doctoral research at both national and international conferences, and in 2016 was awarded the Australian Council of Deans of Education Postgraduate Student/Early Career Researcher Poster Award at the Australian Association for Research in Education annual conference. Sally is a trained primary school teacher, and also has postgraduate qualifications in museum studies and cultural heritage. She has worked in education contexts across schools, local government, federal government and the not-for-profit sector. Most recently, she has worked on a number of research projects for the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, particularly focusing on increasing access to higher education for under-represented groups, and teacher professional development in the area of aspirations and equity.

This research was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship. Sally would like to thank her supervisors, Laureate Professor Jenny Gore, Dr Leanne Fray, Dr Natasha Weaver, and Dr Adam Lloyd.

Sally will be presenting a paper on her research at the 2018 AARE Conference (in Sydney) on Wed 5 Dec, 1:00pm – 3:00pm NLSASR 344 Title: The role of familial habitus in shaping aspirations for higher education among prospective first-in-family students