Sally Patfield

Why we should ditch metrocentricity now (and read about a new book too)

We are coming to the end of the conference but still happy to take blogs about papers you heard and papers you’ve given. I’m on

Sally Patfield, Senior Research Fellow, Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, School of Education, The University of Newcastle writes on the Rural Education Symposium

Knowledge and rurality: Deconstructing geographic narcissism in education

Philip Roberts, Natalie Downes, Jenny Dean, Kristy O’Neill, Samantha McMahon, Jo-Anne Reid, Laurie Poretti, Ada Goldsmith

Approximately 7 million people – or 28% of the Australian population – live in rural and remote areas across the country. Rural communities are unique and diverse, not only in terms of geography and demographics, but also in terms of the emotional and material realities of residents’ lives, framed within the interrelated context of the local and the global.

We’re all used to hearing the phrase ‘educational disadvantage’; it’s rolled out repeatedly to capture and conceptualise the apparent education achievement gap between rural students and their metropolitan peers. Particularly when it comes to standardised tests like NAPLAN, it’s a well-worn narrative that the achievement gap between rural and urban students is persistent and widening.

This symposium turned this narrative on its head by interrogating the metro-centric bias inherent within curriculum, educational institutions like schools and universities, and even within academia itself. It re-frames how we think of the ‘problem’ by asking: ‘what, and whose, knowledge is valued?’ And: ‘what if its not rural students who are failing to perform, but rather, the education system which is failing rural communities by marginalising the perspectives of the rural?”

The four papers presented within this symposium weaved together a powerful argument that challenges the way we think about the very nature of ‘educational disadvantage’ by questioning existing practices and illustrating the important role rural knowledges and ways of being can play for young people, their families, and the future of their communities. 

Each paper provided a different layer of insight and analysis: granular case studies that demonstrate how schools are already integrating rural knowledges into curriculum enactment; large-scale analyses of achievement data which examine how school location influences senior secondary outcomes; an examination of the experiences of rural students in higher education, focusing in particular on notions of belonging; and finally, questioning the way research may (perhaps inadvertently at times) even (re)produce deficit notions of the rural, marginalising different ways of knowing, being and doing beyond the metropolis.

The first three presentations brought to the fore key issues around the ideas of spatiality, inequality and knowledge production: that is, that rural space has a reality and, relatedly, that rurality is “reality producing”. In this way, the presenters clearly demonstrated how notions of space and place are central to both the maintenance and representation of social difference.

Overall, this symposium challenges us to think about how we define and engage with the rural – both as educators and researchers. In the third presentation, Natalie Downes and colleagues sadly showed how rural university students see rurality as misrecognised and misrepresented in their coursework and curriculum, with rural locations and careers portrayed as problematic – places associated with staff shortages and a lack of opportunity, for example. Unfortunately, rural students reported that the way rurality was depicted not only impacted how they felt at university but also once they returned home to their communities. Clearly there is much more to do to transform how we embed rural knowledges and promote rural careers across higher education degrees.

In the fourth presentation, the stark reality of how rurality is commonly portrayed was again emphasised, with the presenters highlighting that the fact that far too many projects do not engage with the complexities of rurality in definition nor in analysis, often just mentioning ‘the rural’ in passing as the site of the research. The authors made the case that context matters in education research and how we position and work alongside rural communities plays an important role in either perpetuating or dismantling longstanding hierarchies of power and knowledge.


On Wednesday, the AARE Local/Global Issues in Education book series launched Community Matters: The Complex Links Between Community and Young People’s Aspirations for Higher Education by Jennifer Gore, Sally Patfield, Leanne Fray and Jess Harris. 

The book explores the complex meanings of community, the pressure young people face to attend university, access to higher education, university aspirations in rural communities, and understanding why community matters when young people express a desire to attend university. 

In reading an excerpt, Gore described how the book was about how “community helps to soften blunt equity categories and remind researchers, policy makers and equity practitioners of the human conditions that mediate the gap between important analytical categories that undergird important social justice efforts”.

The book is due to be published on 30 December 2022

Community Matters: The Complex Links Between Community and Young People’s Aspirations for Higher Education offers a new lens on equity of access. The policy focus, nationally and globally, on widening participation for under-represented target groups too readily treats such groups as if they have a singular voice, a singular history, and a singular set of concerns. Drawing on the perspectives of Australian school students, their parents/carers, teachers, and a vast array of residents from seven diverse communities, this book uses the lens of ‘community’ to reframe inequitable access. It does so by recognising the complex social and cultural forces at play locally that shape how young people form and articulate their post-school futures.

There are direct actions we can take now to make university access fair

While in recent decades there has been a focus on improving equitable access to higher education, inequalities cannot be overcome by simply exhorting more young people to go to university. Policies must also address the disparities between students that affect their capacity to ‘choose’ higher education

Australia has seen substantial growth in university enrolments since the 1960s, as the sector has moved from ‘elite’ education to one that has been described as ‘university for the masses’. More recently, policies designed to ‘widen participation’ have aimed to increase representation of groups who have not traditionally enrolled in higher education in large numbers, particularly Indigenous Australians, those from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, and Australians living in regional and remote areas.

However, widening participation has not led to a fair or socially just university system. Not only do students from socially disadvantaged groups remain less likely to go to university than their more advantaged peers but, if they do go to university, they are more likely to enrol in less prestigious institutions and degrees.

Equitable access is often seen as overcoming ‘crude’ barriers such as money, distance, and achievement. But it is much more complicated than that. 

In recent years, market-based reforms to the higher education sector have cast prospective university students as ‘customers’ who are empowered to shop around for the ‘right’ institution and the ‘right’ course. And while outreach initiatives have been implemented by universities to reach under-represented groups, it is the less prestigious universities that are frequently promoted to these students and, if students do not take them up, they are judged as being ‘not aspirational enough’ and in need of fixing.

But what leads young people to make different kinds of higher education ‘choices’?

Our research draws on data collected as part of a four-year project (2012-2015) involving students in Years 3 to 12 (aged 8 to 18) enrolled in 64 NSW government schools, with a focus on the formation of their post-school educational and occupational aspirations. 

From that data, we made a comparative study of two schools, a metropolitan high school ‘Harbour View’ (pseudonym) where students are more ‘traditional’ entrants to higher education, and a regional central school ‘Mountainside’ (pseudonym), where students are often seen to be the targets of widening participation initiatives.

In Harbour View, the median income is twice the state average and half of adults hold a university degree. In Mountainside, the median income is half the state average and one in 15 adults hold a university degree.

Our research showed that students of Harbour View, a wealthy suburb in the state’s capital, see no choice but to go to university; it is a long-term expectation that they take for granted and not to go to university is inconceivable. They have at least one parent and many relatives and friends who have been to university, and these people provide students with important first-hand information and stories. The decision to go to university is well-established, so much so that students’ talk of their aspirations centres on where to go, rather than if they should go to university, which often includes prestigious institutions where family members have gone, and even overseas universities. These students also have access to international travel opportunities and take part in high-status cultural activities which they can ‘trade in’ when competing for entry into high-status institutions.

For the students of Mountainside, in a regional area with a history of mining and logging, their talk about university is based around language of hesitation and doubt; they will ‘wait and see’ what the future brings and believe that university is ‘not for everyone’. Financial concerns are prevalent when they speak about higher education; for instance, one student said they would go only if they got a scholarship. Some said the ‘real world’ is one of work, not study, and they had already excluded the very idea of higher education from a young age. Most do not have a parent or relative with a degree and have not visited a university campus; their information about higher education therefore comes from school. While these students rarely mentioned a specific institution to attend, Mountainside is an hour’s drive from a metropolitan university, and that university was perceived as the best choice for those who might go because of proximity to family, cost, and perceived ‘fit’.

Through our analysis, we argue that the idea of equitable choice in accessing higher education is an illusion. While the widening participation agenda aims to open up higher education to the masses, it is unlikely the young people in our two case studies will end up at the same university, or even the same kind of institution. 

Despite its social justice motives, widening participation has an unintended consequence – it is entwined with social sorting. Those who are already privileged tend to amass the benefits that come with attending prestigious universities. For their less advantaged peers, simply ‘having a degree’ is often not enough to compete in the competitive graduate marketplace.

Our research shows that the capacity to ‘choose’ university is vastly different for young Australians. If equity in the contemporary higher education sector is to be addressed in any depth, fair access inside the system – not just to the system – must be part of the policy agenda. 

It is clear that widening participation initiatives must be implemented early, long before senior secondary school, and must expose students to a range of institutions and degrees. 

And individual institutions must rethink their approach; allocating places for students from under-represented groups in prestigious degrees, offering targeted early entry schemes which do not rely solely on academic measures, and providing financial support through scholarships and fellowships for disadvantaged students.

Sally Patfield is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle, with over 15 years’ experience working in various educational contexts, including as a primary teacher in NSW public schools and across professional and academic roles in higher education. Sally’s doctoral research investigated school students who would be the first in their families to enter higher education. Her thesis was awarded the prestigious Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education by the Australian Association for Research in Education (2019). Sally’s research focuses on the sociology of higher education, social inequalities, widening participation, and educational transitions.

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