Sarah McDonald

What happens now to students who are first-in-family to go to university?

Students who are the first in their family to attend university remain severely under-represented, despite policy efforts to widen participation in Australian higher education.  Many first-in-family students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and, as a result, there has been extensive focus on how social class influences their experiences at university. However, there has been significantly less attention to the role that gender plays.

We conducted a study with 48 first-in-family students over three years – the First-in-Family Project – documenting their transition from secondary school into university.  They came from ethnically diverse backgrounds and were recruited from across state, independent and faith-based secondary schools. All participants presented as cis-gender. The research focused on their experiences in higher education and how their aspirations changed in relation to such experiences. 

In our research, published in Gendering the First-in-Family Experience: Transitions, Liminality and Performativity (Routledge, 2022), we found that during the transition to university, many of the participants questioned the gender norms of their school and family environments.  It is at university where many first-in-family students are first exposed to a diversity of gender identities which often contrast the gender identities present in their secondary schools. Some students spoke of the pressure they felt during secondary school to be a particular type of girl or boy, while they felt there were fewer constraints at university.  

Of the 48 participants, 9 withdrew from university, 7 chose not to attend, and 2 deferred. We found that very few of our participants enrolled in elite sandstone institutions. Instead, most participants chose to attend universities close to home. We were interested in the role gender played in the first-in-family experience, and focused on three areas: gender and the family; gender and influential teachers; gender and mental health.

Gender and the family

Our research found that families of first-in-family students are supportive of their children’s education. Still, they do not necessarily have sufficient knowledge of higher education to be able to give advice about navigating the system.  Instead, families focused on emotionally supporting students; extended family members were often influential and an important resource when first-in-family students struggled.

We also found that family life and expectations were significantly gendered.  Mothers were more often the primary resource in terms of emotional support for the participants. In contrast, fathers were less involved. This was especially true for the girls in the study, where part of what formed their aspirations for university was their desire to experience the opportunities and futures their mothers were denied. The boys in the study wanted to be seen as independent in their decision-making, while this was less apparent for the girls. Ultimately, all students in the study saw their lives as filled with more opportunities than their parents. 

Gender and influential teachers

Close relationships with secondary school teachers informed the aspirations of first-in-family students – but these relationships were gendered as well.  While all participants could point to specific teachers from their secondary school who had been pivotal in supporting them to reach their goals of attending university, there were notable differences based on gender.  For example, the boys tended to inhabit an identity centred around effortless achievement – of having a chilled or relaxed disposition – and sought out teachers who could push them.  In contrast, most girls portrayed themselves as ‘work-focused’ and diligent in their studies and forged relationships with teachers they perceived to be nurturing. 

Gender and mental health

Within research on first-in-family students, there has recently been increased attention to how struggles with mental health may impact their experiences. Research in Australian higher education has found these students rated financial concerns, time management, lack of sleep, and the demands around assessment as having a significant impact on their mental health. Within our study, over 40 per cent of young women presented a mental health issue while just under four percent of young men did. While the girls were open about their mental health concerns from the onset, over the course of the research, the young men began to either experience poor mental health for the first time or became more open with us about their mental health. 

Policy Implications: Improving the first-in-family experience

Drawing on our research, we seek to make recommendations at the policy level and for educators working in both secondary and higher education. 

Highlighting the role of gender, the boys seemed to suffer more from a lack of time management skills, which did not seem as much of a concern for the girls. Instead, the girls were more apprehensive about their ability to succeed when there was less access to personalised one-on-one support at university than they had experienced in high school.  

Furthermore, in terms of mental health, the girls in the First-in-Family Project were more open about their struggles with mental health. This highlights the gendering of mental health and how support services may need to be more attuned to gender differences for students from non-traditional backgrounds.

For those working in higher education, it is also important to note that many participants struggled to integrate socially with other university students who were mainly from middle-class backgrounds.  They found the experience isolating, and they doubted themselves.  There were few examples of students taking pride in their first-in-family status.  This was compounded by how many participants experienced confusion over pragmatics (e.g. timetables, scheduling, commuting) and how to navigate and conduct themselves at university. To conclude, while investments in widening participation are to be commended, the struggles of first-in-family students highlight how more can be done to familiarise students from disadvantaged backgrounds with what university entails.

Garth Stahl is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Queensland. His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality, and social change. Currently, his research projects encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, educational reform and gendered subjectivities.

Sarah McDonald is a Lecturer based at the Centre for Research in Education & Social Inclusion in UniSA Education Futures, University of South Australia. Her research interests are in gendered subjectivities, girlhood, social mobility, social barriers, and inequalities in education.