News & Events

“Wow, you must be really smart if you’re going to uni.” First-in-family learners and higher education participation

Event Details
Executive Briefing Centre Boardroom, Level 2, Building 100, Curtin University, Kent Street Bentley WA 6102
27 June 2016 3:55 pm

Dr Sarah O’ Shea from the University of Wollongong and the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) invite you to attend a half-day workshop focused on first-in-family students at university.


Students who are the first in their family (FiF) to attend university now comprise over half of the Australian university student population (Spiegler & Bednarek, 2013). Subsequently, the term ‘first-in-family’ or ‘first generation’ student is featuring more and more in university rhetoric, and in some institutions, new positions such as First Gen Officers have been created in order to better support these learners. Despite all of this, FiF students are reported to have lower educational outcomes at university and a higher risk of attrition (McMillan, 2005; AIHW, 2014):

  • Over a quarter of first-in-family respondents in AUSSE (2011) indicated departure intentions in the first year of university and this figure increase to 34% for later year students (Coates & Ransom, 2011)
  • Students with a parent or family member who has attended university are statistically more likely to successfully complete higher education studies (McMillan, 2005)
  • Students in OECD member countries who are from a more educated family are ‘almost twice (1.9)’ as likely to attend university (p.3) than peers. (OECD, 2013).

This workshop draws upon a number of research studies*, conducted with Australian first-in-family learners studying in various degree programs. Using in-depth surveys and narrative biographical interviews, these studies encouraged learners and their families to deeply reflect upon higher education participation both individually and collectively. The research has informed Dr Sarah O’ Shea’s 2016 Office for Learning & Teaching Fellowship during which she is exploring approaches to retaining this student cohort as well as ways to engage with the family and community of these learners.

Sarah’s presentation will focus on the following broad areas:

  • First-in-family learners’ expectations about higher education environments
  • The ways in which HE participation was translated and understood by family members, and
  • Strategies employed by first in family students to navigate the university environment, particularly given the lack of a ‘knowledgeable other’ within the family.

The workshop will open up ‘collegial conversations’ with participants in order to explore how these findings reflect other institutional contexts and responses to student diversity. Participants are invited to provide details of strategies designed to connect with the families and community of first in family learners that they are familiar with or are involved.

About A/Prof Sarah O’ Shea

Sarah is an Associate Professor in Adult, Vocational and Higher Education in the School of Education, Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong. Sarah has over 20 years of experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, and has published widely on issues related to educational access and equity.

In 2015, Sarah was awarded an Australian National Teaching and Learning Fellowship to support her work with students who are first in their families to go to university. Broadly, Sarah’s research focuses on student access and participation within the university sector, with particular reference to students from identified equity groups including those from low-SES backgrounds, Indigenous students, mature aged students and first-in-family learners.


To secure your place at this workshop, please email by Wednesday 22 June 2016. Spaces are limited, so please register early. As morning tea will be provided, please advise the NCSEHE if you have any special dietary requirements.


*O’Shea, S., May, J., Stone, C., & Delahunty, J. (2015). Breaking the Barriers: supporting and engaging first-in-family university learners and their families. Final Report. Retrieved from

O’Shea, S., (2015) “I generally say I am a Mum first… but I’m studying at uni”: The narratives of first in family, female caregivers moving into an Australian university. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Online First Publication, March 9, 2015.

O’ Shea, S. (2014). Filling up silences –first in family students, capital and university talk in the home. International Journal of Lifelong Education. 34:2, 139-155. doi: 10.1080/02601370.2014.980342.

Posted 4 April 2016