Exploring the Experience of Being First in Family at University
Research funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University finds that first in family (FiF) students – students who are the first in their immediate family, including siblings, to have attended university – study to make a better life for themselves, and pursue their interests.
The collaborative project was undertaken by researchers at the University of South Australia, Flinders University and the University of Adelaide. The report describes the transformative possibilities of entering higher education, provides practical advice for FiF students on how to successfully negotiate university life, and offers guidelines for academics, university managers and policymakers on how to improve outcomes for this under-recognised equity group.
“It’s important to recognise the diversity of the first in family cohort,” said Associate Professor Sharron King, Academic Director/ Deputy Head of UniSA College.
“The survey data and participant interviews demonstrated that first in family students were incredibly diverse both in terms of their age and previous life experience but also in terms of their expectations of what they wanted to achieve at university.”
“The key motivating factor for FiF students to attend university was that they all wanted a better life for themselves. A number of students specifically mentioned gaining financial freedom from parental or other income sources. Older students in particular chose to come to university for career betterment or advancement.”
“However the main reason, as cited by all FiF students, for choosing their degree program was interest.”
“A significant challenge for FiF students is that they lack the ‘hot knowledge’ that non-FiF students generally acquire from parents or older siblings who have previously attended university. As such, they lack information on how to navigate various university systems and procedures and are often unaware of the support services available to them.”
The report made several recommendations for universities, including improving data collection and reporting, expanding outreach into the community, and improving the information provided to FiF students about institutional systems and procedures.
Recommendations for university teaching and professional staff included recognising the transformative potential of higher education, and that the development of a student identity required a shift away from previous cultural norms.
FiF students are advised to inform themselves about university before starting by attending on-site activities and reviewing university websites and recruitment material.
Professor Sue Trinidad, NCSEHE Director, emphasised the importance of higher education in addressing social inequality.
“First in family students make the transition to higher education for themselves and also assist and inform other family members considering a similar path. They’re trailblazers for themselves and their families. It’s important that secondary schools and universities continue to support these students in accessing and participating in higher education.”
“I congratulate the researchers on this important report and look forward to discussion on the findings.”