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Why first-in-family uni students should receive more support

Written by Dr Sarah O’ Shea, University of Wollongong, for The Conversation

Many university students fall into one of the six “equity groups” that receive targeted funding. However, there is one group that has for too long been ignored as a group that needs extra assistance in making it through university.

The six targeted equity groups include those:

  • from lower socioeconomic backgrounds: currently measured by permanent home postcode
  • from rural and isolated areas: measured by permanent postcode, population density data and proximity to cities
  • with a disability (self-identified on enrolment)
  • from a non-English-speaking background (those born overseas and who speak a language other than English)
  • women in non-traditional areas of study; and
  • Indigenous people (self-identified on enrolment).

Accurately identifying those that fall under these categories is necessary for universities as substantial equity funding is based on it. In January 2015, the new Higher Education Participation Programme (HEPP) was announced with a budget of A$487 million (2015-2017).

HEPP provides funding to universities for programs that attract, support and retain students from “disadvantaged” or equity backgrounds. However, the usefulness of defining students into such discrete categories has been questioned. Individual students frequently fall into multiple equity categories, which requires lots of time spent ticking boxes on everyone’s part.

First in family

One cohort not included in current Australian equity definitions is those students who are the first in their family to go to university. This is despite reports these students have higher rates of attrition and struggle academically.

This is a global phenomenon: within the US, 43% of this cohort left university without a degree and the UK reports a strong correlation between low university participation rates and parental educational levels.

In Australia, over 50% of the student population is estimated to be the first in their family to go to university. A significant proportion of them consider departure throughout their university careers. In 2011, 26% reported that they considered leaving university in the first year of studies, a figure that increased to 34% for later years.

This cohort is particularly vulnerable to attrition and disengagement from university for many reasons. One UK study argues that the lack of a culture of higher education within the family impacts how prepared the student will be for university.

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Posted 23 March 2015 Posted in Disability, Editorial, General, Indigenous, Low SES, Regional