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Two in every five students enrolled at the University of Newcastle are the first in their family to go to university. That is, no doubt, an exciting yet daunting prospect for them and their families.
Statistically, young Australians are twice as likely to go to university if their parents did, and our research shows that these aspirations are formed from an early age.
Students whose parents went to university have just over 1.6 times the odds of aspiring to university as their peers whose parents did not. We argue that 'first in family' should be a recognised equity target group in higher education policy.
Being the first in your family to go to university often means you do not have access to the valuable cultural and social 'know how' that others gain from their families and communities. Aspirations to go to university can be seen as disrupting the family history, threatening a young person's anticipated life course by not following in their parents' footsteps. Once they enrol 'newcomers' find themselves in uncharted territory, can see themselves as unsuitable for university, and can feel they are in another world. However, first-generation students can also be thought of as trailblazers, breaking down barriers so others can follow in their footsteps.
Although first in family students are underrepresented in higher education and experience disadvantage, they fall outside the current national equity framework. For more than three decades, Australian higher education policy has sought to increase the participation of six underrepresented groups: Indigenous Australians, people from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, people from regional and remote areas, people with disabilities, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, and women in non-traditional areas of study.
Statistically, young Australians are twice as likely to go to university if their parents did
Since then, access has improved for some groups, but Indigenous Australians, people from low SES backgrounds and people living in regional and remote areas are still underrepresented. However, the enduring pre-occupation with these categories means that other groups, such as first in family, have been overlooked.
At first glance, levels of enrolment of students who are first in their family do not appear problematic. According to data from the OECD, half of all young people enrolled in Australian universities are the first in their family to go to university. However, this is not reflective of the wider adult population, where nearly three-quarters of people do not have a university degree.
Our research investigated 'prospective' first-generation students - young people enrolled in primary and secondary schools yet to enter higher education. We drew on survey data from 6492 students in 64 NSW government schools, part of a large-scale project examining the post-school aspirations of students. Funded by the Australian Research Council and the NSW Department of Education, this four-year project ran from 2012 to 2015 and involved students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 who were followed until they were in Years 6, 8, 10 and 12.
We considered how first-generation status intersects with current equity target groups and we compared the socio-demographic profile (sex, Indigenous status, language background, location and socioeconomic status) of prospective first-generation students to that of their peers with university-educated parents.
We found that prospective first-generation students are more likely to belong to one of the existing equity categories (88 per cent) compared to their peers with university-educated parents (55 per cent). First-generation students are more likely to identify as Indigenous, come from a lower socioeconomic background, and live in a regional or remote area, and are more likely to belong to multiple equity categories, meaning they often experience complex, overlapping forms of disadvantage.
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Educational aspirations were derived by asking students to indicate the highest level of education they planned to complete.
Of first-generation students, 42.5 per cent selected 'university', 17.6 per cent 'TAFE', 15.7 per cent 'high school' and 24.3 per cent 'I don't know'. Of continuing-generation students, 69.3 per cent selected 'university', 5.7 per cent 'TAFE', 4.9 per cent 'high school' and 20.1 per cent 'I don't know'.
Even when other variables were taken into account, we found that continuing generation students had just over 1.6 times the odds of aspiring to university as their prospective first-generation peers.
While first in family students are significantly more likely to be part of other equity groups, some do not fit into any existing category at all. Therefore, students who are likely to face challenges associated with 'being first' will be overlooked in interventions based on the current target groupings.