Heather Douglas

First in family to attend university: latest Australian research findings

Over the past fifty years there has been a huge increase in enrolments in higher education in many countries, including Australia. Increases range between 15 to 50 per cent, and Australia is approaching the upper limits of that measure. This has resulted, in part, from a drive in countries such as the US, UK and Australia, to improve economic growth by encouraging students from backgrounds previously not attracted to university education, to gain a tertiary qualification.

The enrolment surge has raised many issues for universities as they deal with the influx of a new type of student. Having attracted these students into tertiary education, universities have a moral and ethical responsibility to identify and support them. It is unethical to invite students into university study for broad economic and corporate purposes without considering how participation affects the students involved.

In Australia, universities have particularly targeted students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. However there is now a stigma attached to this label, and it can lead to deficit approaches, where students are treated as being from problematic backgrounds, or needy communities, who are not likely to succeed without outside help.

In contrast, in the US there has been a focus on research around students who are first-in-family (FiF) to attend university. This category is more useful as far as education services and support goes, and students are more likely to be comfortable being identified as first in family to attend university. However this category of students does not appear in Australian policy.

Currently, FiF students are gaining increased attention from researchers and institutions around the world, including here in Australia. While some of these students may come from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, not all do. However, much of the research suggests that FiF students, if they do enrol, are more likely to struggle at university and to discontinue their studies.

Our research findings on first in family (FiF) to attend university in Australia

A group of colleagues and I conducted a study at a large regional university in NSW on first in family to attend university. Our findings would be useful for any university that is expanding its enrolment base, and should underpin future government policy-making in this area.

FiF are a diverse group with common aspirations

We discovered FiF students are a diverse group, in terms of age, life experience and expectations of university. However they share a common desire for a better life and hope that university will help them achieve this. Some are keen to gain financial freedom, and many older students are aiming to improve their careers. They all share an interest in the focus of their degree program.

Transitions are different but university is an alien place

The transition to and through university differs for every FiF student, but they share a need to overcome a sense of university as an alien place, and to develop a sense of belonging. This is especially true for those who were not high achievers in high school. Many struggle against the belief that ‘university is for really smart people’ and ‘not people like us’.

Most have to do paid work and study

Most FiF students have to undertake some level of paid work while they study. Students who have to relocate in order to study, and those with family commitments are affected most by finances.

There are costs for travel, books, printing, childcare and loss of income while undertaking professional experience placements.

Families can impact study

Family commitments can impact study in many ways. One student told us:

I am from a family of 11, so studying at home can be an issue most of the time. I don’t have many friends either, there isn’t much help around!

Dropping kids to school and driving to uni getting parking takes about an hour so if lecture begins before 10am then it has to be missed.

However family and friends are a major source of support for these students, even though those people may not understand what the student is going through.

Loss of social life, health and well being

FiF students also suffer from loss of social interactions and reduced health and wellbeing, especially during peak assessment times.

New friends

Making friends in their courses is also important. These students, in particular, need peers to discuss course content and assessment with.

Achievement gap

There remains an achievement gap for FiF students. Our study indicates that the achievement outcomes of FIF and non-FIF are similar in the first year of study, but that achievement decreases for FIF in subsequent years of study. Most support structures at universities are aimed at first year students.

Realistic expectations

FiF students generally have realistic expectations of university and work hard to achieve their goals. They do not take success for granted. They are aware of the changes made to their skills, lives and future opportunities because of their studies.

Overwhelmingly, FiF students find the struggle worth persevering. They cite benefits in terms of personal growth, social experiences and a better understanding of society, and feel this benefits other members of their families too. These students often pave the way for other family members. Many feel ‘lucky’ to have the opportunity to attend university, often underestimating the impact of their own hard work and determination.

Help from university staff is important

University staff and services (academic, medical and financial) can also be of help. One student said:

staff that smile and are always approachable. The resources available such as extended library hours and IT staff. The HUB. A psychologist. Meditation and relaxation classes. Utilising all the available resources in the first year from the learning support centre. A positive attitude. Helping others helps me. Persistence.

Despite the available support services, it can be difficult to navigate the landscape of university, especially for those struggling with family and/or health issues, or to understand language used by staff and requirements of enrolment and assessment. Time-poor students find it difficult to access services in addition to the demands of study and paid work.

More research and more support is needed

Although a number of universities, including the one where the current research was conducted, have a strong corporate commitment to attracting and retaining low SES and/or FiF students, the commitment is not always supported sufficiently to filter down in a practical way to the students involved. Many of these students do succeed, but all could be better supported.


A full report of the study can be found here

I would like to acknowledge the financial support for the study received from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.


Suzanne Macqueen1-1Suzanne Macqueen is a Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle teaching courses related to primary social studies curriculum, classroom management, literacy and professional preparation. She has a Master of Education (Research) on the topic of between-class achievement grouping for literacy and numeracy classes in primary schools. She is currently undertaking PhD research related to the impact of widening participation initiatives in teacher education. She is also involved in research projects studying equity in higher education and Global Education.

Suzanne would like to acknowledge the financial support for the study received from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.