The role of familial habitus in shaping aspirations for higher education among prospective first-in-family students

Year: 2018

Author: Patfield, Sally, Gore, Jenny, Fray, Leanne

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Within Australian higher education policy, six equity target groups have prevailed for close to 30 years. While the continuity of the national equity framework has been vital to track access, participation, and success rates over time and inform government funding initiatives, the continued focus on these categories has meant that groups sitting outside the existing framework have been obscured. Recently, there has been growing recognition of students who are ‘first’ in their families to pursue university, reflecting the immense attention directed towards ‘first generation’ entrants to higher education in the United States. However, the idea of ‘being first’ has largely been considered once students arrive at university. Relatively little attention has been paid to prospective first-in-family students and how their aspirations for university form. Drawing on Reay’s (2010) conceptualisation of ‘familial habitus’, this paper shifts the temporal lens and explores how school students who would be first in their families to attend university come to imagine this pathway as part of their futures. Adopting a Bourdieusian framework, we use the concept of familial habitus to consider what it means to be ‘first’, focusing on the educational histories of parents, familial values, and attitudes. As part of a larger project investigating the aspirations of students (aged 8-18 years) enrolled in 64 government schools in New South Wales, Australia, we analyse data generated through focus groups with 198 prospective first-in-family students who aspire to higher education. We found a complex interplay of risk and possibility within the familial habitus of these students, and illustrate the considerable emotional labour and identity work they experience. Many students acknowledged a lack of talk about university, instead showing greater familiarity with vocational education. While the values and attitudes espoused by their parents greatly fostered the idea of higher education, some students were already attempting to deal with the prospect of ‘being different’ by being first. We argue that prospective first-in-family students are in need of greater attention within equity policy, especially in light of the proposed shift away from ‘widening participation’ and grave concerns that recent policy changes will dramatically reduce the chances of securing a place at university.
Reay, D. (2010). From the theory of practice to the practice of theory: Working with Bourdieu in research in higher education choice. In E. Silva & A. Warde (Eds.), Cultural analysis and Bourdieu's legacy: Settling accounts and developing alternatives (pp. 75-86). Oxon, UK: Routledge.