"I don't really have a lot of experience, a lot of people telling me stories about it": The interplay of capital, habitus and field in navigating the pathway to university for prospective first in family students

Year: 2017

Author: Patfield, Sally, Gore, Jennifer, Fray, Leanne, Lloyd, Adam

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In recent decades, discourses of widening participation and aspiration have become prominent themes within the higher education sectors of many OECD countries. In Australia, the push to widen participation is not a new phenomenon, however first in family (FiF) entrants to university have been overlooked as an official equity target group within the current agenda to 'widen participation' to non-traditional students, despite immense policy attention in other countries, particularly the United States (Spiegler & Bednarek, 2013). For students who possess no parental experience of higher education, the pathway to university can encompass many challenges in comparison to those who benefit from intergenerational knowledge and access to cultural and social resources associated with this field (O'Shea, 2014). Drawing on focus group data collected as part of a larger research project involving primary and secondary school-aged students (N = 553) enrolled in New South Wales government schools, this study employs Bourdieu's concepts of capital, habitus and field (Bourdieu, 1986; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977) to examine how prospective FiF university aspirants are positioned to navigate the pathway to higher education. The analysis highlights the salience of FiF status, although this manifested in two distinct ways; for some, FiF status held significance and acted as a kind of catalyst; however for others, access to the 'right kinds' of capital acted as a constraint to their aspirations. While several students were able to rely on familial and non-familial connections as a source of capital to navigate the pathway towards university, schools and universities were often critical mechanisms to accumulate more strategic capital, allowing students to accrue 'archives of experience' (Appadurai, 2004) aligning with the field. We argue that it is not only vital to acknowledge the FiF entrant to higher education within Australia, but also critical for schools and universities to consider ways in which they can be positioned to support this pathway.