17 August 2015

university students from a rural backgroundStudents who are the first in their immediate family, including siblings, to attend university are studying to forge a better life for themselves as well as pursue their passion, according to research released today.

The research, funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University, found that First in Family (FiF) students lack the ‘hot’ knowledge that non FiF students generally acquire from parents or siblings who have previously attended university.

This meant FiF students needed to overcome the sense that university was an ‘alien’ place and gain confidence in their abilities to succeed, according to the research.

Titled Exploring the experience of being first in family at university, the collaborative research was undertaken by researchers at the University of South Australia, Flinders University and the University of Adelaide.

The report describes the transformative possibilities of entering higher education, provides practical advice for FiF students on how to successfully negotiate university life, and offers guidelines for academics, university managers and policymakers on how to improve outcomes for this under-recognised equity group.

Lead author, UniSA’s Academic Director/ Deputy Head of UniSA College, Associate Professor Sharron King, says it’s important to recognise the diversity of the FiF cohort.

“The survey data and participant interviews demonstrated that first in family students were incredibly diverse both in terms of their age and previous life experience but also in terms of their expectations of what they wanted to achieve at university,” Assoc Prof King says.

“The key motivating factor for FiF students to attend university was that they all wanted a better life for themselves.

“A number of students specifically mentioned gaining financial freedom from parental or other income sources. Older students in particular chose to come to university for career betterment or advancement.

“However the main reason, as cited by all FiF students, for choosing their degree program was interest.”

Assoc Prof King says a significant challenge for FiF students lack information on how to navigate various university systems and procedures and are often unaware of the support services available to them.

“Despite the educational disadvantage that FiF students may experience in comparison to their non-FiF peers, this cohort has been shown to be able to successfully navigate the complexities of higher education when provided with the appropriate support and opportunities,” she says.

The report made several recommendations for universities, including improving data collection and reporting, expanding outreach into the community, and improving the information provided to FiF students about institutional systems and procedures.

Recommendations for university teaching and professional staff included recognising the transformative potential of higher education, and that the development of a student identity required a shift away from previous cultural norms.

FiF students are advised to inform themselves about university before starting by attending on-site activities and reviewing university websites and recruitment material.

NCSEHE Director, Professor Sue Trinidad, emphasised the importance of higher education in addressing social inequality.

“First in family students make the transition to higher education for themselves and also assist and inform other family members considering a similar path,” Prof Trinidad says.

“They are trailblazers for themselves and their families. It’s important that secondary schools and universities continue to support these students in accessing and participating in higher education.

“I congratulate the researchers on this important report and look forward to discussion on the findings.”

The NCSEHE aims to inform public policy design and implementation and institutional practice to improve the higher education participation and success for marginalised and disadvantaged people.

Read the report on the NCSEHE website.

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