This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Emily Dixon, London Programmes and Communications Coordinator at AccessHE – the pan-London network driving the access, success and progression agenda for under-represented learners into and through higher education, and a key division of London Higher. You can follow AccessHE on Twitter at @AccessHE.
AccessHE read HEPI’s newest report, First-in Family Students, by Harriet Coombs, with great interest. There have been many conversations within widening participation circles about measures of disadvantage and how best to approach them across the student lifecycle of late, as well as discussing how we define the measures we use and whether we should use them at all. Having these discussions is essential to build widening participation practice that is as effective as it can be. While the ‘First-in-Family’ measure needs careful definition and application in order to achieve widening access goals, we cannot agree that it is not a useful measure.
The new report raises important points about variation in how First-in-Family status is defined, making it a difficult measure to assess. Definitions vary widely across the UK and other countries, and between British institutions. While it is most commonly used to mean students whose parents both do not have an undergraduate degree, this ignores the nuances of situations where students have close family members with degrees who are not parents. Students in different circumstances who are close to different family members will be more or less impacted than others by, for example, an aunt or cousin having a degree. We know that even with fuzzy definitions in place, First-in-Family students are a very large group and comprise the majority of higher education students.
Talking about these students as a minority, then, is not true or useful. However, where particular issues affect students of a particular group more than other students, it is worthwhile to try and address those issues.
AccessHE’s own research has found some evidence of First-in-Family status being a useful measure particularly for discussions around pre-entry preparation for study. In our recent Best Laid Plans report, students across a wide range of demographic groups were surveyed about the forms of preparation for higher education study they had undertaken, either independently or directed by their school or higher education institution. The most noticeable gap we saw was between First-in-Family students’ and their peers’ levels of self-directed preparation.
More research into understanding this gap and its causes and effects would certainly be warranted, and there is little we can read into it definitively at this stage, but the preparation gap for First-in-Family students seems to be clear. We do know that self-directed work using independently researched resources is likely to require more disposable income, time and confidence from students than attending events or completing work set by higher education institutions. As an ‘optional extra’ activity, it may be harder to access or make time for students whose schools and families do not have experience of supporting learners into higher education.
When the Nuffield Foundation looked at pay and career progression gaps between female and male graduates, the report authors found evidence of specific gaps between First-in-Family women and other female graduates. This report was based on a very large sample size, the Next Steps longitudinal cohort, and corrected for a range of other factors. Female First-in-Family graduates were found to be less likely to attend selective institutions, more likely to work in roles that did not require a degree, and showed less academic self-belief than other female graduates. While the report did find differential effects of being First-in-Family by ethnicity, it also found evidence of specific issues faced by First-in-Family students which could not be explained by other factors.
The authors of both these reports made recommendations around the need for pre-entry interventions and on-course support for First-in-Family students. If specific gaps exist that affect First-in-Family students across ethnicity, income and prior attainment, then specific support will be needed to address these issues and make sure this group is not left behind.
It is worth considering which interventions are most suitable in this sphere. This new report speaks about the need for mentoring and parental support, both of which have the capacity to positively impact access and continuation. There are many other areas where First-in-Family support can make a difference too. AccessHE’s ‘Best Laid Plans’ report recommended support programmes for current students co-created by young people who, through lived experience as First-in-Family students, can advise on the needs of this group. Specific attention to the issues that disproportionately affect this group during transition weeks can also be impactful.
The government’s ongoing ‘reboot’ of widening access – as noted by Graeme Atherton in his recent HEPI blog on the subject – takes care to focus on on-course issues as much as pre-entry issues. We would do well to keep First-in-Family students’ continuation gaps in mind when we discuss enabling all learners to experience good graduate outcomes.
Making sure we recognise intersectionality and the fact that no one measure is the single key to solving widening participation problems is, of course, essential, and no one is calling for First-in-Family to replace other indicators of different types of educational disadvantage. The new report quite rightly points out that First-in-Family status is not a proxy for general disadvantage, low income or low socioeconomic status, and it would be insulting to many individuals to imply that it is.
However, where there are specific gaps recognised by higher education institutions as affecting First-in-Family students, then specific interventions need to be put in place to shrink them. If we define our indicators clearly and use them sensitively, First-in-Family status can be a powerful measure to identify continuation and progression gaps and address the invisible issue of students not feeling a sense of belonging at university.