‘First in family’ is still a useful metric of disadvantage

Without it, we could lose sight of the subtleties of the sliding scale of disadvantage and its impact on participation, says Jayne Taylor

January 15, 2022
A family celebrates a graduation illustrating opinion article about support ‘first in family’ students in higher education
Source: iStock

UK governments have invested millions over the past 25 years in pursuit of increasing the social diversity of university entrants. This attempt to support social mobility and economic growth has led to an enormous rise in higher education participation, from around 600,000 at the end of the 1960s to 2.3 million in 2018/19.

Key to this boom are students who are the first people in their families to go to university. In its First-in-Family Students report, published last week, the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) reports that two-thirds of all graduates are now first-in-family (FiF). And FiF has become sector shorthand for disadvantage, with the expectation that this cohort will need additional support, including financial incentivisation.

Universities have been funded and cajoled by successive governments to spend increasingly more resources encouraging and supporting FiF students into higher education. This has driven an industry of widening-participation activity and research, with targeting profiles of growing interest to practitioners and academics alike.

This government is now playing a different tune, with a newly sharpened focus on outcomes and value for money. It is against that backdrop that this long-held metric of disadvantage is being challenged – and, in some cases, altogether discarded.

Hepi’s report echoes the implicit message of a previous Sutton Trust report: that FiF is no longer fit for purpose as a reliable metric for the targeting of high-value outreach, contextual offer making or bursaries. In line with recent noises from the Office for Students, they suggest using a basket of indicators, including free school meals and area-level measures such as IMD (index of multiple deprivation) to improve targeting.

But we should be wary of throwing the first-in-family baby out with the bathwater. I believe FiF is still a useful metric to support targeting and analysis, capable of providing insights that sharper tools cannot. I am concerned that if we lose this form of measurement, we could lose sight of the subtleties of the sliding scale of disadvantage and its impact on participation.

Despite making up two-thirds of new graduates, FiF students are not evenly distributed across institution types, with post-1992s their predominant destination. Understanding why is a key access issue. Research contends that it is due not to a paucity of ambition among FiF students but to tariff levels, the desire to study close to home and an attraction to the support infrastructures offered by newer universities.

At many post-92s, FiF students outnumber second-generation students. These institutions have developed, as their demographics have changed over the years, to provide an environment suited to these learners. Where this has been most successful, we see not only no access gap between the most and least advantaged but also no attainment gap.

FiF students’ attainment of good degrees and subsequent graduate jobs must continue to be a strong measure of the social good universities can achieve. Sheffield Hallam University, where FiF students make up more than half the student population, has an impressive track record of supporting students into graduate-level jobs, with more entering highly skilled employment than from almost all other universities in the country.

However, the issue remains that FiF students still face more challenges compared with those who have the cultural advantage of previous familial experience of higher education. By focusing only on the most disadvantaged, we risk disenfranchising vast numbers of students who still face barriers.

As the demographic of 18-year-olds expands, we are likely to see tariff rises across all institutions to manage admissions. Some institutions are concerned about their National Student Survey scores due to over recruitment during the past two tumultuous admissions cycles. This risks “pricing out” FiF students, especially if well-established access support mechanisms are removed in favour of a more targeted approach.

Universities are rightly expected to engage with the levelling-up agenda; broader social mobility metrics such as FiF are useful tools to identify success in this area. This is particularly the case when viewed through a regional and civic lens. How are universities engaging with local populations to address skills shortages and post-Covid recovery? Without continued support of FiF into higher education, regions put at risk their ability to “bounce back”.

Robust targeting measures and transparent use of contextual data are to be encouraged, especially in university access and participation plans and in reporting to the Office for Students. However, we mustn’t narrow our focus and miss the big social-mobility picture. The access opportunities and graduate outcomes of FiF as a significant, heterogeneous cohort are key to demonstrating the educational transformation provided by UK universities.

Jayne Taylor is head of student recruitment and access development at Sheffield Hallam University.

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