Hepi: ‘first-generation student’ tag unhelpful for admissions

Appealing narrative attached to ‘first-in-family’ students may obscure the actual extent of their social disadvantage, says researcher

January 6, 2022
 Holly Bradshow of Great Britain jumps in the Women's Pole Vault final to illustrate Hepi report: ‘First-generation student’ tag unhelpful for admissions
Source: Getty

Becoming the “first in family” to attend university has long held a powerful resonance, often being deployed to quietly suggest a speaker’s resilience, working-class credentials and success against the odds.

But while the term remains a favourite for political speeches, its growing use in university admissions and outreach policies has now been challenged by a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, which has questioned whether it is still an accurate measure of social disadvantage.

While graduates in England whose parents did not obtain a degree are more likely to come from lower-income families and less likely to have attended independent schools (4 per cent did so, against 14 per cent of students with graduate parents), the study pushes back on the assumption that first-in-family students are always more socially, economically or educationally disadvantaged than other students.

In some cases, those classed as first-generation students may have older siblings at university or have step-parents, aunts and uncles who attended university, who can provide them with information to help overcome the transition to higher education. Some first-generation students may also come from relatively affluent families or, particularly in the case of children of migrants with Indian heritage, families with high levels of social capital and extensive experience of vocational education, says the report, titled First-in-Family Students, published on 6 January.

As such, the status of first-in-family – which is commonly used by many outreach projects run by UK universities – should only be considered as part of a basket of measures regarding social disadvantage when making contextual offers, said the report’s author Harriet Coombs, a recent graduate of the University of Bristol, where she was a member of its First-Generation Network of Scholars and a mentor for first-in-family students.

“By focusing on ‘first-in-family’ for admissions you also include a lot of people whose families may have rich experiences of further or higher education, or whose parents are even quite wealthy,” Ms Coombs told Times Higher Education.

“I can definitely see it’s a huge source of pride if you’re the first in your family to excel at school and go to university, and ‘first-in-family’ is also a very powerful term for self-identification and self-organisation within universities, but it’s a term with many limitations,” she added.

Many university leaders interviewed for the report had explained how the status was useful because it was “not very controversial or intrusive” and was therefore “easier for students to talk about” than their parents’ income, explained Ms Coombs.

However, the potential return of student number caps to English universities via proposed minimum grade tariffs means it is more important than ever that widening access resources are focused on groups with genuine social and economic disadvantages, said Ms Coombs.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the new report had “changed my thinking on ‘first-in-family’ students”.

“It is a description of majority status that has been masquerading as a description of minority status,” said Mr Hillman, who said “the huge weight that has been put on the term has been matched by a lack of transparency in how it is used by highly selective universities in their recruitment”.

“We should use first-in-family only as a light-touch indicator for disadvantage because it is so flawed, while putting more emphasis on better measures like free school meal status,” he added.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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