Publication Details

O'Shea, S., May, J. & Stone, C. (2015). Breaking the Barriers: supporting and engaging first-in-family university learners and their families.


Universities attract students from a wide range of backgrounds, yet equity of access and participation for all potential students remains elusive. Access and participation is highly differentiated in the United Kingdom, North America and Australia (Abbott-Chapman, 2006; Couvillion-Landry, 2002-2003; Forsyth & Furlong, 2003; James, 2008; Schuetze & Slowey, 2002) and poorer educational outcomes for students who are first-in-family (FiF) are recorded globally (ABS, 2013; Harrell & Forney, 2003; Lehmann, 2009; National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2012). The international research on this group indicates that they are collectively less likely to go to university and also, after arrival, may not perform to the same level academically as their second or third generation peers (HEFCE, 2010; NCES 2012). Within Australia, 26 percent of this cohort is reported as considering leaving university in the first year of university study, a figure that increases to 34 percent for later year students (Coates & Ransom, 2011). These results have been explained in general terms, for example, the FiF students in Coates and Ransom's Australian study who reported departure intentions, perceived the university as unsupportive or failing to 'help them cope with non-academic responsibilities' (p. 14). Despite policy initiatives designed to increase university participation, these types of explanations tell us little about what is needed to improve educational outcomes for FiF students. This project sought to not only explore the experiences of FiF students but also those of their family members and 'significant' others. We know that parental educational background has significant impact on the educational levels of family and dependents (Gorard, Rees, Fevre & Furlong, 1998; Harrell & Forney, 2003; Thayer, 2000; Tramonte & Willms, 2009; Wilks & Wilson, 2012). However, what is unclear is how attending a university as a first-in-family student impacts upon the family and community of the learner. How does transitioning into this environment and enacting a student role or building a student identity translate into the household? With the continuing requirements for higher education institutions to increase the participation of students from a diversity of backgrounds and educational biographies, this is a gap in understanding that needs to be addressed. Exploring how this movement into university is translated at a familial and community level can provide insights into how best to support this student cohort and may also therefore affect attrition rates. It could also facilitate intergenerational educational mobility.