Higher education is fundamentally important to both the individual and society. It produces a skilled labour force for society and for graduates, having a degree can increase lifetime earnings, reduce the risk of unemployment, and even lead to better health outcomes. Given the importance of higher education, widening access to university has become an issue of social justice and fairness. As such, universities around the world are attempting to increase the diversity of their student population using a number of criteria.
In the UK, this effort is centred on the aim to see ‘all higher education institutions excelling in teaching and reaching out to low participation groups’. This includes those from low income families, those who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), those from a low social class background, those who could be ‘first in family’ or ‘first generation’ graduates, those who were young carers or who have been in care, those with disabilities or special education needs (SEN), and those from minority ethnic backgrounds or who live in low university participation areas.
Our Nuffield Foundation* funded research project focuses on individuals who are ‘first in family’ (FiF), that is, those who achieve a university degree, but whose [step] parents did not. We are particularly interested to understand whether those who are first in family (FiF) take different routes through higher education than those who are children of graduate parents (non-FiF). We find that first in family students make up two thirds of all university graduates. But they are less likely to attend Russell Group universities, and have a higher probability of non-completion, even after controlling for prior educational attainment.