Equity Groups: First-in-Family (FinF) students

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

While it is true that first generation students are not an identified equity group, and they do not receive explicit attention in federal policy or funding, they are a significant focus in both the Australian and the international equity literature. The common argument put forward about first-in-family students is similar to the deficit arguments made about low SES students– that they have less recognised social and academic capital than students who have familial connections with higher education; that they are less-academically prepared; that they experience financial concerns about study and living expenses (Scevak et al., 2014; although see Southgate et al. 2015 for a rebuttal of the connection between first-in-family and low SES). Recent research by King et al. (2015) offers a rich characterisation of 5300 first-in-family learners in three universities in South Australia. This work illustrates that first-in-family students are predominantly school leavers, with only 15% classified as ‘mature age’, and that those school leavers are less likely to live with parents while studying. Most of the first-in-family attended public school, especially the mature students (74.1%). More of the first-in-family students attended a rural high school than not-first-in-family students (30% to 22%) and first-in-family students generally had lower ATARs. Similar to low SES students, when at university first-in-family students are more likely to be enrolled in the disciplines of nursing, education, management & commerce, society & culture.

Other work by Sarah O’Shea (2016) works against the deficit framing by unpacking the specific kinds of capitals (‘familial educational memory’) that first-in-family students bring with them to their studies. Drawing on Yosso’s (2005) Community Cultural Wealth framework (see also Harwood et al. 2015), O’Shea illustrates how the first-in-family students in her study hold great wealths of aspirational, resistant, familial, experiential capital. In foregrounding the intersectionality between diversity of factors, O’Shea pushes against reductive simplifications of ‘first-in-family’ and recognises multiplicity of experiences and strengths (thus resisting deficit framings) – these students may not have experienced networks to draw on, but they have  “other more fundamental but equally rich personal resources drawn upon in this transition” (p.12). O’Shea places the impetus on institutions to reimagine ways of integrating these students into higher education: “This reconceptualisation should consider the very strong capitals that learners arrive with, regardless of ethnicity, SES status or educational background” (p.17). Unfortunately, these capitals do not necessarily translate to achievement; Southgate et al.’s (2015) research suggests that first-in-family students have poorer academic outcomes than their counterparts, particularly after Year 1 when all the scaffolded transition support finishes.



King, S., Luzeckyj, A., McCann, B. and Graham, C. (2015). Exploring the Experience of Being First in Family at University: A 2014 Student Equity in Higher Education Research Grants Project. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Perth: Curtin University.

O’Shea, S. (2016). Avoiding the manufacture of ‘sameness’: first-in-family students, cultural capital and the higher education environment, Higher Education, 72, 59–78.

Scevak, J.; Southgate, E.; Rubin, M.; Macqueen, S.; Douglas, H.: & Williams, P. (2014). A Guide for Educators in Higher Education: Responding to diversity for positive academic outcomes: University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW.

Southgate, E; Douglas, H.; Scevak, J.; Macqueen, S.; Rubin, M.; & Lindell, C. (2015). The academic outcomes of first-in-family in an Australian university: An explanatory study, International Studies in Widening Participation, 1(2): 31-45.



Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.