Date: Monday 3 July 2023
Time: 9:30am – 11:00am AEST
Venue: Sofitel Brisbane


First-in-family (FiF) students make up a significant proportion of the university population within Australia. Statistics indicate that over 50% of Australian HE students are the first in their families to attend university (Spiegler & Bednarek, 2013) with some Australian institutions anecdotally reporting participation as high as 70% of the student population. International research on this group indicates that this student cohort collectively do not perform to the same level academically as their second or third generation peers (HEFCE, 2010; NCES, 2012, Longwell-Grice et al.).

The first-in-family (FiF) network seeks to develop a community of practise for those who are interested in both supporting and engaging first-in-family students. We recognise that this cohort is highly diverse in age, background, and ability, as well as how they react to uni. Some students struggle when they come to university, while others are very resilient and thrive at university – we want to know what impacts their different experience as well as how to support those who have a difficult time and consider leaving.

This network would be of interest to researchers, teaching staff, outreach and equity practitioners as well as those working in broader university student support services. The focus is not only to explore key characteristics and concerns of this significant cohort but also, importantly, to consider how we can better retain and support these students moving forward.

2022 Network Meeting

In 2022, the network focused on exploring diversity within the first-in-family equity category. The presenters will draw on existing research with prospective and undergraduate students to demonstrate how the category of ‘first in family’ captures diversity across race, gender, class and geographic location. Drawing upon student narratives and theoretical insights, we will also explore how this diversity can inform the range and type of capitals associated with first in family cohorts; the nature of identity and aspirations tied to ‘being first;’ and the supports and strategies that can assist in the persistence and retention of this cohort.

The session will also provide an opportunity for discussion about the ways in which universities interact with first in family students with sharing of best practices.


Professor Sarah O'SheaProfessor Sarah O’Shea (PFHEA, ALTF, CF)
Professor Sarah O’Shea has convened the FiF network since its inception in 2015 and each year organises a network session that builds upon feedback from previous years. Over this period, Sarah has also linked network members together and disseminated key research and findings on this student cohort.
Having spent over 25 years teaching and researching in the higher education field, Professor Sarah O’Shea is regarded as an expert in educational equity and university access. She is currently the Director of The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (link to a Government funded Centre designed to connect research, policy and practice to improve higher education participation and success for marginalised and disadvantaged people

Sarah’s passion for first in family students cuts across her research and practise; in 2016 she was awarded an ARC Discovery Project exploring the persistence behaviours of first in family students and in 2017, obtained a Churchill Trust Fellowship to explore best practise in support strategies for this cohort, travelling to the UK, Canada and the US. Sarah has been recognised through awards and citations including as a Principal Fellow of Advance HE (UK) and an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow.

Dr Sally Patfield
Dr Sally Patfield is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle. Sally has over 15 years’ experience working in various educational contexts, including as a primary teacher in NSW public schools, in arts education at the local government level, community cultural development for the not-for-profit sector, and across professional and academic roles in higher education.

Sally’s doctoral research investigated school students who would be the first in their families to enter higher education. Conferred in 2018, her thesis was awarded the prestigious Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education by the Australian Association for Research in Education (2019) and the Higher Degree by Research Excellence Award for the School of Education, University of Newcastle (2018).
Sally’s research focuses on the sociology of higher education, social inequalities, widening participation, and educational transitions.

References / Further Reading
HEFCE. (2010). Trends in young participation in higher education: core results for England. Issues Paper, 10th March 2010, at (Retrieved 12 March 2013).

Groves, O. & O’Shea S. (2019). Learning to ‘be’ a university student: First in family students negotiating membership of the university community. International Journal of Educational Research. 98, 48-54.

Longwell-Grice, R., N. Adsitt, K. Mullins, and W. Serrata. 2016. “The First Ones: Three Studies on First-Generation College Students.” NACADA Journal 36 (2): 34–46. doi:10.12930/NACADA-13-028.
National Center for Education Statistics [NCES]. (2012). Digest of Education Statistics, 2011 (NCES 2012-001). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

O’Shea, S, Groves, O. & Delahunty, J. (2021). ‘…having people that will help you, that know the ropes and have walked that road before you’: How does first in family status impact graduates in the employment field? Journal of Teaching and Learning for Graduate Employability, 12(2) 36-50. Available from:

O’Shea, S. (2020). Crossing Boundaries: Rethinking the ways that first-in-family students navigate ‘barriers’ to higher education. British Journal of Sociology of Education 41(1) 95-110.

Spiegler, T., & Bednarek, A. (2013). First-generation students: what we ask, what we know and what it means: an international review of the state of research. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 23(4), 318-337.