Date: Monday 1 July 2024
Time: 9:00am – 10:30am AEST
Venue: Sofitel Melbourne on Collins
Cost: Please see Registration page


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 (O’Shea et al, 2023) 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 (Patfield, Gore & Weaver, 2021, Henderson et al., 2019).

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.

2024 Network Meeting

In 2024, the network will explore the positionality of first in family learners in an evolving university landscape. With the changes and recommendations proposed under the Accord, we will highlight what we know about this student cohort including how define or regard this group as well as the relational and affective dimensions of ‘being first,’. During the session we will draw on international and national research into this field and discuss questions such as:

Where do first in family students sit in terms of being ‘priority learners’?

How might we better leverage the strengths and capabilities of these learners to support their university journey?

What are other universities doing to ensure their first in family cohorts are supported and engaged throughout their university journey?


Professor 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 current trends in higher education. Over this period, Sarah has also linked network members together and disseminated key research and findings on this student cohort.

Having spent nearly 30 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 also an award-winning educator and internationally recognised researcher, who applies sociological perspectives to the study of higher education equity. Institutional and nationally funded projects advance understanding of how under-represented student cohorts (particularly first in family students) enact success within university, navigate transition into and through this environment, manage competing identities and negotiate aspirations for self and others.

Sarah has held numerous university leadership positions, which have directly informed changes across the Australian higher education sector. She has published extensively and has been awarded over $AUD4 million in grant funding since 2009, also managing over $10 million in Federal Government funding. Sarah has been recognised for her work via numerous awards, she is not only a STARS Fellow but also, an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow (ALTF), a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA), and a Churchill Fellow (CF).

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

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.

Henderson, M., Shure, N., & Adamecz-Volgyi, A. (2019). ‘First in Family’ University graduates in England. Discussion Paper Series. Retrieved from

O’Shea, S. (2023). ‘It was like navigating uncharted waters’: exposing the hidden capitals and capabilities of the graduate marketplace. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 45(2), 126-139.

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.

Patfield, S., Gore, J., & Fray, L. (2021). Reframing first-generation entry: how the familial habitus shapes aspirations for higher education among prospective first-generation students. Higher Education Research & Development, 40(3), 599-612. doi:10.1080/07294360.2020.1773766

Patfield, S., Gore, J., & Weaver, N. (2021). Odds are against ‘first in family’ uni students but equity policies are blind to them. Retrieved from