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Families key to unlocking social mobility

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First-in-family students have a social mobility slipstream effect on people close to them, study finds

Students who are the first in their family to go to university are pivotal to widening participation, says a study that highlights the effect on brothers, sisters and parents.

Instead of thinking they’re risky and likelier to drop out, universities should see first-generation students as gatekeepers to engaging under-represented communities.

That’s the suggestion from sociology and education experts who found first-in-family students have a social mobility slipstream effect on people close to them.

“In higher education’s drive to engage people who might think university snobbish, elitist, or ‘not for them’, our work shows family ties matter more than is realised,” said Dr Emma Wainwright.

More students from less privileged backgrounds go to university now than ever before. In 2016, for the first time the number of students whose parents did not go to university matched those from wealthier academic backgrounds, UCAS figures show. And while there’s growing research into parents’ influence on student’s choices, little is known about the links between home, family and university.

Researchers at Brunel University London studied first-generation undergraduates, focussing on their transition to university and its influence on close family. The majority, they found, inspire siblings and sometimes even parents to also get a degree. This, they say, highlights a need for universities to look more at family ties and engage whole families in their outreach work.

One student they spoke to is John* from a working-class, single-parent family living on a council estate. “I’d probably class myself as really academic,” he said. “I’m not trying to sound big-headed, it’s just what I enjoy. So, when I got the chance to make choices, it was fairly natural. I really wanted this. I suppose my brother will now have to do a degree as well. He’s much cleverer. I’ll probably give him a lot of support. It will make it a hell of a lot easier for him than it was for me.”

Paula*’s brother and mother are now thinking of going to university as a consequence of her going. “I tell him about the lab sessions we have, then he gets really excited because, obviously, it’s in a lab and it’s like sciencey stuff.” Her mother is re-taking a GCSE so she can do her A-levels and study occupational therapy or physiotherapy. “She is quite worried about money,” Paula said. “Then I told her about getting a bursary from the NHS. Then she really was interested.”

Dr Wainwright and co-author Professor Mike Watts urge universities, the HE sector and government to rethink their ideas about first-generation students. “Universities need to engage more thoroughly with the families – parents and siblings – of their students,” they said. “These institutions should become sites for learning interaction, experience and role-modelling based on the family unit, however it is configured.”

Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268176
hayley.jarvis@brunel.ac.uk