On ‘being first’: the case for first-generation status in Australian higher education equity policy

Patfield et al. / The Australian Educational Researcher / February 2021

For more than three decades, Australian higher education policy has been guided by a national equity framework focussed on six underrepresented target groups: Indigenous Australians, people from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, people from regional and remote areas, people with disabilities, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, and women in non-traditional areas of study. Despite bringing equitable access to the forefront of university agendas, this policy framework has fostered a somewhat narrow conceptualisation of how educational disadvantage should be addressed. Responding to calls for reform, this paper draws on survey data from 6492 students in NSW government schools to examine the extent to which a new category warrants inclusion in the national framework: first-generation status. We illustrate how being the first in a family to attend university brings distinct equity status and argue for a revision of the national equity framework to recognise and support students who are ‘first’.