UK governments have invested millions over the past 25 years in an effort to increase the social diversity of university entrants. This attempt to support social mobility and economic growth has led to a huge increase in higher education participation, from around 600,000 in the late 1960s to 2.3 million in 2018/19.
The key to this growth are the students who are the first members of their families to go to university. In his First students of the family report, released last week, the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) reports that two-thirds of all graduates are now first in line (FiF). And FiF has become industry shorthand for disadvantage, in the hope that this cohort will need additional support, including financial incentives.
Universities have been funded and incentivized by successive governments to spend more and more resources to encourage and support FiF students into higher education. This has led to a broad-based industry of activity and research, with targeting profiles of increasing interest to practitioners and academics.
This government is now playing a different tune, with a newly sharpened focus on results and value for money. It is in this context that this long-standing measure of disadvantage is being questioned – and, in some cases, dismissed altogether.
Hepi’s report echoes the implicit message of a precedent Sutton Trust Report: that FiF is no longer fit for purpose as a reliable metric for targeting high-value outreach, creating contextual offers, or scholarships. In line with recent rumors from the Student Bureau, they suggest using a basket of indicators, including free school meals and area-level measures such as the MDI (multiple deprivation index) to improve targeting.
But we should beware of throwing out the first baby in the family with the bathwater. I think FiF is still a useful metric to support targeting and analysis, able to provide insights that sharper tools cannot. I fear that if we lose this form of measurement, we may lose sight of the intricacies of the sliding scale of disadvantage and its impact on participation.
Although they represent two-thirds of new graduates, FiF students are not evenly distributed across institution types, with post-1992 years being their predominant destination. Understanding why is a key access issue. Research argues that this is not due to a lack of ambition among FiF students but to fee levels, a desire to study close to home and an attraction to the support infrastructure offered by new universities.
In many post-92, FiF students outnumber second-generation students. These institutions have grown, as their demographics have changed over the years, to provide a suitable environment for these learners. Where this has been most successful, we not only see no access gap between the most and least advantaged, but also no achievement gap.
The achievement of good degrees by FiF students and the subsequent employment of graduates must continue to be a strong measure of the social good that universities can achieve. Sheffield Hallam University, where FiF students make up more than half of the student population, has an impressive track record of supporting students in higher-level jobs, with more high-skilled jobs than in almost all other universities in the country.
However, the problem remains that FiF students still face more challenges than those with the cultural advantage of prior family experience in higher education. By focusing only on the most disadvantaged, we risk disenfranchising a large number of students who still face barriers.
As the number of 18 year olds increases, we will likely see fee increases at all institutions to manage admissions. Some institutions are concerned about their National Student Survey results because of over-recruitment over the past two tumultuous admissions cycles. This risks ‘suppressing’ students from FiF, particularly if well-established access support mechanisms are removed in favor of a more targeted approach.
Universities are rightly expected to commit to the upgrading programme; broader measures of social mobility such as the FiF are useful tools for identifying success in this area. This is especially the case when viewed through a regional and civic lens. How are universities engaging with local populations to address skills shortages and post-Covid recovery? Without continued support from the FiF for higher education, the regions jeopardize their ability to “bounce back”.
Strong targeting metrics and transparent use of contextual data should be encouraged, especially in college access and participation plans and reporting to the Student Office. However, we must not narrow our scope and miss the big picture of social mobility. The access opportunities and outcomes of FiF graduates as a large and heterogeneous cohort are key to demonstrating the educational transformation brought about by UK universities.
Jayne Taylor is Head of Student Recruitment and Access Development at Sheffield Hallam University.