First generation students are the first in their families to go to University. These students typically have less social capital than their non-first-generation peers, which can impact on their ability and willingness to engage with the University experience. They may have less confidence in their academic abilities and readiness for University level work, and be less likely to seek help from academic staff (Soria & Stebleton 2012: 675). 

Many non-first generation students accrue advantages in virtue of growing up in environments in which they have access to a repository of information and experience which helps to prepare them for University life: ‘[n]ot only are they more familiar with higher education from listening to family members’ academic histories, but they also are likely to have more appropriate approaches for dealing with teachers and other educational authorities because of parental coaching’ (Collier and Morgan 2008: 430). 

The requirements of University can seem dauntingly different from the familiar School experience: ‘[a] lot of stuff on this course is about learning it yourself rather than being spoonfed. I think for me that is completely different to what I’ve ever known’ (Alice, quoted in Hamshire, Forsyth, and Player 2018: 132). Collier and Morgan (2008) develop the idea that being a student in Higher Education is a role that needs to be learned. Coming from a background with no family experience of the expectations associated with playing that role leaves first generation students with more to learn than their peers. 

So what are we to do? Unsurprisingly, it has been found that first generation students are more successful at institutions in which academics and professional services staff have an understanding of their needs, and have programmes in place to address them. Summer transition programmes have been identified as useful in ‘[laying] a solid foundation’ in increasing students’ confidence such that they feel better placed to interact with academic staff and navigate university life (Jenkins, Miyazaki, and Janosik 2009: 6). Such programmes are in place across UoB under our Pathways to Birmingham scheme. 

But there is more local work we can do in our Departments and Schools, to better support first generation students, given that they have had fewer opportunities to prepare for the transition from a School environment to a University one. We should seek to mitigate the anxiety and disorientation which might result from being faced immediately with the traditional University model of beginning with lectures, with summative assessment far down the track. This way of organising delivery ‘provides little opportunity for students to find out what others are thinking, or to calibrate their own performance, which may exacerbate these feelings of isolation or inadequacy’ (Hamshire, Forsyth, and Player 2018: 137). Instead, we might think about low-stakes tasks, group work, and regular explanations of what is expected of students as they progress. Structuring classroom activities such that students are more involved in the learning process, and working alongside their peers (perhaps in cooperative tasks), can better student engagement and success (Engle and Tinto 2008: 26). 

Considering curriculum and assessment as an approach to first generation students would be rather innovative, since in this context, these are dimensions of academic practice which ‘remain stubbornly resistant to change, contributing to the concept of a deficit of model of first generation students’ (Hamshire, Forsyth, and Player 2018: 124). Although there are disadvantages faced by first generation students, these are often ones of universities’ making. That is, contingent features of institutional set-ups, rather than disadvantaging characteristics that we should naturally expect first generation students to exhibit. We shouldn’t be seeking to change students in a way which better equips them to navigate university life, our goal should not be conceptualised as one of addressing a deficit. Instead, we ought to focus on changing our way of working so that we all benefit from a diversity of voices in our community of educators and learners, and that students from all backgrounds can take their seat at the academic table.

Collier, Peter J. and Moran, David L. 2008: ‘ “Is That Paper Really Due Today?”: Differences in First-Generation and Traditional College Students’ Understandings of Faculty Expectations’. Higher Education. Vol. 55, pp. 425–46. 

Engle, Jennifer and Tinto, Vincent 2008: ‘Moving Beyond Accesss: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students’. The Pell Institute. Available at 

Hamshire, Claire; Forsyth, Rachel, and Player, Catherine 2018: ‘Transitions of First Generation Students to Higher Education in the UK’. In Bell, Amani and Santamaría, Lorri J. Understanding Experiences of Frist Generation University Students. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, pp. 121–141. 

Jenkins, Anthony L.; Miyazaki, Yasuo; and Janosik, Steven M. 2009: ‘Predictors that Distinguish First-Generation College Students from Non-First Generation College Students’. Journal of Multicultural, Gender and Minority Studies. Vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 1–9. 

Soria, Krista M. and Stebleton, Michael J. 2012: ‘First-generation Students’ Academic Engagement and Retention’. Teaching in Higher Education. Vol. 17, no. 6, pp. 673–685.