It’s not (all) about the money, money, money

After a Universities UK campaign highlighted the success of first generation students, Sunday Blake and Alaya Holloway look the complexities and nuances of supporting such a diverse group

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

Alaya Holloway is the founder and CEO of FirstGens.

Universities UK has launched a new campaign on “first generation” students – which was well received, covered in depth on both the site and on the Wonkhe Show, and judging by our media monitoring, has generated a mountain of local press coverage.

It involves insightful data, illustrated with 100 deeply moving human stories, on the meaningful impact of university education on first generation students.

It also champions and highlights their contributions to a variety of sectors – including politics, healthcare, higher education, and science and technology – demonstrating just how important university is for many people.

Complexity around the definition of “first generation” led Harriet Coombes to conclude in her 2022 Higher Education Policy Institute report that it is no longer a useful indication of disadvantage – and should only be used alongside other definitions.

According to the report, two-thirds of students are first-generation students (this compliments HESA data from 21/22, which shows that 631,440 prospective students said their parents do not have higher education experience).

That has led some commentators to argue that these students are a majority masquerading as minority.

But if we follow widening participation to its logical conclusion, underrepresented demographics are meant to leave underrepresented status. That’s the point. And majority does not mean not disadvantaged.

Language matters

One of the interesting aspects of the UUK work is that the terms “first in family” and “first generation” are used interchangeably – with first in family more commonly used.

“First generation” is defined as students with “parents [or caregivers] who do not have a higher education qualification.”

When “first in family” is used, some first generation students have assumed the term, scheme, or bursary does not include them – because they have an older sibling who went to university a year or so before them, and so they’re not technically the “first in the family” to access higher education.

That’s despite the fact they, as an individual, will have overcome the same systematic barriers as their sibling.

We know that language is important when communicating with students. It is even more important when communicating with students who are not necessarily familiar with higher education terminology. Being able to articulate and identify their position enables them to connect with their community and access relevant support – so it’s crucial to get this right.

Money talks

“First generation” is also often conflated with “socioeconomically disadvantaged”. But there is an important distinction between the two.

It’s understandable that income is looked at because a large intersection of first generation students do come from low income families. In fact it is so common to speak of disadvantage exclusively in terms of economic disadvantage that we struggle to break from it.

The Censuswide data in the UUK campaign presented compelling evidence that financial constraints were a disincentive to going into higher education – hence UUK’s call on government to reinstate maintenance grants in England, correct maintenance loans to reflect actual rates of inflation, and adjust the household income threshold.

Though it remains the best way to increase your lifetime earnings – a degree is no longer a guarantee of a graduate-level job with high earning potential. So, having parents with a degree doesn’t necessarily mean parents who can contribute financially to a student’s education. Not having a degree does not necessarily mean one has been impacted by the cost-of-living crisis, inflation, or other financial stresses.

The point is that parents with degrees are fluent in the culture of higher education – meaning their children gain insights that other first generation students do not have. This is separate from income.

Regardless of income, first generation students struggle with the unique psychological and cultural challenges of adapting to unfamiliar terrain – leading to first generation students being more likely to drop out.


Economic motivations at the other end of the student life cycle are not the universal incentives they are sometimes assumed to be by ministers, or those advising prospective first generation students to learn a trade instead.

In fact, a huge part of the UUK campaign involves highlighting the wider benefits of a higher education qualification that extend beyond a return on investment. As DK points out in his Wonk Corner, an astonishing 44 per cent of graduates earning £15,000 or less a year report being proud of their higher education achievements. But we wonder how many of these were first generation and with a safety net.

Higher education has been attacked for several years based on graduate income potential, and the UUK campaign highlights the transformative impact of educational opportunities in other ways.

These include increased confidence, broadened horizons, and the friendships and connections that people make. So much so, that graduates – even if they don’t make top salaries – will consistently say that it was worth their while to go to university.

While it is legitimate for policymakers to think about alternatives to university and diverse pathways, we all know that the message that a university degree is “not good value” if it doesn’t lead to a high salary is not aimed at the children of middle class graduates.

Which is odd – because research has show that a high salary, and status and prestige tends to be the career vision of students from a higher socio-economic background. The future career vision of students from a low socio-economic background tend to be based on equal opportunity, being appreciated at work, good employer leadership style, good work/life balance, and job security.

But without the cultural capital and insight into all the other benefits of higher education, we risk first generation students who would flourish in HE here being turned off – or being convinced otherwise by parents and caregivers on the receiving end of those messages.

Family support

UUK polling also found 35 per cent of graduates cited family support as helping them “overcome imposter syndrome.” Transition or pre-enrolment work, welcome week, and study support sessions barely moved the needle.

In interviews that Sunday recently held with students on the cost of living, there was an overwhelming indication that first generation students were under a higher level of pressure to do well in their degree than students whose parents had degrees.

At a more granular level, some first generation students reported very little support (through to outright criticism) – and deep anxiety that they would do badly in their degree and prove their critical family/friends right:

My dad really wanted me to learn a trade; he really wanted me to become, like, a beautician. I would have needed to do a six month college course in beauty and then I could earn. I went to a went to a Russell Group uni and he was like, you’re a disappointment.

There is an argument to be made that even beyond identical socioeconomic background and cultural capital, supportive parents are a privilege in and of itself.

If you don’t have that emotional support, you need support and encouragement from your university that goes beyond bursaries and cultural orientation.

Institutions need to be alive to the variety challenges first generation face because these materialise into engagement behaviour.

A deep irony in the interviews was that first generation students were also more likely to report focusing solely on their studies, and declining to get involved in extracurricular activities.

These were described as a distraction from the main goal of obtaining a degree and a higher salary in order to “prove the naysayers at home wrong.”

This means that the wider cultural benefits of university for first generation students – highlighted in the UUK data – are at risk if those students do not engage with them.

This is not completely separate from economic disadvantage. Any withdrawal from wider “university life” may have intensified due to the cost of living crisis where students are prioritising paid work over their wider university experience. And this is why UUK is right to say that the inference is that we need maintenance grants back.

But “first generation” as a demographic is far more nuanced and complex than previously thought – particularly if the majority of students fit into this category. This is why FirstGens run vital events for higher providers about what practical steps they can take to support such a diverse group.

A disadvantaged majority

If the majority of students are first generation, and we know from the work of FirstGen that these students struggle with culture, then rather than dismiss first generation as a poor indicator of disadvantage and rearrange the goalposts around who gets support, we should throw out the deficit model whereby we “fix” the student all together – and change higher education to a place where first generation students belong.

Outreach is great – but assumptions that “non-disadvantaged” students just know the things associated with the cultural capital higher education brings – how universities work, how networking works, how graduate jobs work, and a whole host of other hidden curricula. This is why FirstGens set up the Navigating University Programme.

When we gatekeep the help that disadvantaged students need, some always fall through the cracks of our arbitrary drawn lines.

Universities need to think about these levels of support – financial, cultural, and cultural – if they want to make a meaningful difference to the lives of first generation students.

On Wednesday 29 May 2024, FirstGens is hosting an online event, Equality Beyond Access: Supporting First Generation Students which you can book tickets to here. 


5 responses to “It’s not (all) about the money, money, money

  1. Fascinating insight, which non-FirstGen students themselves would do well to take note of. Perhaps it might encourage them to be more sympathetic towards FirstGen freshers (rather than coming out with bitchy comments about Burberry scarves!) and to try to help them navigate such a daunting challenge, which in turn could lead to a more rewarding experience. On the other hand, one doesn’t want to create too obvious a divide. One other statistic that might be interesting would be the proportion of children of FirstGen students who themselves end up going to university.

  2. Excellent that this gets more focus. We shouldn’t get so hung up on terminology that we delay action.

  3. I think we could also be a bit more nuanced about identifying who needs support because of things like the cultural capital gap. For example, students whose parents were non-traditional HE students also don’t exactly “count” according to how we frame the discussion, but may experience the same gaps and need for additional support.

    1. I completely agree Dominique. My dad did a BA and MSc with the Open University, so opinions may vary on whether I “count” as first get, but I definitely experienced that cultural capital gap.

  4. Great, thoughtful article. The distinction between first gen and first in the family is certainly helpful. As typically I’ve heard “first in the family”, I thought that this does not apply to me (my siblings went to the uni before me). It would be also interesting to see any distinctions between first gen UK born students and first gen non-UK born students as the latter dimensions will add additional nuance, i.e. language, cultural and social capital. When I came to Scotland to do undergrad degree (having completed one in my home country in Central Europe), the first three years have been challenging in many ways. The sense of belonging (friends at uni and outside) and the sense of purpose were critical in getting through the hurdles, as well as great mentors in the form of some of my lecturers.

Leave a Reply