Maintenance grants can’t buy cultural capital

Universities UK has a cracking new campaign on first generation students

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

The campaign highlights 100 stories of graduates who were the first in their family to attend university and who went on to make impactful contributions to a variety of sectors – including politics, healthcare, higher education, and science and technology -demonstrating just how important university is for talented first generation students.

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

The campaign is supported by data from Censuswide and Jisc surveys of 6,004 UK graduates and 4,006 non-graduates across the UK aged 24–40 (straddling the Gen Z/millenial divide). It reports that first generation students are 27 per cent more likely to be reliant on maintenance grants than their peers, are more likely to rely on a university bursary, and are less likely to receive financial support from their family than their peers. The stats also report that just under half of first generation students say they couldn’t have gone to university without maintenance support.

What is fascinating is that around half of non-graduates surveyed said better financial support would have changed their minds about not going to university and that most would encourage family members to go if they could afford it.

This has led UUK to call on the government to reinstate maintenance grants in England, correct maintenance loans to reflect real rates of inflation, and adjust the household income threshold – which has been frozen since 2008 – claiming that without such financial support many people are currently missing out on going to university.

The page also lists various innovative outreach and support schemes that universities have in place for first generation students. This is good, but the vast majority of these are financial bursaries or pre-application outreach. And finance is one aspect of getting in and getting on.

To fully support first generation students, universities need to provide non-financial support alongside government financial intervention as standard practice. We know class is complex. And “first generation” no longer means (if it ever has meant) working class or a less advantaged socioeconomic background.

Though it remains the best available 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. And not having a degree does not necessarily mean one has been impacted by the cost-of-living crisis (cue semi-regular tweets heralding the income potential of learning a trade), inflation, or other financial stresses.

Campaigns for more money and bursaries are all well and good, but it’s vital to remember first generation students are a diverse group of individuals, and access to financial support is one aspect of our struggle in higher education.

In recent interviews I’ve conducted, first generation students report several barriers that extend beyond funding. These include a lack of moral support from family (including outright criticism of their education choices), a lack of awareness of when and how to apply for internship opportunities (this was particularly prevalent for subjects such as Law), and either no professional network or no knowledge of how to form one.

All of these barriers impact first generation students regardless of their ability to pay rent. Widening participation should not just be about getting students into higher education but also creating spaces where they belong. Some of the university schemes UUK featured do this – UCL, Birmingham, and Reading. It needs to be across the board.

Grassroots social enterprise FirstGens notes that hardly any universities use the data on first generation students collected by UCAS – which is baffling given first generation is a category on the OfS risk register.

There are a multitude of ways – from mentoring to access schemes to support through critical transition points – that would benefit all first generation students, not just those without financial support.

UUK’s campaign, featuring a range of inspirational stories of first generation graduates, is an essential representation of the real lives of first generation students. And the headline government call for more funding is welcome to close the economic equity and access gap.

But, beyond centralised government funding, providers can – and should – take more conspicuous actions to address the disparities in cultural capital students experience.

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