‘First-in-family’ a flawed metric – Hepi

New report finds that a majority of students are first-in-family, but questions how useful the category is as a measure of disadvantage

The category ‘first-in-family’ (FiF) applies to just over two-thirds of university students in the UK, but is an unreliable measure of disadvantage, finds a new report.

The latest paper from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) – ‘First-in-Family Students’ by Harriet Coombs – argues that FiF status is a poor measure of disadvantage when it comes to higher education admissions because:

  • It does not have one fixed definition – institutions in the US have also adopted different definitions, and in the case of stepparents, adoptive parents and partners it is “not always entirely clear whose education should be reported”
  • FiF status is self-declared and unverifiable, providing “a clear incentive for young people to misreport”
  • There is a lack of transparency over how it is applied.

When allocating places on degree courses, highly selective universities should only use FiF as part of a package of metrics, argues the report.

“This research has changed my thinking on “first-in-family” students,” said Nick Hillman, director of Hepi.

“It is a description of majority status that has been masquerading as a description of minority status. Moreover, there is no reliable way to verify if someone is the first person in their family to attend university, meaning anyone can claim to be first-in-family whether they are or not. And there is no single standard definition of the term anyway.

It is a description of majority status that has been masquerading as a description of minority status – Nick Hillman, Hepi

“The weight that has been put on “first-in-family” status has been matched by a lack of transparency in how it is used across highly selective universities in their recruitment.

“We must avoid putting too much focus on an unreliable indicator and too little on other measures. In future, we should use first-in-family only as a light-touch indicator for disadvantage because it is so flawed, while putting more emphasis on better measures like Free School Meal status. At the same time, we should be utterly transparent about how such information is being used.”

Today’s Hepi report confirms that, in the UK, students who are the first in their family to attend a higher education institution make up roughly two-thirds of young graduates. FiF students tend to come from households with lower incomes, are less likely to attend a highly selective institution and are more likely to drop out than those whose parents attended university.

It makes several policy recommendations to provide more support for FiF students, suggesting that the higher education sector should:

  • Demystify contextual admissions at highly selective institutions
  • Provide more outreach engagement for the parents of groups that are under-represented
  • Establish mentoring of FiF students by continuing undergraduates
  • Prioritise students from groups most vulnerable to non-completion when allocating accommodation
  • Open up easier routes to re-entry and provide base-level qualifications for students who drop out early


Nick Hillman continued: “The new year brings a new director for fair access and participation in John Blake. It is vital he engages with the rich and growing evidence base on how best to help under-represented groups if he is to deliver the difference he needs to make.”

Responding to the report’s publication, the Russell Group said FiF data was only one of several indicators of disadvantage and underrepresentation that its universities considered.

“First-in-family data is a useful tool, but it needs to be part of a basket of ways we measure the success of widening participation activities,” said Russell Group head of policy Dr Hollie Chandler. “That is the approach that Russell Group universities already take, looking at first-in-family alongside other measures like free school meal eligibility and care leaver status.

“Underrepresented and disadvantaged students are not a homogenous group and any single measure will struggle to capture the diverse needs and barriers groups like care leavers face in accessing higher education. The work our universities do to help more young people progress to higher education reflects this fact.

Underrepresented and disadvantaged students are not a homogenous group – Dr Hollie Chandler, Russell Group

“Working closely with prospective and current students as well as teachers, advisors and parents in developing and assessing the impact of access initiatives is vital in improving their effectiveness and giving young people the right help at the right time.

“Getting people through the door is also only one part of the picture. Russell Group universities provide targeted support to ensure disadvantaged students can fulfil their potential and leave higher education with the skills and qualifications they need to get on in life. The financial, academic and pastoral support our universities have provided has been key to achieving high progression rates for students.

“Widening participation activities should be judged on impact, not intention. We look forward to working closely with the new director for fair access and participation to help more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education, and to succeed at university and beyond.”

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