Should ‘first in family’ be an equity group?

Australian higher education equity policy and analysis tends towards cultural explanations of differences in higher education participation rates. The official definition of low socio-economic status is based on the ABS Index of Education and Occupation, not direct financial factors. Parental education and occupation provides a role model for their children and shapes the expectations parents have for their children. University-educated parents can also more easily help their children navigate the path to university.

The relationship between parental education and child outcomes has occasionally led to suggestions that ‘first in family’ – the children of parents who have not been to university – should be an official equity group. There was another such call in an article in The Conversation last week, based on a recent academic journal article by Sally Patfield, Jenny Gore, and Natasha Weaver.

Is first in family at university unusual?

Although the data is rarely released, parental education has been in the official enrolment data collection since 2010. In some figures I have from 2015, of the students who reported parental education first in family were just in the majority, at 50.1 per cent. But the true number was probably significantly higher, with don’t knows or missing data from about 15 per cent of enrolments. At minimum these students had parents who did not regale them with ‘when I was at uni’ anecdotes, blocking one path of influence on educational choices.

If we think back on the history of higher education first in family could never have been unusual. With each generation experiencing much higher participation rates than the one before it, large numbers of students must have had parents who didn’t go to university. According to figures in Anderson and Vervoon’s Access to Privilege, at Melbourne University in the 1960s and 1970s around a quarter of the fathers and 10 per cent of mothers of students had a university qualification – high for the era, but still leaving a big majority of students as ‘first in family’.

The chart below gives a rough sense of the long-term dynamics of the generations. It uses participation rates at age 19 and census figures on the lifetime attainment of the parent generation. I did the underlying work some time ago and I recall that I wasn’t satisfied with it. It uses the median age of mothers from each year to identify the parent generation of the 19 year olds. Obviously in reality parents of 19 year olds have a wide range of ages.

But with these caveats at the 1976 peak the 19 year old participation ratio was 2.5 on his or her parent generation attainment (16.45%/6.6%). This was the 1970s surge in enrolments interacting with a parent generation born in the 1920s and early 1930s that had low levels of higher education attainment.

From the early 1980s there is a long period in which each 19-year-old cohort participation/parent attainment ratio is roughly 1.5. By the time this period ends in 2007 the absolute levels had gone up a lot (30.4%/20.2%) but the relationship between them had been fairly stable. I’m not quite sure how these ratios translate into enrolment shares, since female graduates on average have fewer children than other women. So if 20 per cent of women of a certain age are graduates they will have less than 20 per cent of the babies born to women their age. Overall, however, demographically a large proportion of students must be ‘first in family’.

In the decade from 2008 the child participation/parent attainment ratio goes up again. The demand driven system boosted enrolments and participation. If my parent education model is roughly right, the typical mothers of the demand-driven boom students were born in the 1960s and reached university age in the late 1970s and early 1980s higher education stagnation. The flat attainment rates of the parent generation helps the ratio go up.

Transition to university

At the Year 12 to university transition point treating first in family students as a special equity group would not be the right approach. There is nothing unusual about a first-year university student having parents who did not go to university, and on many of the details of adjusting to university life having a parent who went to university 25 or 30 years ago probably isn’t much help. Mass delivery of transition programs, which is what universities do, is the more sensible approach.

Aspirations for university

Many equity programs aim at increasing aspirations for university. In the study written up in The Conversation, covering four NSW government school cohorts each over four years, we can see in the figure below from the academic journal version that ‘first generation’ students are always less likely to aspire to go to university. (Each school year level is made up of two separate cohorts in different calendar years; despite this the volatility is perhaps more interesting than the absolute numbers. I have long puzzled over why aspirations surveys can get such varying results).

An important point about the first-generation numbers in senior secondary school is that university aspirations are lower but not low. Their aspirations (not all of which will be realised) sit at around current 19 year old participation rates. While there is no one ‘right’ level of higher education participation, the social science case for pushing aspirations up further is not strong if our goal is make the lives of the students better. The last report I did at the Grattan Institute argued that lower-ATAR young men would probably be better off in vocational education.

In a parallel exercise to my tracing through of the generations in the first slide, one of my then Grattan Institute colleagues produced the chart below. While again not based on any direct parent-child information, it assumed that the parents of the 2016 commencing higher education students would be aged between 40 and 59 years. It looked at their distribution of education and compared it with the distribution of parental education reported by the 2016 commencing bachelor degree students.

As expected, the children of graduates are ‘over’-represented, if we believe that enrolments should be proportional to population. But so are the children of parents with Year 12 as their highest education, and the children of parents who did not finish school are there in the expected proportion. The missing university students have parents with non-university post-school qualifications, ie vocational education.

These results might seem counter-intuitive, but it would be consistent with the children (especially the male children) of people with vocational qualifications seeing that as an attractive option, while the children of parents without any post-school education look for a wider set of ways to improve their situation. We need to be careful about assuming that this is a problem that equity policy should or could fix.

Coverage by existing equity categories

According to the Patfield et al first-in-family paper 88 per cent of the first in family students in their study also qualify as a member of an existing equity group. This is not surprising, since first in family aligns closely with the cultural explanations behind why low SES, regional and Indigenous Australians are classified as equity groups.

No parent having been to university does not obviously add any additional disadvantage to what is recorded in existing equity indicators. I think a different disadvantage that is not otherwise covered by existing equity categories should be a threshold requirement for adding a new equity group. Andrew Harvey for example has suggested people leaving foster care as an equity group; this is a significant life disruption over and above other background factors. But having parents who did not go to university is not an adverse life event.

If there is some concern that outreach programs won’t reach people who might benefit from them the solution is to expand the geographic areas that meet the low SES definition. That would make many more potential ‘first in family’ students eligible for programs funded under the official equity program.

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