The project began in 2017 with Ethics approval from the University of Wollongong (UOW) Human Research Ethics Committee granted in March (Approval No. HREC2017/178). Around the same time, endorsements for the research were received from executives of nine Australian universities willing to be involved, and negotiations began with two in Ireland and the UK (in preparation for 2018 data collection).

Following UOW ethics approval, negotiations with individual institutions began for recruitment procedures and timing preferences, and any other institutional-specific requirements. In order to have the survey link sent out to the various sites, it was necessary to work flexibly with each site, considering their various commitments and also the particular nuances of each university’s calendar. Each site differed in the processes that surrounded the recruitment of participants – some simply provided written confirmation, others required committee deliberations and were quite stringent on their dates and follow-up dates.

The institutions were the conduit for recruitment purposes, but following this, students initiated their involvement independently either by completing the survey or by making contact with the researchers to organise an interview. Some students participated in both the survey and an interview.

Data collection in Australia


The recruitment email including the survey link was sent to students in five of the universities in April, 2017. Data collection activities at the other four universities began later, between July and August, in line with individual negotiations with each university.

The response rates within the first week were promising. For example, following the recruitment email to students at Institution 1, there were 50 surveys completed in the first 24 hours and 63 in the first week. A total of 76 surveys were completed for this institution by the time the survey closed. In addition, there were 46 interview inquiries (9 via survey, 37 via email). At the end of data collection, a total of 15 students from this institution completed an interview. This is summarised below for each of the institutions:

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Data collection summary per institution

Similar to many qualitative studies, while the initial responses to participation were strong these did not all translate to actual participation but of note, was the positive responses this study received, detailed in the next section.


Students who responded to the recruitment to organise an interview emailed the researchers direct. Often students were very keen to be involved, as these emails indicate:

I am the first in my family to attempt uni and I will graduate in 8 weeks!!! (Woo, hoo!) I would be happy to participate in your study and look forward to hearing from you.

(Tayla, Institution 9)

I am the first in both my immediate and extended family to attend university, and currently I am in the final year of my bachelors degree. I am interested in being a participant in this study, as I believe it may help many future students.

(Fran, Institution 7)

Would love to get involved with this study. 

(Jaime, Institution 6)

I am the first in my family to go to university and am in my final year yay! I would be happy to be a part of the study.

(Jacinta, Institution 4)

I’m delighted to be part of your research.

(Brett, Institution 5) 

I’d love to have a chat with you guys. I was the first in my family. 

(Jae, Institution 6)

When students made contact by email, a reply was sent including the Information sheet, and a request to nominate 3 days and times they would be available for the interview. Once this was decided a calendar invitation was sent to them. This was useful as a pop-up reminder.

Due to the distance involved across the various geographical locations, most of the interviews were conducted via phone (or Skype). A verbal consent form was read aloud and formed part of the interview audio-recording, to ensure informed consent was recorded. For face-to-face interviews, students completed and signed a consent form.

The semi-structured interviews ranged between 30 and 60 minutes, guided by how much participants wanted to talk. Each interview was audio-recorded and transcribed. Students were given the option to view and approve the transcript prior to analysis commencing. 29 participants took up this option. They were also asked if they would like to be involved in the next phase of commenting on the Capabilities Framework – 67 indicated their interest.

Interview questions were around four main themes, with lead-in questions to elicit demographic and biographical information. The questions were grouped around 5 themes (note: the survey questions were almost identical):

  • self-reflections on personal qualities and characteristics that had assisted them to persist
  • reflections on HE – the benefits, challenges, opportunities, and intentions to leave/persist
  • reflections on family/community support – what helped/hindered
  • institutional support – valuing existing strengths/abilities
  • reflecting on others and reasons for dropping out.

In interviews we tried to ensure that participants felt at ease by using an informal tone, ensuring enough time for gathering thoughts and making it clear that individuals need only respond to questions that they were comfortable with. This was very important particularly for the phone interviews where the lack of visual cues can be a hindrance to communication.

We found that the questions were effective in enabling students to talk in depth as they reflected on their participation, their personal characteristics that had helped them persist and the kinds of support and opportunities they’d experienced. On more than a few occasions participants were grateful for the opportunity to reflect on themselves as first in their families. Some include:

So thank you for the opportunity.  I really appreciate it.  It’s great to have a think about it all.

(Jacinta, Australia)

[it was] healing, kind of to share my story … [to someone] who will listen without judgement or something.  I really appreciate it  … to be like this, so thank you very much.

(Boja, Ireland)

Following the completion of the data collection in Australia, the de-identified interviews and survey data were uploaded into NVivo 11 for thematic analysis for the first draft of the Capabilities Framework. Once this was completed, it would be sent out to the 67 students who indicated their willingness to comment on the framework, as well as a number of other colleagues who expressed similar interest.


Ireland, UK and Austria

In September 2018, data collection activities moved to Ireland, the UK and Austria. Similar to negotiations for recruitment in Australia, each institution had their own procedures and timing guidelines which we had to work with. Relations with each of the sites had been carefully built before the scheduled data collection and each site had a large proportion of ‘first generation’ students enrolled.

Recruitment occurred variously over a period of three weeks. For example, at one site it was necessary to visit lectures and speak to students and staff directly. This was deemed more effective by the hosts than sending the recruitment via email. For another, the recruitment email was sent out to a selection of students in their final year(s) of a three or four-year degree. At this university flyers were also placed around campus and a presentation provided to interested staff, who then expressed interest in placing the survey link on their LMS. At another site, the recruitment was completed by a postgraduate research student, who also organised the interviews.  At each site the researchers were provided with an office space from which to base ourselves so that students could drop in.

Over the 3-week period, a total of 27 interviews were conducted and 165 surveys completed.