This project aimed to increase our understanding of how students who are first in their family (FiF) to attend university, persist in their studies. These students represent approximately over half the Australian higher education population, with enrolments steadily increasing. However, over a quarter consider leaving, often in their first year, and this is even more so if they come from educationally disadvantaged circumstances. We know that getting students to ‘step into’ university is only just the beginning – we must also consider how to support them throughout their study, so that they are enabled to continue. We also acknowledge that these students bring with them strengths and capabilities drawn from life outside academia, which are not necessarily recognised by universities.

To better understand these strengths and capabilities, this project explored how FiF students in the final stages of study had persisted to this point. Those students who were first in their families and nearing the end of an undergraduate degree were invited to participate in an interview or survey. Through the richness of their stories, the project generated a much deeper understanding of how these learners drew on ‘internal capabilities’ or strengths that enabled them to persevere in this HE environment.

This was a global study and participants were drawn from Australia, Ireland, UK and Austria. Typical of the FiF cohort, all the participants were deeply intersected by multiple equity factors including demographic, social and cultural such as socio-economic status, regional/rural locations, gender, disability, language background, refugee status and indigeneity. As such, the participants were representative of the diversity within the current HE student population.

Intersectionality chord diagram:

This diagram visualises the inter-relationships between one or more equity categories selected by participants. The connections (for example LSES and Rural) are joined by a ‘chord’. The chord’s thickness varies depending on the number of participants who indicated this combination was representative of their background or circumstances.

2017 Australian Intersectionality diagram

2018 European Intersectionality diagram

From the findings the project has developed the first ‘capabilities-based framework for university persistence’.