Democratization of Education

Sarah O’Shea on Widening Student Participation in Higher Education

In this original article Sarah O’Shea, co-author of First-in-Family Students, University Experience and Family Life discusses the need for universities to recognise the diversity of their students rather than expect them to conform to institutional norms.

Globally, many universities are working towards equity of access amongst learners from all walks of life, striving to ‘widen participation’ to include a greater diversity of participants. However, whilst the numbers of students attending university may have increased in the last decade, levels of attrition or dropout remain consistently high in many countries. For example, in Australia the national attrition rate remains steady at 15% – 18% of the student population but in some institutions, this rate has been reported to be as much as 25% of enrolments (Department of Industry, 2012). Australia is not alone in significant rates of student attrition. Within the UK, 5.7% of younger students leave university annually and this figure increases to 10.5% for mature entrants (HESA, 2012). However, if we focus only on figures we fail to adequately address the personal impacts that leaving university has on those who depart. In fact, we know that these departing students are often the most vulnerable in our society (Edwards & McMillan, 2015) and that leaving university can often have long-term repercussions for both individuals and their family / community.

One cohort regarded as being at greater risk of attrition are those who are the first in their families to attend university. Drawing on a global review of studies conducted in the last two decades, Spiegler and Bednarek (2013) highlight how first-in-family students may encounter difficulties entering university and ‘mastering the college role’ (p. 330). Similarly, Ball, Davies, David and Reay (2002) suggest that a limited experience of higher education (HE) results in a lack of necessary ‘transgenerational family scripts’ (p. 57) around higher education. In short, little family history of HE attendance can result in some students ‘feeling isolated and lonely, feelings…exacerbated by uncertainty related to university language, expectations and protocols of behaviour’ (O’Shea, 2016a, p. 62).

The particularities of the first in family student experience have been explored in our latest publication: First-in-Family Students, University Experience and Family Life: Motivations, Transitions and Participation, Palgrave Macmillan. Based on surveys and in-depth interviews conducted with over 300 FiF students (and family members) between 2013–2015, this research explores the deeply personal and embodied nature of higher education participation. Moving beyond statistics, this book foregrounds the complexities of this participation and draws on student and family narratives to expand our vistas of understanding in relation to this problematic. The intent is to recognise this rich diversity not in terms of lack or deficit but rather as a form of strength that can provide strong foundations for more appropriate forms of support and engagement (O’Shea, May, Stone & Delahunty, 2017).

Providing such insight into these students’ stories succeeds in both renegotiating a somewhat contested educational space but more importantly, provides the basis for alternative perspectives on access and participation. This book is replete with the voices and narratives of both the students and those around them; all of who evocatively describe how attending university has been translated at both at personal and a public level. Some of the recommendations proposed from these insights include recognising the need to:

• Adopt a strengths based approach when considering student populations, including celebrating what students arrive with rather than defining diverse cohorts in terms of lack or deficit. This is particularly the case for FiF learners, as being the first is a triumphant undertaking and therefore should be recognised as such in institutional dialogue and terminology.

• Bring significant others on the journey with these students – avoid engaging solely with the individual and instead remain mindful of the embedded nature of this FiF cohort. Recognise how familial networks are not necessarily just ‘extra baggage’ or possible negative influences but can also be powerful sources of resilience and encouragement.

• Normalise the non-linear nature of educational biographies in recognition that a direct pathway from school to university is no longer the norm for many of our students.

• Recognise the ‘experiential capitals’ (O’Shea, 2016b) that individuals, particularly older learners, have acquired through apriori life / work experiences. Explore how such experiential capital might be used to underpin curriculum structures and also, program structures.

In negotiating true educational access, universities should not only appreciate the existing cultural strengths of learners but also importantly, work with learners in translating these skills within the HE context. This includes celebrating diversity rather than assuming individuals conform to prevailing institutional norms and in so doing, disregarding and undervaluing existing knowledges or capabilities.


Ball, S., Davies, J., David, M., & Reay, D. (2002). 'Classification' and 'Judgement': Social class and the 'cognitive structures' of choice of Higher Education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 23(1), 51–72.

Department of Industry. (2012). Appendix 4: Attrition, progress and retention. Retrieved from:

Edwards, D., & McMillan, J. (2015). Completing university in a growing sector: Is equity an issue? . Melbourne, Australia: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Australia. Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

HESA. (2012). Higher Education student enrolments and qualifications obtained at higher education institutions in the UK. Retrieved from

O’Shea, S., (2016a). Avoiding the manufacture of “sameness”: First-in-family students, cultural capital and the higher education environment. Higher Education. 72(1), 59–78.

O’Shea, S. (2016b). Navigating the knowledge sets of older learners: Exploring the capitals of first-in-family mature age students. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning. Vol 18 (3)

O’Shea, S., May, J., Stone, C., & Delahunty, J. (2017). First-in-Family Students, University Experience and Family Life: Motivations, Transitions and Participation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Spiegler, T, & Bednarek, A. (2013). First-generation students: what we ask, what we know and what it means: an international review of the state of research. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 23(4), 318–337.

Sarah O’Shea is Associate Professor at University of Wollongong, Australia, and an Australian Teaching and Learning Fellow who is currently researching the experiences of first-in-family learners in higher education. Her research focuses on student access and participation within the university sector, with particular reference to students from identified equity groups.