FOI reveals only 1 in 5 students are first time scholars

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A Freedom of Information request from Palatinate has shown that just under 20% of undergraduate students at Durham are confirmed First Generation Scholars (FGSs), which is significantly below the UK average. 

‘First Generation Scholar’ refers to students whose parents do not have a higher education qualification. Measuring numbers of FGSs has become an increasingly popular metric for universities – particularly in America – to assess social inclusion and accessibility. 

The information also reveals significant economic differences between FGSs and non-FGSs. For example, parents of FGSs are almost ten times less likely to have held “senior managerial or professional occupations”, and over four times less likely to have “lower managerial or professional occupations.” 

HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) data from 2010/11 showed that 45% of graduates were FGSs. More recent data from 2017 suggests that as many as half of all UK university graduates are the first in their family to have higher education qualifications. 

Durham currently offers support for FGSs at a departmental level. The support network was spearheaded by two members of staff, Dr Hannah Brown (Anthropology) and Professor Vikki Boliver (Sociology). 

Boliver told Palatinate that “It is of course vitally important for equity and inclusion reasons that Durham serves an increasingly diverse and socially representative student body.” She suggested that while the growing number of contextual offers might help in this respect, “we could all be doing more to advertise the fact that Durham is seeking to become a more inclusive university.” 

In a similar vein, Dr Lewis Mates, who runs the FGS meetings in the School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA), suggested that, “There is an opportunity for Durham to be a trailblazer, to make a mark in a really progressive way.” 

Reflecting on the situation in America, and the need for a coherent University strategy, Mates said that “All the impressive programmes in the States are university wide. All the resources and information is centralised, and it is clear that the university at the top takes this stuff seriously. For us it is more piecemeal and bottom-up and reliant more on the goodwill of colleagues doing extra work.” 

Nonetheless, Mates said that encouraging FGSs is “good for everyone concerned.” For less privileged students, First Generation Scholar programmes mean equal access to top institutions, and the more privileged receive a university experience which better reflects the diversity and complexity of British society. As a teacher, Mates noted that in his experience FGSs can be “more resourceful because they have had to be”, and therefore bring different perspectives which can enrich academic discourse. 

Students at Durham have talked to Palatinate about their experiences as FGSs. Additionally, evidence provided from Erin Hanson, a third year dissertation student who is analysing the experiences of FGSs in Durham, reveals the academic, financial, social and psychological effects that can characterise FGSs’ time at university. 

Academically, over half of Hanson’s interviewees said that they had considered dropping out as first years, and some students have told Palatinate that, despite frequently achieving high grades, they still feel “like they shouldn’t be here.” 

In addition to academic pressures amplified for FGSs, some reflected on financial pressures. Of Hanson’s interviewees, nearly a third have part time jobs which they struggle to balance with their academic work. 

However, the largest pressures appeared to be cultural and social. One student said the biggest problem he faced was the “culture shock” when he came. Reliving his first thoughts upon arrival, he commented that “pretty much everyone had posh accents.” 

In freshers week, he continued, “first you have to wear a suit, which you’re not used to wearing, tie a tie you don’t know how to tie, and then buy a ridiculous and overpriced gown you will never wear again. Everything from the fees to the outfits make you feel out of place, and it seems that no one else feels that way.” 

This links to a sense of isolation many FGSs feel. Over two thirds of Hanson’s interviewees said that they felt “overwhelmingly isolated from the rest of the student body”, and many of these students felt they would not know who to reach out to. 

Sociologists at UCL have shown that being a FGS “is an important barrier to university participation and graduation, over and above other sources of disadvantage.” In general, issues FGSs can face include at admission, cultural differences, issues of social and academic confidence, and, at times, financial strain. This means that FGSs are less likely to come to university in the first place, and, once enrolled, more likely to drop out. 

One student said that “My family have never been inside a university environment so they naturally don’t understand straight away. This can create an odd feeling where you feel socially disconnected from them.” 

However, FGSs also often reflected on a sense of pride that they have insofar that they have got to Durham in spite of social barriers. One commented “I think I also wear it as a badge of pride and feel like I’ve made my parents proud”, while another reflected that “it spurs me on a lot to do well because I know they weren’t given the same opportunity I have now.” 

Common among most students interviewed was the sense that the University could do more to honours its commitment to having a diverse and inclusive environment. One student said that the infrastructure appeared “virtually non-existent,” while another commented that the general environment is “alienating.”

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