Universities that use “first-in-family status” when making offers to students risk intensifying “existing education inequalities”, a report suggests.
The “flawed” indicator is self-declared and unverifiable, according to a paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank.
Students who are the first in their family to attend a higher education institution make up around two-thirds of young graduates in England, the research found.
It suggests that the use of the term “first generation” does not accurately capture individuals’ socio-economic status despite often being used as a “proxy for low-income”.
The term also applies disproportionately to those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds who attend higher education at higher rates compared with young people whose ethnicity is White British.
The report warns that using first-in-family status to make contextual offers to prospective students “risks further widening disparities” in entry to university between White British and Black and ethnic minority groups.
It says: “It is reasonable to assume that the use of the term first-generation in relation to contextual offers threatens to intensify existing education inequalities.
“Focusing on first-in-family students in isolation is overall unlikely to make things significantly better.”
The report says that the use of parental education in contextual admissions is constrained by the fact it is self-reported and hard to “independently verify”.
“If first-generation status were to be used to make ‘high-stakes’ decisions such as for contextual offers, it would provide a clear incentive for young people to misreport,” the report says.
But when it comes to support, the paper suggests that parental education could be a “useful indicator” for targeted policy interventions as first-generation students are more likely to have qualified for free school meals (FSMs) compared to those with graduate parents.
The report recommends that highly selective universities could provide more support to first-in-family students by “demystifying” their contextual admissions, and institutions could also deliver specific outreach engagement for the parents of groups that are under-represented in higher education.
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said: “This research has changed my thinking on ‘first-in-family’ students. It is a description of majority status that has been masquerading as a description of minority status.
“Moreover, there is no reliable way to verify if someone is the first person in their family to attend university, meaning anyone can claim to be first-in-family whether they are or not.”
He added: “The weight that has been put on ‘first-in-family’ status has been matched by a lack of transparency in how it is used across highly selective universities in their recruitment.
“We must avoid putting too much focus on an unreliable indicator and too little on other measures.
“In future, we should use first-in-family only as a light-touch indicator for disadvantage because it is so flawed, while putting more emphasis on better measures like free school meal status.”
Harriet Coombs, author of the report, said: “The bigger problem is not getting more first-in-family students into higher education, but rather getting more first-in-family students into highly selective institutions.
“Further to this, highly selective universities now need to ensure they retain first-generation students as well as just recruit them.”
Dr Hollie Chandler, head of policy at the Russell Group, which represents the most selective institutions in the UK, said: “First-in-family data is a useful tool, but it needs to be part of a basket of ways we measure the success of widening participation activities.
“That is the approach that Russell Group universities already take, looking at first-in-family alongside other measures like free school meal eligibility and care leaver status.
“Underrepresented and disadvantaged students are not a homogenous group and any single measure will struggle to capture the diverse needs and barriers groups like care leavers face in accessing higher education.
“The work our universities do to help more young people progress to higher education reflects this fact.”
A Universities UK spokeswoman said: “Universities are central to social mobility and are committed to widening access to higher education so students from all backgrounds can achieve the best outcomes in both getting into, and progressing at, university.
“Institutions invest significantly to help deliver this, including via Access and Participation Plans in England.
“Disadvantage can be measured in various ways, but figures now show record entry rates for 18-year-olds starting university from the most disadvantaged backgrounds including access for those on free school meals.”