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IE CERS researcher publishes on the experiences of ‘first in family’ university graduates in England


IE CERS researcher Anna Adamecz-Völgyi investigates educational mobility in England in a project led by Morag Henderson and Nikki Shure at the University College London (UCL) Social Research Institute. Their first paper was published in August in the Oxford Review of Education. They look at whether ‘first in family’ university students have different university experiences and outcomes than university students whose parents are graduates. They find that first generation university students need more guidance navigating the education system.


Higher education is fundamentally important to both the individual and society. It produces a skilled labour force that promotes economic growth and offers monetary and non-monetary benefits for graduates. Having a degree can increase lifetime earnings, reduce the risk of unemployment, and even lead to better health outcomes. While the importance of higher education is clear and the share of university graduates is increasing in most countries, not all students have equal chances to go to university. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to go to university and the gap in the university participation rates of those from more educated, higher-income families and those from less-educated, lower income families can be substantial. In England, for example, children of graduate parents are about 80 per cent more likely to go to university that those who would be the first in their family to do so. Widening access to university is not just an issue of social justice and fairness, but also an issue of not wasting human capital and hindering potential economic growth. Thus, countries around the world are attempting to increase the share of disadvantaged students who attend university. In England, these efforts are referred to as Widening Participation policy and contributed to increase the share of young people going to university to 50% since 1998.

The recently published paper in the Oxford Review of Education is the first peer-reviewed publication of the Nuffield Foundation* funded research project. The authors use a longitudinal cohort study, the Next Steps, that has been following the lives of a cohort born in England in 1989-90, from age 13 to until age 25. By age 25, 27% of the cohort had gained a degree, and two thirds of these graduates were the first member of their family to go to university. The researchers find that young people who would be the first in their family to go to university are not just less likely to go, but if they do, they are less likely to attend an elite institution, and are more likely to drop out, than those with graduate parents. In terms of course choice, they are somewhat more likely to choose higher-earning subjects, like law and economics, and less likely to choose arts and other social sciences.

Whether these differences in the experience of higher education play out in the labour market is another question which the project will address. The researchers are also in the process of looking at whether first in family is a good measure of disadvantage in the first place, and how the non-cognitive skills of young people contribute to their probability of educational mobility. Their results are expected to shape education policy in England in increasing efficiency in higher education. The researchers have presented their ongoing work at several academic conferences and seminars, as well as for policy-focused audiences; for example, at the annual conferences of the European Association of Labor Economics (EALE) and the Society of Labor Economists (SOLE), the European Society of Population Economics (ESPE), the Hungarian Association of Economics, at seminars at the UK Department for Education, the Cardiff University, the University of Cambridge, the Institute of Economics CERS and the London School of Economics. The project has been featured at the Economics of Higher Education blog, the Daily Telegraph and the Times Higher Education.

*The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social wellbeing in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project (grant number EDO/43570), but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at

Details of the publication are noted below:

Morag Henderson, Nikki Shure and Anna Adamecz-Völgyi: Moving on up: ‘first in family’ university graduates in England. Oxford Review of Education 2020. doi: 10.1080/03054985.2020.1784714