Breaking the cycle: first in family to higher education

June 2017


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JUDE BARBACK looks at initiatives focused on getting students who are the first in their families to pursue higher education to complete a degree.

breaking the cycle
Recipients of the 2017 Woolf Fisher First-in-Family AUT Scholarship – (L-R) Callum Fiu, Felila Havea, Thu Nguyen, Makelila Fetu’u, Helen Wilson, Emmette Gray, Ana Siafolau, Faava Tuigamala, Michelle Ellis, Salome Paea, Laryia Lomitusi, Ofaloto Talakai.

Eighteen-year-old Laryia Lomitusi is the first in her family to go to university. Thanks to a Woolf Fisher First-in-Family AUT Scholarship, Lomitusi is now studying towards a Bachelor of Health Science at AUT, paving the way to higher education for her younger siblings.

When you have no family history of university attendance, or come from a community where higher education is not the expectation or the norm, the challenges of making it ‘across the stage’ are manifold.

International research tells us that there is a strong link between the educational level attained by parents and that attained by their offspring, showing that, to a large extent, children inherit their parents’ educational levels.

So, first-in-family students like Lomitusi are the exception rather than the rule. They are effecting intergenerational change. Going to university signals a new educational cycle for the wider family – it encourages other family members to view higher education as a possibility.

But it actually goes deeper than that. Research out of the United States confirms what you would expect – that educational mobility leads to social mobility as education is the key for many other aspects of wellbeing. It is no different here in New Zealand. Paula Rebstock’s 2011 Welfare Working Group report tells us that tertiary education at degree level is a pathway out of poverty not only for the individual but for the generations that follow – it can be legitimately described as a “game changer”.

Now in their third year, the Woolf Fisher First-in-Family AUT Scholarships are helping to achieve this. The annual scholarship was established by the Woolf Fisher Trust in 2014 to address inequity by providing the opportunity for year 13 students who have no family history of university attendance to participate in university education. The scholarship covers direct study costs for the duration of an undergraduate degree at AUT, with annual renewal dependent on academic achievement. Applicants must be the first in their immediate families to attend university and demonstrate financial hardship. They must also be New Zealand citizens and hold University Entrance.

There are currently 36 scholarship recipients studying at AUT. That’s 36 families who possibly might not have otherwise experienced higher education.

This year, nine of the 13 scholarship recipients were of Pacific descent. Preference was given to applicants from South Auckland who demonstrated a commitment to bringing about change in their community.

Lomitusi fits the bill perfectly. The former deputy head girl from Tangaroa College in South Auckland is keen to give back to her wider community.

“My goal is to increase Pacific representation in the health sector; also, to use the knowledge and skills that I gain to help my community in Otara and those back in Samoa,” she says.

AUT Vice-Chancellor Derek McCormack says the university is proud to have partnered with the Woolf Fisher Trust to establish this scholarship.

“We want to encourage young New Zealanders to follow their dreams – to experience success in their chosen field of study and inspire others to attend university,” he says. “AUT is committed to widening participation in university education and the Woolf Fisher First-in-Family AUT Scholarship is part of that commitment.”

Around the same time the Woolf Fisher scholarships were established, the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) was pushing for something similar but on a much larger scale. At the time of the last election, the NZUSA lobbied political parties and educational groups to support a ‘first-in-family’ targeted scholarship scheme which would see 2,000 Kiwi students benefit each year.

Other ideas have emerged since. In its recent inquiry into tertiary education, the Productivity Commission floated the idea of a Student Education Account, which would see every 16-year-old granted $45,000 to spend on higher education. While it didn’t progress beyond the draft stage, the idea certainly generated discussion around how to make tertiary education more accessible for everyone.

Labour’s education spokesperson Chris Hipkins is keen to see a return to free tertiary education. Hipkins describes free public education as “part of our DNA”. In addition to making state education truly free again, he has boldly said that Labour will introduce “three years of fee-free post-school education for every New Zealander”.

However, funding is just part of it. According to international research, first-in-family students who pursue higher education are more likely to drop out before completion than those who come from families where it is the norm. There is a need for ongoing pastoral support to help keep students focused on their progress and the end-goal.

The NZUSA took this into account when devising its policy, factoring in funding for the support needed, completion bonuses, the provision for staircasing and bridging programmes and for students taking longer to complete than the minimum.

Higher education shouldn’t feel like an elitist club. Scholarships and initiatives and proposals like these are on the right track to making degree study more accessible for those who may never have considered it was an option for them.

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