ALMOST two out of three students at Federation University are the first person in their family to go to uni.
New data on the impact of uncapped university places – taken from two national surveys – suggests half of all new students in Australia are “first in family”.
At FedUni in Ballarat, the ratio is as high as 65 per cent. The students are often attracted by small classes on rural campuses in Ballarat and Gippsland.
Paige Martin, 21, is one such student, in her final year of an arts and education double degree.
Paige is from Brim, population 240, in north-west Victoria on the border between the Mallee and the Wimmera.
The main street has an auto shop, farming supply store and pub. Ms Martin’s family has farmed there for more than a century.
They tend wheat and barley, sheep and cattle, canola and legumes on 1660 flat and remote hectares.
"No one in my family had ever even visited a uni. None of us knew what a class was like or where you stay or what it costs."
Ms Martin did well at school in nearby Warracknabeal, but becoming the first person in her entire family to attend university was still a daunting notion.
“No one in my family had ever even visited a uni,” she said. “None of us knew what a class was like or where you stay or what it costs. It was a complete unknown.”
By contrast to FedUni, the ratio at the University of Melbourne is 28 per cent, while Monash University is 38 per cent.
Professor Hamish Coates, of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, said first-in-family numbers had traditionally not been collated in Australia.
Only curiosity prompted him to first begin collecting data on the topic eight years ago, through the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement.
Now the information is recorded using the more robust University Experience Survey, designed by Professor Coates and run by the federal Education Department.
The results show between 2007 and 2013, the percentage of commencing students who are first in family rose from 42 per cent to 48 per cent.
The exact retention or drop-out rate among such students is not yet known, but anecdotally at least, the early results are sound.
Recent first-in-family students at La Trobe University show no marked difference from their peers in terms of retention.
At FedUni, support systems were created to cater for this changing cohort.
The process actually begins in high school with people like Ms Martin, who acts as an ambassador for the Regional Schools Outreach Program.
Ms Martin visited more than 50 schools last year – from Werrimull to Kaniva – delivering workshops and answering questions.
She discusses everything, from applying for scholarships to choosing courses and arranging Centrelink payments.
“You talk to kids about the experience, and you can just see the idea clicking over in their head,” she said. “It’s a great feeling, planting that seed.”