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Shape-shifting and pushing against the odds: staff perceptions of the experiences of first generation students in South Africa and the UK

Forsyth, R and Hamshire, C and Fontaine-Rainen, D and Soldaat, L (2021) Shape-shifting and pushing against the odds: staff perceptions of the experiences of first generation students in South Africa and the UK. The Australian Educational Researcher. ISSN 0311-6999

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Abstract

The principles of diversity and inclusion are valued across the higher education sector, but the ways in which these principles are translated into pedagogic practice are not always evident. Students who are first in their family to attend university continue to report barriers to full participation in university life. They are more likely to leave their studies early, and to achieve lower grades in their final qualifications, than students whose families have previous experience of higher education. The purpose of this study was to explore whether a mismatch between staff perceptions and students’ experiences might be a possible contributor to these disparities. The study explored and compared staff discourses about the experiences of first generation students at two universities, one in the United Kingdom (UK), and the other in South Africa (SA). One-to-one interviews were carried out with 40 staff members (20 at each institution) to explore their views about first generation students. The results showed that staff were well aware of challenges faced by first generation students; however, they were unsure of their roles in relation to shaping an inclusive environment, and tended not to consider how to use the assets that they believed first generation students bring with them to higher education. This paper explores these staff discourses; and considers proposals for challenging commonly-voiced assumptions about students and university life in a broader context of diversity and inclusive teaching practice.

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