From education to employment

University helps three quarters (73%) of ‘first-in-the-family’ graduates get over their imposter syndrome but, without financial support,

students sat on some grass laughing
  • Research from Universities UK (UUK) highlights the powerful positive impact of university, including that almost three quarters (73%) of ‘first-in-the-family’ (FitF) graduates agreed their degree gave them the confidence to apply for jobs without feeling like an imposter
  • This is despite 65% saying they thought twice about going at all, because of said imposter syndrome
  • However, without their main source of financial support, 4 in 10 (41%) FitF graduates couldn’t have gone to university at all. This is equivalent to around 1.1 million 24–40-year-olds in England and Wales
  • As well as impacts on imposter syndrome, FitF graduates credit university with making them more confident in themselves (78%). Indeed, for over a quarter (28%) of graduates and almost a third (30%) of FitF graduates, going to university was the best decision they have ever made, and a large majority of FitF said it was a good decision (56%)
  • UUK’s ‘100 Faces campaign’ aims to champion and celebrate the positive impact of FitF graduates on the UK – including England footballer Beth Mead, Lord David Blunkett, Nobel Prize winner Sir Chris Pissarides and actor Amit Shah – in order to highlight the need for access to support, and ensure the next generation can reach their graduate potential
  • With financial provisions dwindling and the cost of living rising, UUK is calling for government to reinstate maintenance grants in England and increase support for future students

Almost three quarters (73%) of graduates who were the first in their family (FitF) to attend university agree that their degree gave them confidence to apply for jobs without feeling like an imposter. However, without their main source of financial support, over 4 in 10 (41%) couldn’t have afforded to attend university in the first place. This equates to around 1.1 million 24–40-year-olds in England and Wales. The new data, released today by Universities UK (UUK), also reveals that a further 14% of the same group would have gone to a different university to be closer to home, or lived with their family, in order to afford to attend.

These findings come from extensive research into the experiences of 6,004 UK graduates and 4,006 non-graduates, aged 24-40, from across the UK. They highlight the transformative impact of going to university on graduates from all walks of life, as well as the crucial role that financial support plays in access to higher education.  Against a backdrop of inflation – which has reduced the crucial value of maintenance support – UUK is campaigning to ensure that future generations don’t miss out on the transformative impact of going to university.

Powerful benefits of a university education

Despite the long-standing barriers to access, university is widely acknowledged to be a positive experience for those who attend, according to the new research. Indeed, 86% of all UK graduates describe going to university as a good decision and, of this group, for over a quarter (28%) of graduates (which rises to almost a third – 30% – of FitF graduates) it was the best decision they ever made. Furthermore, for FitF graduates in particular, attending made them professionally more ambitious (74%), encouraged them to push themselves in their personal life (72%), and provided a sense of self-pride (82%).

FitF graduates also cited a breadth of ways in which their university journey has enriched their lives: 78% said it made them more confident in themselves and 76% agreed it gave them broader life experiences (e.g. travel, new perspectives), while 74% said it gave them independent life skills (e.g. budgeting, understanding bills, rent) and 60% agreed it led to a larger social network of friends for life.

Addressing imposter syndrome

Interestingly, despite being able to clearly articulate the professional and personal benefits of going to university after graduation, a large number (65%) of FitF graduates thought twice about going to university at all, because they felt they had ‘imposter syndrome’. However, having then completed their course, almost three quarters (73%) of the same group then agreed that their degree gave them confidence to apply for jobs without feeling like an imposter. 

Asked about what, specifically, helped them to overcome imposter syndrome at university, FitF graduates noted the impact of support from other students (32%), support from lecturers and members of the university staff (28%) and – foundationally – the welcome week of activities for new students (19%).

Financial barriers are still too high

Despite widespread perceptions of equitable access to higher education, UUK’s research highlights the ongoing reliance of some students on financial support. Indeed, FitF students are more likely to rely on a university bursary than their peers (21% vs. 17%), and less likely to receive support from their family (16% vs. 23%). When asked what they thought may stop people they know from attending university, the same group highlighted the fast-climbing costs of living expenses (63%), rental accommodation (59%), and rising inflation (53%).

This is especially noteworthy given that over 4 in 10 (41%) FitF graduates believe that without financial assistance they wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to university at all. What’s more, when non-graduates from across the UK were asked what made them choose not to go to university, over a third (36%) were put off by concerns about their financial commitments, and a quarter (26%) cited financial barriers to attending university. Equally, when asked what might have persuaded them to attend university, almost half (48%) responded more financial support.

Further exploring the experience of prospective students across the UK, data from UUK and JISC – the digital, data and technology agency for higher education – has identified regions where there are higher proportions of FitF students. Indeed, although FitF students represent 41% of graduates in the South East, this figure rises to 57% in the West Midlands, 54% in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East, and 53% in the North West.

Levelling the field

Although the playing field isn’t level for prospective students prior to university, research shows that there is less disparity in graduate outcomes across socio-economic divides. Evidence  from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) shows that FitF candidates face significantly more challenges than students with a family history of higher education even before they get to university: graduates in England whose parents did not obtain a degree are less likely than others to have attended an independent school (4% vs. 14%), less likely to have a parent working in a higher managerial occupation (40% vs. 85%), and more likely to have been eligible for Free School Meals (10% vs. 2%). There is also evidence from a recent government report[3] that shows parental educational achievement is among the most important factors affecting a child’s educational outcomes, and therefore ultimately their likelihood of attending university.

However, on leaving university, the gulf is smaller: while there remains an attainment gap of 6.7 percentage points in terms of degree classification[4], a 2023 UUK survey revealed that FitF graduates reported a higher average starting salary of £30,111, compared to those who were not FitF, who had an average starting salary of £27,754.

Beth Mead, England and Arsenal footballer and 100 Faces campaign ambassador, was the first in her family to attend university and graduated from Teesside University in 2016. She comments:  

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Teesside University and the support I received from the university at the start of my career was invaluable. University was a fantastic experience and, alongside the academic aspect, I was able to develop incredibly useful skills such as time-management and self-discipline, which have been transferable into my current career. In addition my degree has given me additional skills and opportunities I can pursue beyond my sporting career, which will no doubt also be useful after I hang up my boots.”

Professor Sir Chris Pissarides, Nobel Prize for Economics winner and 100 Faces campaign ambassador, graduated from both University of Essex and London School of Economics. He commented:

“We are driven by curiosity, progression, and the desire to have a good life. There is no better stepping stone to such achievements than your first university. I cannot even imagine where I would be without mine.”

Vivienne Stern MBE, Chief Executive of Universities UK, added:

“There are those who say that too many people go to university. I disagree. These stories tell you why. In this country you are still twice as likely to go to university if you are from the wealthiest background, compared to the least wealthy. That’s not right.”

“The experiences of students who are the first in their families to have been to university tell a powerful story. I am amazed by how many graduates talked about having imposter syndrome – and the way that earning a degree helped to banish that feeling. I believe we have a responsibility to keep working to ensure a wider range of people in this country get access to the potentially transformative experience of going to university. For that to happen, we really do need to see an improvement in maintenance support to support those from the least privileged backgrounds.”

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