When it comes to accessing and completing an undergraduate degree, care experienced people face significant challenges. Accurate data is difficult to gather, but best estimates indicate that only 12% of those who leave care enrol at university by the age of 23, compared to 40% of non-care leavers. What's more, care leavers are a third more likely to drop out of their studies.
Work is underway to resolve these challenges, but an overly restrictive definition of 'care leavers' and the prevalence of age-dependent support limits who can access the help that universities provide, particularly in England.
Who has care experience and what does this mean?
The term 'care experienced' applies to anyone who spent time in care during their childhood in one of many different settings, including in children's homes, foster homes, homes with other family members, or as an unaccompanied asylum seeker. In 2016–17, there were approximately 96,000 'looked after' children in the UK – a figure that has risen every year since 2010 (except in Scotland), with the majority (around 70,00) in England.
Children are most likely to go into care because of abuse or neglect. The trauma that care-experienced individuals experience with their birth parents and in the care system has lasting effects on their mental health, and they are more likely to have disabilities, be homeless, and involved in the criminal justice system. In short, they are some of the most disadvantaged individuals in society.
Obstacles care leavers face when accessing higher education
In England, a young person becomes a 'care leaver' if they have been in care for at least 13 weeks, and some of that time is after age 16. Although some universities (including all Scottish institutions) provide support for all care-experienced students, the limited legal definition of care leavers used in England is problematic. It ignores the fact that any length of time in care is likely to relate to childhood trauma, or significant disruption and upheaval. The application of this definition by universities is inconsistent, and so therefore is the level and availability of support.
Only half of the 12% of care leavers that go to university enter by age 21, largely due to the inequalities they face while at school, which impact their attainment. Care leavers are therefore more likely to be mature students; but the support they receive at university in England is sometimes capped by age – often linked arbitrarily to the end of local authority corporate parenting at age 25.
What the higher education sector is doing about it
Several sector-wide initiatives have focused on tackling the disadvantages care experienced students face in 2019.
In July, Universities Scotland announced that Scotland's 18 universities will guarantee undergraduate offers to all care experienced applicants who meet minimum entry requirements. This important step recognises the challenging circumstances in which people with care experience achieve their qualifications and ensures they can benefit from the sector's efforts to widen participation. The Scottish Government has also announced that it will remove the upper age limit (currently at 26) for its annual Care-Experienced Bursary for students at college and university.
In England, the Department for Education (DfE) recently published a set of Care Leaver Principles for higher education providers, and wants universities to sign the Care Leaver Covenant. In September, Universities UK and DfE held a Care Leaver Covenant workshop, attended by 30 universities, to share their experiences of supporting care leavers and tackling the challenges that exist. Attendees also heard from Danielle June, a care experienced graduate who now works in the Civil Service, who urged universities to provide care leavers with tailored advice and encouragement throughout their university journey.
Lastly, the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) is creating a sector-specific quality mark for supporting care leavers. Seven UK universities have participated in a pilot to help shape the framework, which should be ready for roll out in Spring 2020.
Universities in England, with the support of the government, need to remove the barriers created by the restrictive care leaver definition and age-dependent support. The notable progress in Scotland provides a blueprint for making positive change. Universities should consider the merits of adopting a definition of care experience which does not exclude certain individuals based on length of time in care, type of placement, or age, to ensure all individuals with care experience receive appropriate support.
The most effective support replicates the financial and emotional safety-net that a family provides. Sensitivity is vital: where other students experience university as a landmark of independence and success, those with care experience may relive past traumas of isolation and abandonment – be that during holidays, at graduation or when arriving at university for the first time.
Some universities are already providing the certainty, continuity and relationship that care leavers need. The University of York offers care leavers practical and emotional support from one person, who stays in contact from the start of the application process through to graduation, while the University of Glasgow prioritises care leavers for 365 days a year accommodation throughout their studies. Other institutions can learn from these examples.
As Danielle said at the UUK event, 'You don't choose to be vulnerable individual'. Everyone deserves the same opportunities and encouragement to reach their potential. It is up to universities to make sure that care-experienced people are no longer left out.
Moving on Up, Harrison, N. (2017)
Survey findings from Scottish colleges and universities, O'Neill, L et al. (2019)
Pathways to University from Care, Ellis, K, and Johnston, C. (2019)