There have been far too few care leavers going to university for far too long. The numbers are staggering: just 12% of care-experienced pupils compared to 42% of their peers. It’s not fair that care leavers should have far worse educational and life chances than the general population, especially since we already know the reasons why.
The problem starts at school, when children in care typically experience extensive disruption to their education, often as a result of moving between homes. This may lead them to feel like like they don’t know who to talk to about going to university.
Without access to accurate information and advice, or the right support network and role models, they may struggle to navigate the admissions system, which puts many off applying.
If they do get to university, they then have a host of financial worries to contend with. At present, the financial support care leavers receive from local authorities is a patchy postcode lottery. Some may receive a comprehensive package of support, along with proactive and engaged personal advisors, while others struggle to access the basic statutory allowance they are entitled to.
There are problems with housing policy, too. Care leavers who are on the waiting list for a council property are not always able to take up the 365 day accommodation offer from universities. Under some strict local authority rules, living outside their local area means they will lose their priority place on the housing list. Students in these circumstances may instead have to live in temporary expensive accommodation, leading to further financial hardship.
Given the huge variation in support available to care leavers across different regions, the group of universities that I chair as vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton, University Alliance, is calling on the government to guarantee that all care experienced students who go to university receive a standardised, high-quality package of financial and pastoral support that is not dependent on their postcode.
The government should also undertake a review into the student finance system to address the needs of students without family support, including summer bursaries, which may help reduce hardship and anxieties around homelessness.
Establishing a more robust evidence base would help, too. Universities can work with local authorities to capture this missing data and share expertise.
Accessible, relevant advice and guidance are some of the most important tools universities can offer care leavers interested in improving their life chances. This might include supporting the work of online resources such as Propel, working with charities such as Stand Alone and Become or holding pre-enrolment programmes targeted at those who have left care settings.
What’s needed is a comprehensive package of support, like Kingston University’s award-winning KU Cares, which combines financial support, year-round accommodation and opportunities to gain new skills for care leavers, estranged students and young adult carers.
A care leaver or estranged student’s choice about where they want to study should not be restricted by the support available to them. Some of those I have met are extraordinarily talented and motivated. They just need more consistency from their local authorities and from universities.
As this year’s Care Leavers Week draws to a close, let’s work together to provide care leavers with the opportunities they deserve.