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From Adversity to University: Bringing those affected by homelessness into higher education

  • 17 January 2022
  • By Becky Edwards and Darren Douglas

This blog was contributed by Becky Edwards, Coordinator of ‘From Adversity to University’ and Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Chichester. The University of Chichester has just been chosen as one of the top 100 changemaker organisations by the Big Issue for the From Adversity to University project, which was supported by the UPP Foundation. The Q&A is with Darren Douglas, Trustee for Centrepoint, the UK’s leading charity for homeless young people.

A project at the University of Chichester is empowering those affected by homelessness with the confidence and skills to apply for degree courses. The pioneering initiative helps students without necessary qualifications to learn new skills and bridge the gap into higher education. In November 2021, supported by the UPP Foundation and HEPI, the university launched a freely available toolkit which will enable other universities to develop similar programmes.

The impact of the course has been incalculable, both on the participants and on the university community. The module has so far been accessed by 30 participants, with four students currently studying at the university, one student who is now working as a primary school teacher after graduating last year, and five students who are now completing the module, hoping to apply for university next year.  Of those who have accessed the course and not moved into higher education, only three have returned to homelessness and addiction. Others have gained jobs or have started volunteering.  The course has been supported inter-departmentally across the university, with lecturers from a variety of disciplines, based on the interests of the students, joining as guest speakers.

 It is a journey that has taken us from the streets of Chichester to a round table dinner at the British Academy. It began as a co-produced adventure that began with a resilience session delivered to a small group of people affected by homelessness and addiction that has led to a university-wide project which is transforming lives.

It is one of the most humbling and rewarding projects I have ever been part of.

 Phil: ‘I hope universities use the toolkit and be as inspired as I have been by the transformational impact of this wonderful initiative.’

As is often the case with widening participation, the original idea is the result of personal experience, a story that sits outside of academia. It began with ‘a man-in-a-van.’ Our 30-year-old campervan is parked on the street in front of our house in Chichester. Despite being only four meters from our front door, we did not notice, that someone homeless was using it as a temporary home until we came to pack it up for a camping trip one weekend. Their few possessions had been piled on the front seat, the curtains drawn. We simply had not noticed. As we left the belongings on the pavement by our front gate, I was struck by the invisibility of those who are homeless and by our sometimes-willful blindness where homelessness is concerned. The image of someone turning the corner to find their temporary home gone, haunted me that weekend and beyond and I vowed, that if there was any way, however small, that I could be part of the solution to rather than the problem of homelessness, I would embrace it. The opportunity arose when we were approached by a local homelessness charity, Stonepillow, to work collaboratively with them and the ‘From Adversity to University’ bridging module was born.

Underpinning the project, is the idea that ability and education are not synonymous, that whilst intelligence is equally distributed across society, opportunity is not. The module gives those who have not been privileged enough, lucky enough, or supported enough to gain a good education, the opportunity to rebuild self-belief and positively reconstruct their relationship with learning.

‘This is not just an opportunity for us to go to university, but to change the way that people view us, and make sure we are not defined by our past experiences.’ Michael, former Bridging module student

According to Shelter, there are now more than 320,000 homeless people in Britain, with a large percentage of those living on the streets or precariously housed, likely to develop mental health conditions or to turn to drugs and alcohol for solace. Causes of homelessness are multifarious and dynamic, involving individual, interpersonal and structural factors. This course uses these lived experiences to develop academic reading, writing and research skills, self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-belief. Honest and insightful links are made between themes like emotional intelligence, reflective practice, decision-making skills, critical thinking, ethical dilemmas and often painful memories. The power of the module lies not only in its capacity to help students reach hitherto unrealised academic potential but in the fact that it is co-productively created with the participants. Each time it runs, the content is adapted by and with the students. This ensures that the discussions are bespoke and framed to reflect the experiences of participants. The consequent shared ownership ensures high levels of   engagement and provides concrete evidence to the students that their voice matters, their views are important and that they are no longer invisible.

Lucy: ‘It’s given me a purpose…. It’s given me something that I’m working towards… I feel like I’m worthy and I’m going to achieve things.’

The Bridging module is now being used by the University of Chichester, as part of its From Adversity to University project, to work with asylum seekers and care leavers.  The newly published toolkit provides honest guidance to other universities and educational organisations as to how to set up a similar programme (including an example of a potential bid application).

It is rare in life that we are given the opportunity to make a real difference. Too often higher education has lost sight of its civic responsibility and its potential to transform lives. One university can make a small difference to a few people, many universities working together can be a powerful force for social change.

 ‘Projects like this prove that although it might feel as if everything has diminished or been lost to homelessness and addiction: everything is on the other side of the door’. (Michael)

For more information, please contact Becky Edwards ([email protected]) and access the toolkit here.

The following Q&A comes from Darren Douglas, Trustee for Centrepoint, the UK’s leading charity for homeless young people.

Tell us about Centrepoint.

Centrepoint is the UK’s leading youth homelessness charity. We provide housing and support for young people regionally in London, Manchester, Yorkshire and the Northeast and through partnerships all over the UK. We provide homeless young people with accommodation, health support and life skills in order to get them back into education, training and employment. Young people aged that come to Centrepoint are able to stay with us for up to two years. An amazing 94 per cent of these young people then move into their own homes, reconnect with their families, get their first jobs or go to university. We also have a Centrepoint Helpline service that offers advice to anyone in England aged 16-25 who may be homeless or at risk of being homeless. We have dedicated advisors at hand to listen, advise and connect young people to the right services. Thanks to our amazing supporters, we’re now able to reach over 14,000 homeless young people each year.

What particular obstacles to education do homeless people face alongside their accommodation challenges?

The main obstacles and challenges I think homeless people face when trying to re-enter education is not having appropriate qualifications to be able to enrol into university and the financial means to pay and undertake a course of their choice. Overcoming imposter syndrome can be really difficult too, especially trying to acclimatise back into mainstream education and believing that you are worthy enough to be studying on a particular course and having the confidence within yourself to know that you will pass. I also think that not having access to appropriate home study equipment i.e laptop, books and internet use or being aware of how to access support services from the educational provider can be detrimental to a homeless person’s chances of succeeding in education.

What do you think of the new UPP / Chichester Toolkit? Could it make a difference? Is it scale-able?

I really like the ‘From Adversity to University’ project, it’s very courageous and innovative, and it’s amazing to see a university joining forces with a homeless charity to create pathways that enable people to gain a second chance at education. I really like how the toolkit considered a lot of the challenges and factors that might cause a student to disengage with the programme and the support mechanisms it put in place to negate those issues. Having heard first-hand from students that attended the course at Chichester University (who are supported by Stonepillow Charity) about the amazing strides they have taken since completing the course is truly transformational and I believe the toolkit can definitely make a difference with the buy in from universities. The scale-ability of the project in terms of the cost per student, group size and allocated lecture and tutorial time per week, for me equals great value for money with the added incentive of helping to break down the traditional ‘barriers’ to accessing higher education to those who have had to overcome adversity in its various forms, in particular homelessness and addiction.

As big institutions, what else can universities do to help people facing very steep challenges in their lives?

I think the institutions need to continue to be more creative in having visible and consistent signposting of university services in lectures, seminars, email communication, online and through social media so that students are constantly aware of how they can access and receive support. I think that more awareness campaigns should be promoted during specific periods of the academic year especially around exam time so that students know they’re not alone and are clear as to where they can go to seek help and advice.

I also think making the mitigation circumstances and appeals policy and procedures more simplified for students to follow and incorporate their input/feedback each year when making amendments to academic regulations. I also think that universities should allocate a bigger budget for both semester one and two during the academic year for hardship funds/loans. In some instances where students have been in need of emergency financial support the hardship fund/loan has not been available for students during semester 2 or those that are January starters, as a lot of the funds have been distributed during semester one, and so during the second half of the academic year this support function becomes unavailable to students in need.  

1 comment

  1. Patrick Mulrenan says:

    Very interesting article about an important issue. Great work engaging with homeless people. Many HE students, particularly in high demand areas, are experiencing homelessness

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