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Supporting care leavers and estranged students in higher education

  • 11 October 2022
  • By Fiona Ellison

Over the coming months, HEPI is partnering with the Unite Foundation to provide a platform for a series of blogs on supporting care leavers and estranged students in higher education. The first blog in the series was contributed by Fiona Ellison, Director of the Unite Foundation.

Care leavers are one of the most under-represented groups in higher education. In 2020/21, just 13 per cent progressed to higher education by age 19 in England, compared to 45 per cent of all other pupils.

At the Unite Foundation we offer a unique university scholarship for students who are care leavers or estranged from their families that provides 365-day accommodation for up to three years of study. 

This is our first blog in a new partnership with HEPI, in which we will explore some of the issues faced by care experienced and estranged students whilst at university. Over the coming months we want to share with change makers and leaders across the sector the ways in which you can positively impact the university experiences of these student populations.

Students will be at the heart of the series, as we believe there is no one better to talk about their experiences than the students themselves. We asked care experienced and estranged students who have joined our community a question: 

If there were one thing you could tell vice chancellors and higher education leaders about what it’s like to be a care experienced or estranged student what would it be?

The students’ responses covered three key themes.

  1. Financial stress 

One student told us, ‘It’s quite stressful, there are constant financial worries. Knowing you don’t have parents to fall back on in an emergency is really hard’. 

We cannot be alone in feeling shocked by the recent NUS survey that reported 1 in 10 students are turning to food banks – a figure that is surely set to rise over the coming months. At the Unite Foundation, we have very real concerns about the care experienced and estranged student population in the present crisis. The sentiment is echoed by the National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum in their report about the impact of the cost of living crisis for young people leaving care. Seventy-four per cent of care-experienced young people reported that the rise in prices was having an effect on their mental health.

We have been working in this space for the past 10 years and we have seen the positive impact a stable home and the right support has on the retention, progression and attainment of care experienced and estranged students. Without the ability to go to parents or other family for financial support, we have no doubt that the rising cost of living will negatively impact the ability of care experienced and estranged students to stay at university. 

In September, the National Union of Students (NUS) produced a report on the cost of living for students. The report found:

it is those students who are least well represented within the student population who face the most significant barriers to access and [those students] who are least typical who are experiencing the most compounded impact when it comes to long-term financial vulnerability.

We call on higher education providers to double down on the tailored support and provisions they offer to care experienced and estranged students as a matter of urgency. This group of students are particularly exposed to financial stresses and, at such a critical time, many will be facing real challenges. 

  • The need for bespoke support

The importance of wellbeing support at university for care experienced and estranged students is something we hear repeatedly from students. As one student commented, ‘having someone to check in with in-person is really important when you don’t have anyone [else]’.

At the Unite Foundation, our team, alongside accommodation providers and university staff, are committed to ensuring our scholarship students feel supported during their time at university. 

Each of our students is an individual with individual needs. Not every scholarship student will ask for extra support, but students have told us time and again that knowing we are just a phone call or email away can really help to alleviate the sense of isolation. One of our students commented:

The transition to university / higher education is the time we’ll likely need the most support, we might struggle to ask for help and the process can feel extremely lonely. Having someone at the university reach out and be clear on what support we can access is a simple task that could make an immense difference.

We understand that wellbeing and student services are under increasing pressure. However, as one report stated that young people who have been in care ‘have consistently been found to have much higher rates of mental health difficulties than the general population’, there is a need to ensure help is getting to those that need it. 

The University of Sheffield’s 2019 Pathways to University from Care Report made a series of recommendations, alongside the Care Leaver Covenant, for universities to help address ‘shortfalls in support’. Recommendations included:

  1. fast-tracking mental health support;
  2. providing a designated named contact as a champion for care leavers; and 
  3. training for all student-facing staff, enabling them to recognise the additional needs of care experienced students and to be able to effectively signpost.

As one respondent put it in answer to our question:

Provide not just the bare minimum of support, be the example other institutions look to.

  • Attainment and progression

Make the goal care experienced and estranged students not just reaching university, but also staying there.

In June 2022 we published This is 10 Years of Impact, an independent comparative analysis of 10 years of our data. Analysis by Jisc showed that there is ‘strong evidence that the scholarship improves educational outcomes of the students we support, specifically in year-to-year progression and completion’.

Our scholarship means that students are able to focus on their studies and wider university life rather than also having to hold down multiple jobs in an attempt to make ends meet. 

A huge amount of amazing work is carried out by colleagues in widening participation teams across the sector to ensure care experienced and estranged students have the opportunity to attend university. But we also hear from students that there can be a gap of support between submitting an application and what happens when they finally get to university. Financial concerns, social challenges and adapting to a new way of studying can make continuation for care experienced and estranged students incredibly hard. 

We know that an accommodation scholarship may seem like a radical intervention, but the data we released tells us that it works! 

Levelling the most uneven of playing fields, as many widening participation experts will tell you, is not easy. We encourage university leaders to ask themselves if they are really doing enough – rather than just using a sticking plaster – now is the time for bold interventions.

We’d like to reiterate the call made by Nyomi Rose, a former scholarship student and member of our Board of Trustees, in her HEPI blog in June, ‘I’d really encourage Vice Chancellors to get out from behind their desks and come and meet their students. Especially students who are care experienced and estranged – let us educate you!’

We have just launched our new scheme our new ‘A Home at University: Widening Access and Participation Pilot’. In partnership with The Dulverton Trust and The Astra Foundation, we’re inviting applications from universities to join this unique match funding scholarship opportunity. You can find out more and how to apply here.

If you would like to know more about the Unite Foundation you can email us at [email protected].

HEPI publications on care-leavers and estranged students:

Look out for our next blog on 25 October 2022 in National Care Leavers Week.

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