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What springs to mind when I bring the words ‘homelessness’ and ‘university’ together?

  • 23 December 2022
  • By Izzy Cresswell

This blog was written by Izzy Cresswell. Izzy is an undergraduate student at Arts University Bournemouth who has experience navigating some of the challenges discussed in the piece.

Homelessness and higher education may form a nice piece of alliteration when placed next to one another, but as a combination they are an oxymoron. As it stands, the two do not share the same world. Homelessness is a noun. Someone or something is ‘homeless’. This is the defining aspect of whatever the term is being attributed to. A label which is all encompassing.

When someone is facing hardship, very quickly everything about what makes a person human is forgotten. Their hobbies, aspirations, or the possibilities of a future ahead. Instead, there is only space for a current circumstance which involves not occupying permanent accommodation. 

With or without a stable ‘home’ environment, people are people. They have personalities, goals, intellects, and interests. A label of ‘homeless’ doesn’t just suddenly rob you of these and reset your primal instinct only to seek out shelter, heat, and a hot meal. Being in an environment that meets these most basic of needs does not mean you are ‘complete’ or ‘content’ either. Would you be?

I see higher education as a solution for many people facing homelessness and instability. It is three years (or more) of security through accommodation, funding, and pastoral support. It offers a form of structure that can act as building blocks to a foundation of a more stable lifestyle. This is all very simplistic and, of course, the reality is much harder and more complex, but it is an invaluable starting point. A starting point which isn’t even countenanced as a possibility for those who have lived experience negotiating homelessness.

Built-in Barriers

University is still an exclusive club. Given the diversity of experiences young people have in formal education, the idea that there’s just one pathway to higher education is ludicrous. There are loads of ways into university. But if you haven’t obtained ‘good’ GCSEs and A-Levels, or picked up seven different extracurricular awards along the way, where exactly is your world represented in newspapers, TV shows, or by celebrities talking about ‘going to uni’? 

All too often, those who go to schools with money, those who have family stability, or those who come from white middle-class backgrounds are the ones it is assumed university is really for. 

When people get to university, the assumption of a middle-class lifestyle continues. Halls of residence sponsoring £50 a week meal prep boxes alongside an all-inclusive, sign your life away student gym membership. Targeted marketing making you feel obliged to spend half of your first loan installment on a kettle and two frying pans from ASDA. 

Where is the actual sentiment of education in all of this? The lifestyle may be a default choice after finishing secondary education for some, but for many it’s potentially a world-changing lifeline that is out of reach.

For people with lived experience of homelessness, education is a massive opportunity, but logistical barriers are a huge deterrent. How will I get there? How can I move my belongings? There’s no one to drive me and I can’t afford a train ticket the price of a week’s wage. Where will I live during the summer? What do I do at Christmas when everyone goes home to their families? How can I do well at my degree when I have to work a full-time job to pay my way through? 

These barriers block even your run up to the first hurdle. They make it incredibly hard to feel encouraged, or even see it as feasible to begin considering it as a viable option. At the moment, it feels like only one road toward higher education is open, and it’s for all of those people who are probably already going to uni anyway. 

Those with lived experience of homelessness are more likely to be facing a whole roster of challenges and barriers already due to their current circumstance. Mental illness, financial hardship and ill health are all cuts which run deepest at the sharp end of inequality. Couldn’t a civically minded university at least do something about it if it’s all happening on their doorstep?


Compared to other areas of education, it seems to me that universities are organisations with so, so much funding. There are countless scholarships, bursaries, grants, and access schemes available. But are these really targeted toward those who would benefit from them most? 

In terms of who needs the support and where it goes, universities sometimes operate with blinkers on. It circles back to the fact that, in the large part, universities are designed for those who are probably already going. If they weren’t, we’d probably see the vast majority of institutions proactively and proudly advertising initiatives like those below:

  • tenancy extensions to cover holiday periods for people with lived experience of homelessness;
  • waiving the UCAS application fees for those who can’t afford it; and 
  • outreach work with local authorities and charities supporting individuals who may be in the midst of navigating significant challenges related to their health, security, and happiness.

But we don’t.

The above are a few simple ideas I have considered while writing this blog. If I can do that in a few minutes at my laptop, couldn’t universities step up their game? Afterall, the reason universities exist is to provide space for a people to get together and think. They’ve just built a system where people with lived experience of homelessness rarely get to join them.

I know some support is out there. My university is signed up to The Stand Alone Pledge, and there’s help through charities like The Unite Foundation. But is it really enough? Or are we brandishing an umbrella in a tsunami?

Although there are practical elements universities can solve, the wider systemic issues associated with homelessness are huge. They run deep within society and are perpetuated by choices made by powerful people most of us will never meet.

A seat at the table

The challenges faced by people with lived experience of homelessness is an issue larger than higher education, but it’s one with which higher education has a direct responsibility to engage. By bringing this conversation to the table in universities, it has a place to sit. 

An invaluable position which all too often has been excluded from the room.

Today’s blogs conclude HEPI’s output for the year. We wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and thank you all for your support during 2022. The blog will resume early in 2023.

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