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Breaking new ground – understanding care-experienced students

  • 21 July 2023
  • By Fiona Ellison
  • This blog was kindly authored by Fiona Ellison, Director of the Unite Foundation. Twitter: @ThisIsUniteFdn
  • To focus on the experiences of UK domiciled care-experienced students, the author has pulled UK students from the wider care-experienced student cohort described in the Student Academic Experience Survey. The experiences of UK domiciled care-experienced students are described in this blog.

It was with great excitement and trepidation that I opened the Student Academic Experience Survey report last week – this was the first time we have a national data set that gives us comparative analysis for care-experienced students. A seminal moment for those of us working in this space.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a bush you will know that care-experienced students are hugely under-represented in higher education. Just 13% of care-experienced young people go to university by the age of 19, compared to 43% of their peers.

Addressing their access to, and engagement in, higher education was a welcome key pillar of the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register – however, with such little data existing about this group of students, and even less about estranged young people who share similar characteristics, there is much to be done to firstly recognise their experiences at university, and then implement evidence led interventions that ensure we are able to not just bring more care-experienced students into higher education but ensure they go onto complete their studies.

Opening the Student Academic Experience Survey report and seeing a whole section exploring the attitudes and experiences of those who have been in Local Authority care is significant. As a group so often overlooked having robust comparative data is a great stride in the right direction. Although perhaps less so was the stark disparity for those with care experience and their reflections on their time in higher education.

Emerging insight from the report might be striking for many – but not for those of us working in this space. Care-experienced students represent a highly intersectional population – overrepresented across a vast number of characteristics that are under-represented in university admissions – ethnicity, faith, first in family, commuter students, age and sexuality. We know that if you can get it right for care-experienced young people you’re also getting things right for a much wider group of under-represented students.

Staying at university

What particularly stands out is the number of students, 57% of care-experienced students, compared to 28% of the general population, who considered leaving their course. That is a significant difference. The main reason, and one that is significantly higher than for the general population, is the thought that they have chosen the wrong institution. Anecdotally, we hear from students that what they think their university is going to provide isn’t always what is available or accessible, a likely reason many consider leaving.

Whilst the report highlighted no significant difference in feelings of belonging between students, there are stark differences in feelings of loneliness – with 48% of care-experienced students saying that they felt lonely all or some of the time compared to 26% of their peers. If nearly half the care-experienced student population feel lonely no wonder so many of them have considered dropping out, and why we see that, overall, care-experienced students are 38% more likely to drop out of university than their peers.

Exacerbated impact of cost-of-living pressures

We can’t take significant steps forward without exploring and understanding the impact of the cost of living on this group of students.  

83% of care-experienced students said that the cost-of-living crisis impacted their studies a lot or a little, compared to 76% of students who are not care-experienced. This is a significant difference. The lack of safety net for these students is considerable.

Without the safety net of family members to fall back on 88% of care-experienced students said they worked in paid employment compared to 58% of non-care experienced. We can see this is impacting studies – 22% of non care-experienced students had to ask for an extension for coursework or assignments, whereas 34% of care-experienced respondents said they needed an extension.

Utilising data

I hope that taking just a snapshot of some of the statistics the report includes serves as a wakeup call for university staff to do more to understand the experiences of their care-experienced students (as well as those who are estranged in anticipation of having national data next year for comparison).

This report is just the start.

I would urge institutions to look at or start to seriously build their institutional data. What does it tell you about the experiences of care experienced and estranged students? Small sample sizes can often be an issue for this group of students, but where can you commit to doing more to understand their experiences?  This is important so that as we enter the new round of updated Access and Participation Plans you have a clear baseline to build on that can be referenced sector-wide. I would also urge higher education providers and policymakers to think about how we use this dataset to push for more insight.

At the Unite Foundation, working with partners including NNECL & StandAlone, we’ll shortly be sharing a guide which looks at the risks to equality of opportunity alongside evidence-based interventions proven to work.  We’ll be detailing best practice and practical steps for higher education providers to create an environment where care-experienced young people feel safe, welcomed and at home. 

It was encouraging to see the Office for Students consulting on the inclusion of care experience for future releases of the National Student Survey. This must be a fundamental element of their release at a national level, as well as accessible institutional-level data, if we’re going to see meaningful change in participation numbers in the years to come. We would also ask for the inclusion of estrangement – we know estranged students can face similar challenges to care leavers with much less support available to them.

This is just the start for readily accessible data about this group of students which should include standard annual HESA data to be published as standard and not behind a paywall, care-experience visibility within the Higher Education Access Tracker, and visibility of students currently in care within schools published through DfE school tables. 

As the authors shared in the report “we would encourage wider use of this and other complementary data across the sector to build a greater shared understanding.”

Credit to HEPI and Advance HE for leading the way: they should be celebrated for drawing attention to this group of students. But there is more to be done. I look forward to reflecting on next year’s data, being able to draw comparisons from this data set and a much wider selection to help us create meaningful change, resulting in care-experienced young people being able to go to university, stay at university and feel it is where they belong.

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