The Crisis with Care Leavers and University – Liberal Article
Over one in four care leavers move into university alone. As university accommodation is categorised as their permanent home, care leavers have to make the journey independently and unsupported, often bringing just what they can carry. This statistic is shocking. It clearly represents how the university experience is inflexible for those who go through it independently. From the application to the accommodation, loans, and the social side, universities rely on their students having a consistent and stable education and support network, something not available to all.
Only 12% of children who experience the care system will go to university, with half of those going before the age of 21. This is compared with the national average of 50%. This disparity is damning and demonstrates how inaccessible university is for care leavers (CL) and care experience (CE). And if you need further convincing, the lack of support care leavers receive during their university experience can go some way in explaining why care leavers are three times more likely to drop out of university compared to their peers.
But what is a care leaver, and why does the definition need changing?
The government defines a care leaver (CL) as a person who’s spent 13 weeks in care after their 14th birthday to some time after their 16th. However, this definition is limiting and does not acknowledge how anytime time in care causes a severe amount of upheaval and disruption, causing long term effects. Also, the use of this definition by universities and UCAS is inconsistent. Therefore, you may qualify for help at one university but not another.
I cannot stress how disarming and contradictory this is. During the time of application, many are still technically in care or have other arrangements which mean they do not fit these stringent requirements. For this reason, many do not receive the full financial and social support they are entitled to.
Finance is a huge factor for most of us attending university. Yet, financial help for those in care is inconsistent, tough to navigate, and usually only available once enrolled at a university. Due to the lack of centralised systems, financial help is decided and implemented by local authorities with no specific instructions. This means where you are placed into care determines whether you get your entire fees paid for or possibly nothing at all. Having no clear and consistent guidelines is nothing short of negligent by the government. It creates a lack of accountability for their failing administration.
Take the example of needing a guarantor for your second-year house. If you don’t have any adults in your life that are financially stable, how are you meant to sign a lease for a second-year home? This is something that we all take for granted.
Aside from the significant financial barriers that prevent CL and CE from going to university, there are cultural and social obstacles too. These issues are far more systemic and require real long term policy change that is collaborative with the local authority, The Virtual School and universities themselves. How can you aim for something when there is such inconsistent misinformation?
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the massive disparity between care leavers and other students. Many are having to self isolate alone at university, in hostels or other shift accommodation, with paltry access to essentials, such as laptops, internet, and even food.
The huge disruption of coronavirus to care leaver’s and care experienced’s education will have long term, devastating effects. Especially those entering university. This is due to many safety nets and support systems evaporating. In-person campus days for care leavers and vital introductory workshops of the support available at university cannot be replicated online.
I’m saddened that I cannot go into detail on the endless barriers of entry to a university that we all passively partake in, including myself. But if we truly want to make universities diverse and inclusive places for all, we must bring care leavers to the forefront of these conversations.
Written by Guest Liberal Writer, Lucy Severn
Point of Information
The support is there for care leavers, but universities aren’t taking it – A Conservative Response
Lucy has written a compelling article on the struggle that many people in the care system face. The fact that the definition is used inconsistently by UCAS and universities is troubling. It locks people out of the support they deserve.
Something that is being pushed by the government is the Care Leavers Covenant. Introduced in 2018, it allows for many organisations to give support for people leaving care. Government departments and many other organisations have signed up and shown support through internships etc. However, only 13 universities have signed up to it.
This is a massive issue, and no doubt contributes to what is highlighted. There are considerably more than 13 universities in the UK. It is disappointing that only a small number has signed up in two years. Hopefully, more will do so but it will take a long time for even a majority of universities to.
Other ways the government has provided guidance for universities is their publication of the Higher Education Principles in 2019. This explained why care leavers need more support and the ways in which universities can support them. Now, while these suggestions are good, the protections and support should be made mandatory. If not, it is easy for these students to get left behind, as Lucy demonstrates.
No doubt the coronavirus crisis has hit care leavers hard. More support will be needed, and the type of support offered needs to adapt. While in-person support can’t be replicated perfectly online, right now it is hard to offer much more. Hopefully, when the pandemic is more under control, in-person support will resume.
Going back to what I mentioned at the start of this response, the definition does need to be clearer. If universities and UCAS are using it inconsistently, then it needs to be redefined in a way that it is consistent.
Written by Junior Conservative Writer, Kieran Burt
The university experience is not generic and this needs to be addressed – A Labour Response
Lucy’s article is a stark reminder of the privilege that many in the student community are unaware of. Too much of the time, the narrative of the student experience highlights the ‘standard’ experience. Anything other than this is neglected.
At all universities, greater empathy and consideration needs to be employed in understanding the experiences of those that deviate from the norm. This is particularly the case at Russell Group universities such as the University of Exeter.
The plight of care leavers demonstrates that once again, our educational, political, social, and economic systems are failing those who are most in need of support.
I’m sure those of us who have had the privilege of a ‘standard’ experience would agree that the process can be complicated and stressful. Now imagine you had to go through it all with no familial or educational support.
This neglect only exacerbates the social and class divisions that plague universities already. It is a problem that must be addressed imminently. Especially in the context of Covid-19, where the financial situation of all students is already more precarious than it ever has been before.
In the current climate, it is more difficult to find term-time employment, access financial, medical, and academic support. Not only this, but there are fewer graduation employment opportunities. This is already negatively impacting students who have external support systems, let alone those who are entirely independent.
More support is needed for care leavers in all aspects of the university experience. Starting with university applications, continuing through the entire degree, and ending after their successful entry into the workplace. This is imperative for institutions that pride themselves on the empowering support they provide their students with.
However, it is not just the job of universities to provide support. It needs to begin in schools where the disparity begins. It is here, whilst still at school, care leavers can be encouraged to continue onwards into higher education.
Written by Junior Labour Writer, Zoë Olsen-Groome