Care-experienced students face lack of support on higher education, report finds

Students who have been in care are not being given the right support when deciding on their options for higher education, a new report has found.

Some 60% of “care-experienced” students receive no specific support relevant to their circumstances as they navigate their next steps, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) said.

The organisation’s chief executive Clare Marchant said its research found many students from this background lack “crucial information, advice and guidance to support their decision-making”.

Ucas, which gathered the information from its data and survey responses, found the number of UK applicants with a care background has almost doubled since the survey question was first introduced – from 4,495 in 2008 to 8,930 in 2022.

They now account for 1.6% of all UK applicants.

Many of these applicants had positive expectations of going to university or college, Ucas said, with around two-thirds expressing excitement about meeting new people, becoming more independent and making a fresh start.

But the fact 60% received no specific guidance at school or college about applying to higher education from a care background highlights the challenges such students can face in trying to get the right information, including on financial bursaries, year-round accommodation, and mental health and disability support, Ucas said.

When it came to looking at apprenticeship options, 45% of care-experienced students indicated they felt unsupported.

The research also showed that compared to applicants without a care background, those who have experience of care are almost twice as likely to have a disability, nearly three times more likely to have a mental health condition, and nearly 79% more likely to identify as LGBT+.

Care-experienced students were 69% more likely to apply aged 21 or over, which Ucas said indicates their progression to higher education is often longer.

Decisions on which university or college to go to were strongly influenced by their individual support needs, with 76% favouring institutions that offer mental health and wellbeing support, while almost two-thirds looked for those with good financial support and guaranteed accommodation.

Ucas has now made a number of recommendations aimed at improving things for students with a care background, such as support for Universities UK’s proposal that higher education institutions should consider implementing minimum entry requirements for care-experienced applicants across the UK.

Other recommendations include personalised information, advice and guidance, as well as better quality data collection and sharing.

Ms Marchant said: “Our report highlights that while care-experienced students have high expectations and motivations for higher education, a large proportion have little awareness of the support mechanisms in place that can help their progression, lacking crucial information, advice and guidance to support their decision-making.

She said it is “evident there is more we can do collectively to raise awareness of available support, enhance verified data, and make pathways more visible to ensure these students’ needs and aspirations are met”.

Fiona Ellison, director of the Unite Foundation, which has been working with care experienced students for over 10 years, said her organisation is well aware of the “many barriers” such students face “both getting to and completing university”.

She said: “With three in five care-experienced students receiving no information about higher education options, we echo Ucas’s call to make pathways and support more visible to these young people.

John Lewis Christmas advert
The John Lewis Christmas advert this year raises awareness of children in care (John Lewis and Partners/PA)

“We also welcome the call to gather and share data in this area, as this will help us to further understand and ultimately improve the university experience for those leaving care.”

She said bespoke support “has the power to transform their time at university”, and hopes the report will prompt institutions to “review the support they provide and explore what more they could be doing to ensure care leavers are able to benefit equitably from everything university has to offer”.

Pledges to do more to help students from a care background were welcomed by the John Lewis Partnership, which has a long-term commitment to support young people leaving care into employment.

This year’s John Lewis Christmas advert raises awareness of children in care with the story of a middle-aged man learning to skateboard before welcoming a young teenager into the family home.

Ceira Thom, head of learning at the John Lewis Partnership, said: “At the John Lewis Partnership we’re committed to providing employment, apprenticeship opportunities and scholarships for care leavers to realise their potential. But we can’t do this alone and it’s great to see Ucas and the Unite Foundation raising awareness of this important issue.

“Employers, schools, universities and the Government all need to work together so that every young person has the support they deserve to thrive in work, education and life, so that they can build a happier future.”

John Blake, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said: “Care-experienced students have already overcome significant odds to get to university in the first place. It is vital that they receive timely and tailored information, advice and guidance in order to access – and then thrive – in higher education.

“This report and the issue of care-experienced students is a useful example of the sort of issues and evidence we will be looking at as we create our new equality of opportunity risk register for higher education.”