ACCORDING to a report from UCAS, students who have spent time in care have high hopes about going to university or college, yet 60% receive no specific support relevant to their circumstances when deciding on their options.
This latest “Next Steps” report, published in partnership with Unite Foundation, explores the experiences and aspirations of care-experienced students in their progression to higher education (HE) based on UCAS data and survey responses. UCAS uses the broader term ‘care experience’ to encompass the range of care settings an applicant may have encountered.
POSITIVE EXPECTATIONS UNMATCHED BY GUIDANCE
The report found that care-experienced applicants have positive expectations of going to university or college, expressing excitement about meeting new people (68%), becoming more independent (66%) and making a fresh start (64%). Yet three in five (60%) received no specific guidance at school or college about applying to HE from a care background – even though mechanisms such as financial bursaries, year-round accommodation, and mental health and disability support could make a difference to their decision.
Every University in Wales offers special bursaries (non-repayable lump sum payments) for care leavers.
This highlights the challenges care-experienced students may face in finding the right information when applying to HE or apprenticeships. This could be due to several reasons, such as their support network not having access to the latest or specialist knowledge and resources about UCAS applications or the specific support available in HE for care-experienced students. It also underlines the importance of teachers, personal advisers, and others in connecting prospective students with the right information.
This is significant given that the number of UK applicants sharing a care background has almost doubled since the question was first introduced, from 4,495 in 2008 to 8,930 in 2022 – now accounting for 1.6% of all UK applicants.
Other main findings from the report include the following:
- Experience of being in care intersects with other personal characteristics, which can create additional or hidden barriers – compared to applicants without a care background, they are almost twice as likely to share a disability, nearly three times more likely to share a mental health condition, and almost 79% more likely to identify as LGBT+.
- They are significantly more likely to be mature applicants, showing that their progression to higher education is often longer – 69% more likely to apply aged 21 or over.
- Their support experience in school or college was mixed – they felt most supported pastorally (41%), but least supported with social and extra-curricular activities (32%).
- Their decisions about which university or college to go to are strongly influenced by their individual support needs – favouring institutions that offer mental health and wellbeing support (76%), financial aid (64%), and guaranteed accommodation (63%).
- The report highlights that 45% of care-experienced students felt unsupported when exploring apprenticeship options. Previous UCAS research has identified that one in three students do not receive information about apprenticeships.
- Accommodation is a key factor for care-experienced applicants when deciding where to study – with value for money (77%) and overall cost (76%) the most important considerations when choosing where to live.
- As a result of these findings, UCAS has made several recommendations to improve the journey to higher education for students from a care background. These include personalised information, advice and guidance, better quality data collection and sharing, and support for Universities UK’s recommendations that universities and colleges consider implementing minimum entry requirements for care-experienced applicants across the UK.
UCAS MAKES ACCESS COMMITMENT
UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant said: “With growing numbers of applicants sharing their experience of being in care, and welcome efforts from the HE sectors and partners to increase access and participation for this group, there are plenty of positives to take from our findings.
“Navigating your options when applying for a traditional undergraduate degree or an apprenticeship can be daunting for any student but particularly for those who may not have a family to turn to for advice. Our report highlights that while care-experienced students have high expectations and motivations for higher education, many have little awareness of the support mechanisms that can help their progression, lacking crucial information, advice, and guidance to support their decision-making.
“UCAS is committed to ensuring all students, regardless of their background, can access the full range of post-secondary opportunities, including apprenticeships. We have made important strides through our Fair Access Programme. For example, we have introduced seven new widening participation questions to the application for 2023 entry onwards to allow students to flag their individual circumstances. However, 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.”
THREE IN FIVE GET NO INFORMATION
Fiona Ellison, Director of Unite Foundation, said: “At the Unite Foundation, we have been working with care experienced students for over ten years. We know from the students we work with that there are many barriers students with care experience face when getting to and completing university.
“With three in five care-experienced students receiving no information about higher education options, we echo UCAS’ call to make pathways and support more visible to these young people. We also welcome the call to gather and share data in this area, as this will help us to understand further and ultimately improve the university experience for those leaving care.
“Bespoke support for care-experienced students can transform their time at university. We hope this report will encourage colleagues across the sector to review the support they provide and explore what more they could do to ensure care leavers can benefit equitably from everything the university offers.”
TALENT NEEDS SUPPORT
The report has been welcomed by the John Lewis Partnership, parent company to John Lewis and Waitrose, which has a long-term commitment to support young people leaving care into employment – highlighted in its much-heralded Christmas advert and charity fundraising campaign.
Ceira Thom, Head of Learning, John Lewis Partnership, said: “Care-experienced young people have huge talent and potential but too often don’t have the right support or financial safety net at this crucial time in their lives.
“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 they can build a happier future.”