For most students, starting university, college or an apprenticeship is a chance to explore new interests, opportunities, and experiences. For students from a care background, it can be even more momentous, marking a new beginning – yet a new UCAS report published today shows they must overcome considerable challenges to reach this next chapter.
More than 80,000 students have reported a care background since the question was first added to the UCAS application in 2008. In that time, progress has been made across the higher education sector, with welcome initiatives introduced to help improve progression such as offer-making policies, financial bursaries and year-round accommodation.
In Scotland, higher education institutions guarantee offers to care experienced applicants who meet minimum entry requirements. But as our latest Next Steps report – published in partnership with Unite Foundation – shows, there is still a long way to go to ensure higher education is seen as both a viable and accessible choice for care experienced students.
The report is based on analysis of almost 9,000 care experienced higher education applicants this year, as well as a survey of 500 applicants who shared a care background ahead of starting their studies this autumn.
It is positive to see the number of care experienced young people going to university or college is growing, with the proportion of students sharing this information having doubled since 2008 – in 2022 accounting for 1.6 per cent of all UK applicants. Despite this, just 13 per cent of care leavers enter university by their 19th birthday compared to 45 per cent of the wider population.
If we are to achieve the mission set out in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care to double this proportion by 2026, significant and sustained collaboration across the education sector, local authorities, and government bodies will be needed to ensure more care experienced individuals pursue higher education.
While young people in care may face increased levels of insecurity and instability, particularly around housing and finances, care experienced applicants are optimistic about their future, seeing life at university or college as a chance to make a fresh start. When asked about their motivations for going to university or college, compared to their non-care experienced peers, respondents said they place more value on career prospects (74 per cent versus 72 per cent), future financial earnings (49 per cent versus 45 per cent) and independence (48 per cent versus 44 per cent). This shows the importance of social mobility and career progression for this group, with higher education seen as a pathway that can lead to a stable long term future.
Support and guidance
Yet care experienced students can only fulfil their aspirations and ambitions if they know higher education is an option for them in the first place, and know their circumstances are not only relevant to their progression but that support is in place to enable them to succeed.
Today’s report shows there is a distinct lack of awareness among care experienced applicants about support mechanisms in place – including advice and guidance at the pre-entry stage, financial bursaries, year-round accommodation and mentoring – which can support their transition to university, college or an apprenticeship. We found 60 per cent of care experienced applicants received no specific guidance at school or college about applying to higher education from a care background.
When asked whether they knew support was available for care experienced students before they started their own research, 59 per cent said no. And 45 per cent of care experienced students said they felt unsupported when exploring apprenticeship options. There are varied and often complex reasons for this. For instance, our findings suggest the people they trust to advise them on their next steps may not have the latest specific knowledge to guide them when considering their options to study a traditional undergraduate degree or an apprenticeship.
Care experienced students are also significantly more likely to be mature applicants, meaning they are less likely to apply straight from school and instead apply aged 21 or over (35 per cent vs 21 per cent). This puts them at the point beyond which they would receive relevant information for their circumstance from teachers or personal advisers in school, again feeding into the lack of awareness of available support. We need to be extremely mindful of the different, often non-linear, routes care experienced individuals can take and provide personalised information which is tailored to the specific support mechanisms available to them.
At the intersection
This is particularly noteworthy because our analysis reveals care experienced students have much more complex needs than their peers. Already widely recognised as one of the most disadvantaged groups, our report shows care experienced students are much more likely to have a mental health condition (13 per cent versus 5 per cent), have a disability (31 per cent versus 16 per cent), and identify as LGBT+ (22 per cent vs 12 per cent).
We already know that students are under supported with information about applying with a mental health condition or disability, as our previous Next Steps reports have shown, which present additional barriers.
Awareness and understanding of available support could really make a difference to both their decision-making and experiences. In fact, our report shows that care experienced applicants strongly favoured universities and colleges that could meet their individual needs. When asked what factors most influenced their decision making, more than three quarters of respondents said mental health and wellbeing support was their most important consideration.
What needs to be done?
This is all taking place within the context of unprecedented demand for higher education due to an increase in the 18 year old population, with predictions of up to one million applicants by 2026 along with increased demand for apprenticeship opportunities.
We need to ensure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those with experience of being in care, are not squeezed out of the system. Through UCAS’ Fair Access programme, we are driving forward change to support further widening of participation and access through initiatives such as deeply personalised student journeys, greater visibility of grades on entry, new widening participation questions in the UCAS application and a new Outreach Connection Service.
But support for care experienced students requires collective action from across the education sector, from partnership organisations, and from governments. We strongly believe more accurate data collection and sharing, and the consideration of introducing minimum entry requirements for care experienced applicants as set out in Universities UK’s Fair Admissions Review earlier this year, will significantly improve transparency, aspiration and support offer-making strategies.
It is also fundamental that UCAS and the sector engage with a broader network to make sure that the network of trusted individuals – from foster carers, teachers and personal advisers to local authority leaving care teams – have consistent and authoritative information, advice, guidance and resources to support students’ initial early conversations so that they know the door to university, college or an apprenticeship is wide open rather than closed.
UCAS uses the broader term “care experienced” to be fully inclusive of the range of care settings an applicant may have encountered, such as living with foster carers, living in a residential children’s home, being looked after at home under a supervision order, or living with friends or relatives in kinship care.
UCAS’ Next Steps: What is the experience of students from a care background in education? is published in collaboration with Unite Foundation.