Going home for the summer?

Shân Wareing explores the impact of housing fragility on students as new research from Jisc, commissioned by Unite Foundation, is launched

Shân Wareing is Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Northampton.

With the UK academic year drawing to a close, many students will “head home for the summer holidays”. But not all.

Throughout the pandemic, and out of term time, universities stay open to provide homes for students who don’t return to a family home. This group includes international students who can’t travel home, but also care-experienced students, and students who are estranged from their families.

These students have already beaten the odds in getting to university. Just 13 per cent of young adults who have been looked after for more than a year are in higher education by age 19, compared to 43 per cent of non-care experienced 19 year olds.

Yet in the absence of family support, a university education becomes even more important as a gateway to better life chances. As the university sector continues to rise to the challenge of ensuring more students from under-represented backgrounds can access and succeed in higher education, we need to look at how we support care experienced and estranged students into, and through, university.

At the Unite Foundation, we’re doing just that. This year marks 10 years of the foundation, an independent charity of which I’m incredibly proud to be the chair the Board of Trustees. We are the only organisation in the UK to provide accommodation scholarships for 365 days a year for up to three years for care-experienced and estranged students.

What works?

For 10 years students have told us about the impact of the scholarship on their lives and their academic success. But working with small cohorts of under-represented students in higher education makes robust research challenging. Until now, our data sets have been too small to establish the impact of the accommodation scholarships.

But now with 10 years of data to draw on, we commissioned Jisc to undertake a comparative analysis of Unite Foundation data over the last decade to help us understand the impact of our work.

We wanted to compare student outcomes for those who received a scholarship and those who did not. The research used three comparator groups: non-care leavers, care leavers within the network of universities which partner with the foundation, and care leavers at universities outside the foundation network.

The research drew on HESA records and, in the absence of a “flag” for estranged students, it focused on care leavers. (Our previous smaller scale studies suggest outcomes are comparable between care leavers and estranged students in receipt of accommodation scholarships).

Making a difference

The Jisc report provided statistical evidence to support what we suspected:

  • Unite Foundation students stay on their course. Students on the scholarship progressed from their 1st to 2nd year of programme within two academic years at the same percentage as non-care leaver students and at a statistically significantly higher percentage to the other care leavers groups examined.
  • Rates of completion were at a statistically significantly higher percentage than all other care leaver student groups and closer to the non-care leavers comparator group, narrowing the gap in outcomes. This measure was particularly demanding to analyse, not allowing for retaking of years, in order to be able to have enough students to remain statistically robust and meant we could not yet assess our Scottish students on standard 4-year courses.
  • Unite Foundation scholarship students achieved a ‘good honours’ degree within 3 percentage points of non-care leaver students and at a statistically significantly higher percentage than all other care leaver comparison groups.

We can’t claim causality definitively based on these findings, just “strong probability” – the perils of small cohort data as TASO – Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education have noted. We’ll continue to work on showing causality however – do get in touch if you’d like to collaborate with us on that.

Safety and security

It’s not really a surprise that Unite Foundation students are able to progress successfully through university. The scholarship ensures a basic need for safety and security is met. With a secure and safe home throughout their time at university, students can focus on their studies without the significant worry of housing fragility.

They tell us that because they don’t need to work to pay their accommodation costs, they can get fully involved in university life and engage with the whole range of student experiences, helping them to make friends, learn skills, feel they belong, keep fit, all of the things that help propel students through their degree.

The results show that our interventions positively impact outcomes for care leaver students, making the Jisc report a rarity – a conclusive statistical analysis of the effects of a specific widening participation intervention.

Highlighted in the recently published Independent Review of Children’s Social Care – doubling the proportion of care leavers attending university by 2026 is key to levelling the opportunities for care experienced people (CEPs). Education is transformational for young people who have been in care.

On our tenth birthday, we’re asking colleagues across the sector to consider what barriers to their access and success can be removed for care leaver and estranged students and how accommodation can be a central part of that plan.

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