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Higher education can be a transformative experience for care leavers

Neil Harrison presents research that shows that the disadvantage felt by care leavers in early life is often mitigated by study at university.
This article is more than 4 years old

Neil Harrison is Deputy Director of the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford

In recent years there has been welcome attention on the presence in higher education of students who spent time “in care” as children, usually due to neglect, abuse or other traumatic experiences.

The last six months have seen new reports published on their experiences in England and Scotland, such that we know much more about who they are, how they get into university and what happens to them when they are there. They have become a focus of access policy and ministerial attention.

However, practically nothing is known about what happens next. What pathways out of higher education and into the labour market do care-experienced students have? What jobs are they doing and how do they compare to their peers? How many are going on to postgraduate study? Do the manifest disadvantages of their early lives continue to have a negative impact?

We now have emerging findings for one strand of a research project commissioned by the Unite Foundation. The wider project looked at the experiences of care-experienced (and estranged) students and the professionals supporting them, but this strand focused specifically on what happened after graduation using national data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Getting on

For this study, we examined 171,680 full-time UK undergraduates who graduated in 2016/17 and who completed the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. This takes place six months after graduation and collects a range of information about what graduates are doing in terms of work, study and so on – about two-thirds complete it. Within the data, 1,010 graduates identified as being care-experienced, although this is probably an underestimate.

Given the practical and personal challenges faced by care-experienced people, finding graduate-level work or moving on to postgraduate study is potentially very daunting. What emerged from the statistical analysis was therefore heartening. Rather than having significantly weaker outcomes, care-experienced graduates were actually getting on very similarly to their peers.

It was particularly notable that over a quarter of care-experienced graduates had gone on to further study, mainly postgraduate or professional. At 28%, this proportion was higher than for other graduates (25%). Given the challenges with procuring postgraduate funding, this was very interesting – although we noted that care-experienced graduates were slightly more likely to be mixing study with paid work. No data exist yet on outcomes for care-experienced postgraduates.

Meanwhile, of the care-experienced graduates in work, nearly three-quarters were in professional roles. This was slightly lower than for other graduates (71%, compared to 77%), although their average salary levels were identical. The range of work being done was also similar, although care-experienced graduates were more likely to be in the public sector, social work and social care jobs and less likely to be working in finance, law or accountancy.

Groups at risk

We next explored whether there were any patterns in which care-experienced graduates were at risk of having weaker outcomes. Several groups emerged.

Most obviously, graduates with degrees at lower second class or below were doing less well – for example, unemployment rates were nearly double those for graduates with a first or upper second class degree, while those in work were much less likely to be professional jobs. Another key risk factor was being from an ethnic minority community and/or having a nationality other than British – the latter included refugees and others who qualify for home student status..

There was also evidence that some disabled graduates were at risk of weaker outcomes. In particular, the group that had not received a Disabled Students Allowance while studying were less likely to be working – but more likely to be studying. Due to the criteria for funding, this group is very mixed, but tends to disproportionately include students with mental health issues and long-term illnesses.

Conversely, older care-experienced students had notably stronger outcomes, on average, than their younger peers. The data, of course, cannot tell us whether this was due to relative advantages in the labour market or a strong imperative to find work quickly to support themselves and their families.

What does it all mean?

It seems that care-experienced graduates are taking quite similar routes immediately after their undergraduate degrees to other graduates. Perhaps the most negative finding was that 5.5% of care-experienced graduates were unemployed, compared to 4.4% overall. However, this difference nearly disappears once other factors are taken into account. Indeed, once we completed a more nuanced regression analysis, care-experienced graduates do slightly, but not significantly, better than similar graduates who are not care-experienced.

This speaks for the transformational space that higher education potentially offers for care-experienced people. Most are transcending the challenges of their childhood, securing better degrees than their entry qualifications would predict and then moving onto positive things as graduates – overall, we estimated that 70% were in professional jobs or postgraduate study. This is cause for optimism, while recognising the hard work and difficulties along the way. We also think this reflects their motivation, resourcefulness and drive to change their life story.

However, we have also seen that there are some for whom higher education hasn’t immediately delivered a positive result and we need to understand this phenomenon more carefully.

Proceed with caution

It is well-known that the DLHE data is not as valid as it might be. Many graduates are still finding their feet after six months and so what they are doing then is not necessarily a good reflection of their later trajectory. This is why the DLHE has been replaced by a new Graduate Outcomes survey that is undertaken after fifteen months – the first data from this will be published in 2020.

We are also currently missing the opportunity to analyse data on care-experienced part-time and work-based students, whose pathways into work or further study might be very different. As a result, our analysis must be the first word on the topic and not the last!

We are keenly aware of a “survivor effect” in the dataset that we’ve used. It only records outcomes for those who have graduated – and not those who have withdrawn from higher education along the way. We know that care-experienced students are around twice as likely to do so and we recognise this will contribute to the positive headline findings above. In other words, we are missing the voices of the most disadvantaged students, whose challenges prove insurmountable or who decide that higher education is not for them.

What’s next?

It’s easy to say that we need more research (and we do!), but there are things that can be happening in the in the meantime.

  • There is a clear message here that care-experienced students are generally succeeding in higher education, which gives additional moral force to efforts to improve their access. Universities can strengthen outreach provision, offer contextualised admissions and provide bursaries in the knowledge that they will be meaningful and transformative – and not negatively impact on their league tables.
  • It is also clear there is a group of care-experienced students who need additional support as they are moving through higher education to ensure positive outcomes at the end. We don’t yet know why the groups discussed above have weaker outcomes, but it could be a mixture of discrimination, unequal access to information, language issues, fears about the ability to cope or the inability to be mobile. Universities need to think about what they are offering in terms of careers inputs and other work to help the more vulnerable care-experienced students move into work.
  • As there are more care-experienced graduates moving into postgraduate courses than previously imagined, universities need to think about how these students are being supported. There is clear scope for targeted postgraduate bursaries and advice about progression, as well as ensuring continuity in housing between undergraduate and postgraduate phases. Universities should also be considering how best to support care-experienced graduates who are seeking an academic career, maybe through paid internships.

In short, it’s time for universities and government to shift their gaze and remember that getting care-experienced students into higher education is only part of the story.

The findings of this study were presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education conference on 11th December, and will be published fully in early 2020.

4 responses to “Higher education can be a transformative experience for care leavers

  1. Well done for addressing this very important but relatively neglected issue. I look forward to reading the full findings.

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