Universities Scotland announced on 25 July that care-experienced applicants who meet a contextualised set of entry requirements will be guaranteed an offer to complete a university degree.
No other group of students receives such a guarantee. No other UK nation offers comparable entry pathways.
A coordinated effort of this kind amongst a diverse set of institutions within the area of admissions seems almost impossible to imagine in England. Despite strong evidence for the value of a “strong contextualised admissions”approach which includes variable offers, many providers – often the most selective – remain reluctant to subscribe for fear of claims of social engineering or dumbing down.
The Department for Education recently published a set of principles for higher education institutions on improving access and participation for care leavers which encouraged the use of contextual admissions for this group “so that their often disrupted education and other challenges can be taken in to account”. The Office for Students lists care leavers as an “underrepresented group” and challenges universities to detail how they will support care leavers across the student lifecycle.
However, these efforts fall far short of the action which care-experienced young people deserve and fail to capture two important details which dictate who can benefit.
What’s in a name?
The definition of “care experience” used by Universities Scotland is noteworthy, as it includes those formerly looked after who were adopted and those who may have only been in care for a short time.
By contrast, most English universities require students to fulfil the statutory “care leaver” definition: they’ve spent at least 13 weeks in the care of the local authority since the age of 14, including at least one day after their 16th birthday. Exceptions can be found – King”s College London is a great example – but support in England is typically reserved for only those young people who’ve had lengthy and recent interaction with the care system.
However, the trauma experienced before and upon entering care is often compounded by the instability of the care system. Such experiences are not conditional on having spent a certain number of weeks in the care of the state. Whilst young people can heal from this and thrive at university, the emotional legacy of their experiences can make some aspects of university life more difficult.
Adopting an inclusive definition ensures those who might need additional support are able to access it. The fact that some contextualised admissions policies fail to consider any experience of care under three months, yet afford significance to the ecological fallacy of POLAR quintiles, is simply unacceptable.
What’s in a number?
One of the most positive aspects of the announcement is the absence of something: an age limit on eligibility.
Current policies or initiatives aimed at supporting care-experienced people often come with an age cap of 25 or 26. This is unhelpful as we know that care-experienced people are more likely to access higher education at a later age than their peers, often during a more stable time in their lives. After a disrupted time at school, it can inevitably take young people leaving care a little longer than their peers to gain the qualifications they need.
It’s also a time of acute turbulence. Eighteen or nineteen years old marks the age in England and Scotland where young people are supported to leave the care of the local authority. They are likely to face a significant reduction in support as they are hurriedly prepared and pushed to achieve a state of “independence”.
Asking anyone to navigate the complex world of higher education admissions without the support of family or other trusted adults is a tall order, let alone for those young people who might at the same time be deciphering their first rent payments or utility bills, balancing studies with work, and coping with the withdrawal of personal guidance.
Universities that care
New initiatives in England such as a pilot quality mark in development by the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) will hopefully raise standards across the sector and move away from a patchy support offer from institutions, but we still have some way to go before achieving the same coordinated efforts as our Scottish counterparts.
Equitable access and consistent success for care-experienced people in higher education is possible. It”s time for the English HE sector to take a brave step forward and make a strong commitment to real contextualised admissions for groups who face significant disadvantage.