There’s far more to do on university access for care experienced people

A new report highlights a lack of progress in getting those from care backgrounds into university. Lorna Goodwin sets out the findings

Lorna Goodwin is Executive Director of First Star Scholars UK

New research published by the Civitas think tank shows that at the current rate of progress it will take more than 100 years to close the gap in university entry rates between care experienced people and those who didn’t experience care as a child.

About 14 per cent of care experienced people under 19 go to university, compared to about 47 per cent of their peers overall. Civitas’ report challenges policymakers to do more to tackle the “care ceiling”, whereby a care experienced person is much less likely to progress to university.

Breaking the care ceiling should be a policy objective for any government but it will require a more credible target than simply “closing the gap”. A better and more measurable target is needed. If we were to aim to double the number of care experienced people at our universities, as recommended by Josh MacAlister in his Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, each university would, on average, need to take on approximately 12 extra students with experience of care each year. This will mean some taking on many more care experienced people than they currently have studying at undergraduate level.

There are plenty of reasons why care experienced people don’t go to university or take longer to get there – the trauma of being taken into care is well documented. That trauma does not end as young people age out of care – but this shouldn’t stop us setting out a clear ambition for care experienced people to enter and complete their higher education.

Lack of progress

The charity I lead works with young people, all with experience of the care system, from the start of their GCSE year, helping them with personal development and well-being, self-confidence and advocacy, and their school work right up to the age of 18. While there are lots of tutoring programmes, the difference is that we work with universities, and the young people we work with all have to step foot on a university campus to take part in lessons held at weekends and during the summer holidays. This sends a clear message – that university is for them, just as it is for anyone else.

The report criticises the lack of progress between the ages of 16 to 18 in getting care experienced people into university. In response to a parliamentary question earlier this year, the government confirmed that no data is kept on the qualifications such children go on to study after their GCSEs.

This is an easy fix and one the new cross-government lead for care leavers, Johnny Mercer, could address easily. Fixing the pipeline is an important step in the right direction – it isn’t just down to universities to improve their outreach, our reach out to care experienced young people must reflect their aspirations and potential.

An uneven picture

Civitas researchers found that in the three years before the pandemic, almost 13,000 (12,800) young people who spent more than a year in care stayed on in education beyond their GCSEs, but only one in 10 went onto university during that time.

It turns out that when care experienced people get into university and graduate, the earnings gap between them and their non-care experienced peers all but disappears. Care experienced people who graduate from university earn, on average, just £660 a year less than non-care experienced people 18 months after graduation. Employment and further study outcomes are similar too. Seventy-one per cent of care experienced people who graduate from university are in employment, continuing their studies, or a combination of both, 18 months after graduation, compared to 77 per cent of non-care experienced people.

Civitas used HESA data to rank all 149 universities across the UK for the number of care experienced people enrolled on their undergraduate courses in 2021–22 (the latest year data is available). This data shows up big differences between institutions, with the University of East London coming out on top, with 295 care experienced people on its undergraduate courses in 2021–22, making up about one in 39 undergraduates at the university. The silver medal goes to the Northumbria University in Newcastle, and bronze to the University of the West of Scotland.

Overall, HESA data shows that care experienced people known to universities made up approximately 0.8 per cent (15,555) of the 1.95 million undergraduates in the UK in 2021–22. When they do make it to university, care experienced people are more than twice as likely to attend a “low tariff” university than a “high tariff” one. Across the 32 “high tariff” institutions in England, just 90 students under 19, who spent more than a year in care, started an undergraduate course in 2021–22. They could easily all fit into a medium-sized lecture hall.

In search of good news

Recent analysis from UCAS does show some good news. The number of care experienced people applying to university has doubled since 2008, with applications to “high tariff” universities growing by 86 per cent.

Breaking the care ceiling could be a positive social reform, something ministers could commit to in their final year in office. This new report from Civitas sets out a series of reforms that could move the dial.

Setting a measurable target and getting better at post-16 data is the first step. The report also recommends establishing a new funding stream to support early intervention models and develop the pipeline, alongside scholarships in the vein of Scotland’s Care-Experienced Bursary – something that has seen the number of care experienced people at universities in Scotland triple in a little more than five years. The announcement of Johnny Mercer as a new lead minister for care experienced people is welcome, but if we really want to make a difference, we need to commit to breaking the care ceiling.

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