Going to university can be a big leap for anyone to make. But what happens if you don’t have the emotional and financial support of family behind you to help you on your way?
Although this government has transformed access to university for the most disadvantaged groups in our society, it is the most damning statistic in higher education that only 6 per cent of care leavers will participate in higher education and are nearly twice as likely to drop out once there.
Just putting this down to a lifetime of upheaval taking its toll on academic performance or failing to raise aspirations shirks our responsibility both as the “corporate parents” of these children and as a government that wants to ensure everyone can achieve their full potential and succeed.
The fact of the matter remains that unnecessary practical barriers still exist that put care leavers off from going to university. For example, it can be near to impossible for young people leaving a residential children’s home or foster care to find the money to pay a rental deposit upfront on student accommodation.
The term-time nature of student rental agreements can also present a major obstacle for care leavers, who do not have family homes to return to during the university holidays and may be daunted by the prospect of making alternative arrangements for the interim periods.
I know there are plenty of higher education providers that are taking steps to bring down the barriers facing care leavers during application and enrolment.
The University of Leeds, which I visited last week, is just one of the providers offering year-round student accommodation to care leavers and waiving upfront deposit requirements. The University of Nottingham, which I visited last month, also provides students leaving care with a welcome goodie bag of necessities and personalised support, including help with the first supermarket shop.
Supporting care leavers to get in to higher education is, however, just one part of the equation. The other is supporting them to get on, meaning that we need to be mindful of the fact that these students do not have a family to turn to in times of financial or psychological need.
Kingston University is leading the way through its KU Cares team in supporting students who have been in care throughout their time at university and beyond. The university offers care leavers a bursary per progressive year of study, a designated member of support staff to advocate on their behalf and signpost opportunities, plus a generous graduation package at the end of their degree to help them celebrate their achievements.
I am pleased to have spoken to students being supported by the KU Cares team earlier this week to see first-hand how this service is transforming their lives and opening up opportunities.
Initiatives like this are just a small part of a university’s day-to-day life, but they can make a big difference to the prospects of some of the most vulnerable young people in our society.
This is why, today, I am proud to launch the Higher Education Principles alongside children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi, which seek to help care leavers aged 16 to 25 live more independently and realise their potential.
The new Higher Education Principles set out an expectation on the level of support that universities should offer to students leaving care – including providing them with personal support through a dedicated higher education professional, giving them money for course materials and assisting them in all aspects of student life.
The principles ask the most selective and well-resourced universities to go the furthest and set a high bar for the sector overall, by providing subsidised and year-round accommodation for care leavers, as well as bursaries to cover student essentials such as books, laptops and subscription fees. This is in addition to the access and participation guidance issued last week by the Office for Students, which specifically highlights the need to provide support for care leavers.
As universities minister, I want to see higher education providers across the country getting behind the principles and the Care Leaver Covenant they support. I also want providers to think about what more they could do to increase the number of care leaver students in higher education and ensure that they are providing them with the support they need. I encourage all providers to follow the set of principles we have released today to help develop their offer for students leaving care.
The UK is lucky to have one of the most diverse and inclusive higher education systems in the world. I want to see this system further welcoming care leavers, not closing the door on their ambitions.
Chris Skidmore is the UK’s universities and science minister.