A foreign country with hostile border controls

November 26, 1999

Homeless people face formidable financial and administrative barriers to gain access to higher education, says Carolyn Hayman

Think of homeless young people and the image that comes to mind is of sleeping in doorways, or in cardboard boxes - not a situation conducive to university study. Yet the hundreds of young people sleeping rough every night are a tiny fraction of a much wider homeless population, of young people sleeping on a different floor every few nights, or living in hostels or foyers. In most cases they are homeless because of family conflict or disintegration, and may therefore have missed out on much parenting in their critical adolescent years.

Despite these disadvantages and a set of formidable financial and other barriers, some homeless young people are studying in higher education. Recent research from the Foyer Federation, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, explores the issues they face and has led to the setting-up of a working party to address them.

The UK Foyer movement began in 1992 as a response to the fact that "just to house is not enough". Many homeless young people require help to reconnect to learning and employment. Foyers offer safe accommodation coupled with guidance and support, and access to employment and training. After only seven years, there are almost 100 foyers in the UK, ranging from small rural foyers to large city-centre foyers. They offer a range of learning opportunities to the wider community, as well as to residents.

The young people who come to foyers have a range of backgrounds. Half have no academic qualifications at all, and need to be encouraged to acquire basic and life skills before considering other options. But just under 10 per cent have five or more A-C passes, and may therefore be potential candidates for university education if given the right support. Across the UK Foyer movement this would equate to about 500 young people each year. Foyer residents are fairly similar to the wider population of homeless young people, so that there may be a further 10,000-15,000 young people not able to live at home who have the potential for university study.

Imagine contemplating going to university with nowhere to spend holidays, no parental subsidy and no financial safety net. Yet for many young people in foyers the problems start much further back, with a family background in which employment may have been non-existent for more than one generation and qualifications despised. Residents' desire to go on studying after 16 may have been the reason for family tension and exclusion. One foyer manager commented:

"Going into higher education is like entering a foreign country."

If higher education is like a foreign country, then the Universities Central Admissions Service application procedure constitutes a formidable border control. As one member of staff described it: "They look at the UCAS form and think 'If I can't even understand this then I can't be up to college'."

Information on the financial implications of participating in higher education is as confusing. Our researcher, herself a very capable university student, was given wildly differing responses from a number of official sources to a simple question about parental contributions to fees. It may be difficult to prove sufficient estrangement from parents, even though parents are unwilling to disclose income, let alone make a financial contribution.

There is no question that the financial barriers to study are the greatest. While students living with one or both parents can work before university, or during vacations, young people in foyers and hostels have to pay rent 52 weeks of the year. If they seek to stay in the foyer while they study, they will be unable to claim housing benefit; if they leave the foyer to live in student accommodation, they will have nowhere to go during holidays.

Not surprisingly, some universities were found to be more open to admitting homeless young people than others. One university said that they were concerned about access students as "they had done no real academic work".

In the face of these obstacles it seems astonishing that young people in foyers are progressing into higher education and surviving. But there is much to do to lower the barriers. The working party that we have set up, with participation from the Department for Education and Employment, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and others, has already identified a number of initiatives that could be developed to support homeless young people. But the attitudes of universities, and the ability of foyers to develop close working relationships with them, will ultimately be as important as financial reforms in enabling young people not only to enter but to succeed in that "foreign country".

Carolyn Hayman is chief executive of the Foyer Federation. 'Homeless people look at the UCAS form and think "If I can't even understand this then I can't be up to college"'

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