Care leavers achieve ‘similar graduate outcomes’ to peers

Researcher says study demonstrates need to encourage more care leavers to enter higher education

January 13, 2021
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UK university students who have been in care achieve similar graduate outcomes to their peers when educational and demographic factors are taken into account, according to a study.

The research found that 60.9 per cent of care-experienced graduates – those who were in care at some point in their childhood – were in work six months after graduation, compared with 66.6 per cent of graduates who had not been in care. Care-experienced graduates were more likely to be in further study (27.9 per cent versus 24.6 per cent) or unemployed (5.5 per cent versus 4.4 per cent).

However, these differences largely disappeared when graduates’ educational and demographic factors were controlled.

Students who have been in care are more likely to be older, female, disabled, from a minority ethnic group and not a UK national, and more likely to attend lower-status higher education institutions. When these factors were taken into account, the study found that on average care-experienced graduates did as well as or slightly better than other students with a similar profile.

As a result, the authors concluded that “care-experienced students who successfully complete HE are not disadvantaged beyond their over-representation in other known disadvantaged groups” when it comes to graduate outcomes, although they noted that this does not mean that there are not unique forms of disadvantage associated with having been in care.

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The study, published in Higher Education, drew on data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s 2016-17 Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) dataset, covering 171,680 graduates, of whom 1,010 were identified as care-experienced.

Previous research has found that care leavers in English higher education are significantly more likely to drop out of university courses than otherwise similar students. But Neil Harrison, who conducted that research and is lead author of the new study, said the latest analysis shows that “if care-experienced students complete their degree programme, they are just as likely to secure a graduate job or move on to postgraduate study as other graduates with similar qualifications”.

“This is a really positive finding and demonstrates the transformative potential of higher education for care leavers and other people who were in care as children,” said Dr Harrison, senior researcher and deputy director of the University of Oxford’s Rees Centre, which aims to improve the education, well-being and life outcomes of those who are, or have been supported by, children’s social care services.

Dr Harrison added that he was “particularly heartened” to see so many care-experienced graduates moving into postgraduate study immediately after their degree and said this could be because “higher education is a supportive environment for care-experienced students, where they are able to thrive”.

However, he continued, “it is important to remember that care-experienced people remain massively under-represented in higher education, with just 13 per cent of care leavers going to university by the age of 19”.

“Our findings now reinforce the vital importance of effectively supporting care-experienced students into and through higher education, knowing that this will considerably improve their life chances,” he said.

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