Provide alcohol-free accommodation for care leavers, says report

Sheffield research finds students who have been in care need better emotional and financial support at university

October 1, 2019
Alcohol free zone
Source: iStock

Students who have been in care should be offered the option of alcohol-free accommodation, a report says.

The report, based on the experiences of 234 care-experienced students in English and Welsh universities, says that care leavers regularly go on to achieve well at university, but do not all receive the right financial or emotional support while there.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield found that 51 per cent of care leavers had considered dropping out of university. Health issues, money worries, personal and family issues and struggling to manage their workload were the most commonly cited reasons.

It also found that 68 per cent had experienced mental health difficulties but only 44 per cent had received counselling at university. Although 70 per cent of care leavers said that they found it easy to make friends, 27 per cent said that they found the culture of drinking and drug use at university very uncomfortable.

A number of care leavers reported that they had felt “isolated and unhappy” in their student accommodation, due to their early exposure to drug and alcohol misuse.

“I’d come back to look at the kitchen and there’d be road signs, traffic cones, rubbish on the street, sick everywhere, pizza boxes – I was just like this is not what I want; I’m surrounded by everything that made my life crap,” one student told researchers.

The report recommends that universities offer “alcohol-free” accommodation to first-year students, adding that this was also in line with a recent decline in drinking habits among young people.

The researchers also found that the financial support offered to young people entering higher education varied “both within and between” local authorities but a higher level of financial support allowed students to concentrate on their studies.

Earlier this year the government urged elite universities to offer free accommodation to care leavers and to provide bursaries that cover costs such as laptops and books.

The report also found that access to accommodation year-round was incredibly important to interviewees, because many did not have a home to go back to outside term time and had to move all their belongings into their student accommodation. Although three-quarters of those surveyed said that accommodation was always available to them, the report recommends that all universities ensure this is always the case.

A lot of students found that support, such as from social workers, dropped significantly when they turned 18 and a number of interviewees said that they found university staff were “ill-equipped to provide support when it was most needed”.

Therefore the report authors recommends students with experience of the care system are put in touch with a trained “care leaver champion” to help them navigate university.

Katie Ellis, a lecturer in child and family well-being at the University of Sheffield and co-author of the report, said that despite negative statistics about those who have experience of being in care, “care leavers often go on to achieve really positive things”.

“Many overcome significant barriers to access university and it is important that universities do everything they can to ensure that care leavers feel welcomed and appreciated for the valuable contributions that they make,” she said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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