The new deal that's turning hardship into scholarship

October 25, 2002


The Foyer Federation, the government and universities are working together to get some of the UK's homeless into higher education. Suzanne Stevenson reports

Despite progress in the bid to open universities to socially disadvantaged groups, the needs of a significant number of bright and determined youngsters tend to get overlooked. The Foyer Federation estimates that some 5,000 homeless young people are denied the opportunity to enter higher education every year because of the insurmountable obstacles of their circumstances.

Contrary to popular perception, these people are not misfits or drug addicts. But they are in most cases estranged from their parents and without financial support. Furthermore, New Deal regulations halt benefits for those studying more than 16 hours a week, which means youngsters are often pulled off study courses to undertake low-paid jobs.

But this year, 74 homeless young people from across Britain have been given the chance to attend university thanks to a programme run by the Foyer Federation and the Department for Education and Skills. Foyers provide accommodation for young people aged 16 to 25, but rather than just putting a roof over their heads, they try to reintegrate them into the community through training and education.

Financial constraints have been one of the biggest impediments keeping those homeless youngsters who want to go to university from doing so, because they have no parental home or any means of paying for accommodation over holidays. Under the University Support Project, foyer residents attending university are awarded a bursary of £1,000 - from the government's access and hardship funds - for each year of their course to help cover these costs.

Carolyn Hayman, chief executive of the Foyer Federation, says the bursaries are essential to helping homeless youngsters fulfil their academic potential. "The young people in foyers are not stupid or delinquents - it is not as if we have pulled them off the streets and thrust them into higher education. But unlike most university students, they do not have a home to go to or a financial safety net. They won't live the life of Riley - they will take out loans and probably get part-time jobs - but they have been given a good start. In many ways, they are better prepared than most students as they are used to independent living."

Foyer, which originated in France, opened in Britain in 1992. There are now 114 foyers across the UK. They encourage independence as residents pay rent for their rooms and have use of communal facilities, thereby providing good preparation for the transition to university.

But university will still prove a considerable challenge. Most of the 74 have left their foyer, meaning that they are coping with the demands of university life in an unfamiliar location but without familial support.

For this reason, an appointed mentor will maintain regular contact with all the foyer students by email and telephone to help deal with any problems and to provide a vital link with student support services at their universities.

Claude Coopersmith, manager of the advice and information section of Student Support Services at London Metropolitan University, will monitor its four foyer students. "We are more familiar with the problems they may encounter as we have a wide range of students, many from similar backgrounds, which will help the foyer students fit in better. Their inclusion at universities with wealthier undergraduates may help break down barriers and provide an education in itself for those students as they meet people with different life histories."

The University Support Project will run until 2007, with student intakes over the next two years and the remaining time allocated for evaluation. While some may see giving homeless young people the opportunity to attend university as further proof of lowering academic standards in the wake of widening participation, Hayman points out that it is circumstance and lack of financial support that has hitherto proved a barrier to higher education, not academic ability. Many foyer students have been accepted at leading universities such as Durham and Warwick.

Geoff Layer, dean of the School of Lifelong Learning and Development at Bradford University, which provides teaching on site at Bradford's foyer in partnership with local colleges, says universities must become more proactive in dealing with students from different backgrounds.

"Universities must provide the services needed to reflect their student intake by seeking to directly engage students and invest in the transition process. At Bradford, we carry out an initial audit of students to assess their academic needs and identify any weaknesses. This is done for all students, which means that no group is stigmatised and which allows us to develop necessary educational-support packages."

As this is the first scheme of its kind, there is no baseline against which to compare the dropout rate, although a target of 85 per cent successful graduation has been set.

Jocey Quinn, deputy director of the Institute for Access Studies at Staffordshire University, says this is quite ambitious. "Research shows that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to drop out. Having said that, these students are also often good at developing coping strategies that help them overcome difficulties better than others."

Any negative perceptions about those taking part in the project are likely to be the result of ignorance, Hayman says. "Most students and, indeed, universities don't even know what a foyer is."

But she adds: "Universities have been open to the programme. They are being offered everything on a plate. They have the kudos of offering places to disadvantaged students, while we provide the support. There has generally been more curiosity than hostility from students - we find that most of the prejudice tends to come from older generations."


Layo Aromire

Made homeless at the age of 16, Layo Aromire has battled bulimia and family pressures to achieve a place at university.

The 18-year-old from Islington left home because of deep-rooted family problems and in-fighting. For two years, she moved from house to house, sleeping on people's floors.

Too young to qualify for a council house and too old to be looked after by social services, she was eventually referred to a foyer in Hayes, West London, where she has been living for the past nine months.

Her teen years were emotionally turbulent. In addition to her eating disorder, she also suffered from sleep paralysis - where the body becomes rigid during sleep, often induced by stress - and underwent therapy.

"There were a lot of issues in my family and secrets coming out. I felt very isolated," she says.

Despite her problems and unlike many young, homeless people, Aromire was determined to continue her education and went on to pass four A levels.

While at the foyer, she was encouraged to try for university. She has just started at the University of the West of England, studying law full time.

Now living in a house in Bristol with ten other students, she says her experiences in the foyer have provided excellent preparation for college life.

"It was like a mini university as most of the people were my age and we learnt to live independently," she says.

"In Bristol, it is more or less the same scenario. Half of us are doing law, and we all have our own problems so we empathise with each other - it's a bit like the Big Brother house!'

Aromire says she has not encountered any hostility because of her background.

"People associate foyers with hostels, and then I have to explain what they actually are. I'm quite open about it. There are a lot of students at my university with family problems, so I don't feel any difference in that sense, and having a bursary gives me peace of mind."

Aromire, who is now reconciled with her family, is the first in her family to go to university. She hopes to pursue a career in criminal law.

"The work is challenging, but I am very focused and I know I will stick it out. I feel I have more emotional balance in my life now.

"To know that I am studying at one of the premier-league law faculties in the country is a massive boost for me. I can't believe I made it here. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

Dorothy Owusu-Bempah

Dorothy Owusu-Bempah has faced "a long, winding road" to achieve her dream of going to university.

The 23-year-old from Stratford, East London, has just begun her BSc in housing studies at the University of Greenwich after years of struggle.

She left home at 18 because of financial and personal problems. She then moved from place to place for two years, staying with friends in cramped flats, which often led to arguments and emotional pressures. She felt she could not go home, so she did what she could to earn some money, including waitressing and administration work.

"I was going through a difficult time emotionally. I was staying with friends but couldn't pay the rent, and I desperately wanted to be independent," she says.

Her housing problems were resolved when she was referred to a foyer in Stratford, where she has lived for two and half years.

By a stroke of luck, she did some temping work for East Thames Housing Group. People there spotted her potential and began training her. She is still there as a programme administrator, and they are supporting her part-time degree study.

Despite her problems, Owusu-Bempah managed to achieve GNVQs in child psychology and health and social care and was encouraged by the foyer and her employer to continue her education.

She is still living in the foyer but is looking to move into a private flat and become completely independent.

"The foyer has given me a chance to be somebody," she says. "Some people there do nothing and don't grab the opportunities they are offered, which is sad. I have wanted to go to university since I was 16, and this is my big chance. I know I will have to make sacrifices and work nights and weekends, but I am prepared to do that."

Owusu-Bempah, who is originally from Ghana, says she enjoys her studies and feels they complement aspects of her job. "I was a bit intimidated at first by university life, but both the students and tutors have been so friendly. Some people are a bit suspicious about foyers, but I explain to them what they actually are and have even helped a friend on the course who was in difficulties to move into one.

"The first year is crucial. It is a challenge but I know I can do it. One day I hope to go back to Ghana and put my skills to use there."


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