the logo

Universities must do more to support care experienced students

Natasha McAllister found the university application process unclear for care experienced students and calls for better clarity on funding and forms 

    Natasha McAllister

    November 28 2019


    Every year, students from all over the UK apply for college and university. For many, going to university is considered a rite of passage but it does not come without struggles for all students. There are worries about finances, balancing workloads and achieving the marks needed to progress into the future they would like to pursue.

    Care experienced people (anyone who has spent 13 weeks or more in the care of the local authority) face additional challenges in getting to and making it through university. There are difficulties we face our entire life around the impact of being in care. These can come from being separated from our brothers and sisters, being moved school to school, struggling with finance and feeling like you have to leave care when you are too young to manage on your own.  

    I have put in a lot of hard work, and overcome adversity, to become an education and social services student in Glasgow and I’m now completing a master’s.

    Doing well at university isn’t just about getting good grades, it’s also about applying for funding, and knowing how to navigate a complicated system that doesn’t always appreciate what it’s like to be in care. We worry about how professionals in the education sector will react when our situation is beyond the norm; how classmates will react if they find out we grew up in care and how we can fill out complicated forms that ask about our parents and family situation.

    When I was accepted to study a Higher National Certificate in early education and childcare I knew that the next stage was finding the funding to allow me to do the course. I felt scared and unsure. The application asked about my parent’s income, which threw me because I was living with foster carers. This was solved with a letter from social services, which my foster carers helped me get.

    I worry though about other care experienced people who may not be in contact with a social worker or have the confidence to speak up about the fact that they’re in care. For some, the whole process could have ended there.

    How to receive funding as a disadvantaged student

    Later, when I applied for funding for my BA/diploma in education and social services, there was a tick box option to state that I was a care leaver but I didn’t tick it because I was still in care. I thought that this support didn’t apply to me when actually it did. It wasn’t until I reapplied for funding in my degree year that they realised a mistake had been made the previous year with my funding. I didn’t tick their box and nobody had a relationship with me that allowed them to understand that the specific term didn’t apply to me. I was one of the lucky ones who still lived with their foster carer beyond the average age of leaving care, which is 17.

    In the email the funder sent me to tell me about the mistake that had been made, there was a definition of what they classed as a care leaver;

    “You must be a ‘care leaver’ (defined as ceasing to be ‘looked after’ by a local authority on, or at any time after, your 16th birthday”. 

    Because I was over 16, to them I was a care leaver, but to me, as I was still living with carers, I thought that I was still in care. A technical misunderstanding, which was left for me to navigate and cost me £1,000. That money can go a long way when you don’t have support from parents and family.

    Not knowing when to share that you are care experienced is common problem. I worry that young people might not tick these boxes at all, simply because of the stigma attached to being care experienced.

    I was in my previous foster care home for 10 years, and my foster carers didn’t like to share the fact that we weren’t their biological children. They kept this from schools and some clubs we attended. Perhaps to them it seemed kind but it robbed me of my identity. Being fostered seemed like such a bad thing, something to be ashamed of and because my foster carers didn’t tell anyone, I thought it best if I didn’t either.

    When I was moved into a new foster home, I was able to be myself. I met other children in the same situation and embraced the realisation that being in care wasn’t a bad thing. From being in a more relaxed and open environment I was able to be more comfortable with myself and this allowed me to share my experiences at college and university, as part of discussions in class, and to my new friends.

    If we don’t understand or accept our identity we may miss important help or support. I believe simple amendments, such as changing the tick box many university applications now carry to “care experienced”, with information explaining what help people may receive if they do tick it, and inform them of who else finds out this information would make the process much more positive. Educators and professionals working in education have a responsibility to ensure that Care Experienced people don’t miss out. 

    I decided to do education and social services at university so I would be able to do my master’s in social work. I wanted to be a social worker so I could provide young people with the support and care that I didn’t get from my social worker. I also knew I had to try to make sure other young people don’t have a bad experience with their time in care.

    My hope is that other care experienced people will find the same confidence, and with the support of their chosen universities or colleges, will have all the support they’re entitled to. We must support care experienced people in every way possible, to get the education they want and the future they deserve.

    Natasha McAllister is a member of Who Cares? Scotland, the featured charity at the 2019 Times Higher Education Awards.



    sticky sign up

    Register free and enjoy extra benefits