Supporting care-experienced students to thrive at university

Students in a classroom. The picture is used to illustrate the idea of lifelong education to global citizenship.

Professor Jacqui Boddignton explains how universities can support care-experienced students to help them achieve their potential.

For students who have experience of the care system, applying to,  attending, and succeeding at university brings a distinct set of challenges.

Universities in Wales have long focused on expanding opportunities and access to higher education for individuals  of all backgrounds. 

So, how can we ensure care-experienced students are supported to achieve their potential?

This was a question addressed by Universities Wales when we were invited to speak to the Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education Committee as part of its inquiry into the planned overhaul of the care system.

At university, care-experienced students can access a variety of support packages. 

The status quo for care-experienced students

Care-experienced young people are more likely to be not in education, employment or training (NEET) than those that haven’t been in care. In 2019-20, 46.5% of care leavers in Wales were NEET, compared to just 17% of all 19-24 year olds across Wales.

Those that do enter higher education are more likely to face additional barriers to success. A recent UCAS report notes that care-experienced students are more likely to drop out of university, less likely to achieve a first or upper second degree, and take longer to complete their studies.

How do we address these challenges? 

At university, care-experienced students can access a variety of support packages. 

When making admissions decisions, Universities take into account a student’s care-experience status. It can lead to adjustments such as lower entry requirements for particular courses. 

Applicants can indicate on their UCAS application that they have experienced care, which is in turn flagged to admissions teams reviewing the application.

At Cardiff Met, for example, we provide support before students start their university studies, offering the chance to visit campus, meet a staff contact, and make any referrals for support needs in advance of enrolment. 

Once at university, our care-experienced students can access a broad package of support, including a dedicated staff contact to offer support and signposting, a peer mentor to help them settle in and navigate university life, financial support, and the option of year-round accommodation.

Innovative. Informed. Independent.
Your support can help us make Wales better.

We’re also exploring an uplift in the financial support bursary to take account of inflation.

Welsh universities also belong to CLASS Cymru, an organisation bringing together student support services to raise awareness of the support available to care-experienced and estranged students at Welsh universities.

Another key focus of CLASS Cymru’s work is calling for improvements in the data collected by Welsh Government to help with policy development and understanding the national picture.

This is the key point we jointly underlined in our evidence session with the Committee. 

Filling the data gaps 

The data currently available is limited. Since 2016, we have not collected data on care-leavers beyond their 16th birthday, so it is difficult to get a clear picture of links between care-experienced status and educational outcomes. 

In England, data is captured on a care-experienced person’s 19th birthday, making it easier to evaluate the percentage of care-experienced people entering higher education at that point. This sort of data would be invaluable in helping us to understand the bigger picture and develop support services according to need. 

The UCAS report recommended that the UK Government should provide verified data for looked-after children alongside free school meals data. This would facilitate greater efficiencies in the admissions process and allow institutions to more accurately identify those in need. We suggested to the Committee that the Welsh Government should explore whether this could be achieved in Wales.

On applying to university, applicants can tick a box to say that they are care-experienced, and this information is passed on to the university so that they can offer appropriate support.

As the number of people entering the care system increases, we’ll need to develop our support systems accordingly. 

However, not all care-experienced people will want to identify themselves in this way, or realise that it enables their institution to provide support. It’s also not ‘verified’ data, so cannot be fully relied upon without follow-up. This reinforces the need for increased awareness of the support that is available at university. 

Changes on the horizon

An academic reference on a University UCAS application will now include a text box to highlight circumstances that may impact upon a student’s outcomes, including care experience. 

Innovative. Informed. Independent.
Your support can help us make Wales better.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency is also changing the way it collects data on care-experienced students, broadening the definition from ‘care-leaver’ to ‘care-experienced’ – a welcome recognition of the fact that experiencing the care system at any point can have an impact on a person’s education. This data is verified and will enable the sector to monitor the number and outcomes of care-experienced students.

Supporting students to thrive

I am proud of the work Cardiff Met is doing to develop its support offer for care-experienced students. And I’m proud to be part of a Welsh sector which is committed to supporting care-experienced students to thrive.

But without sufficient data, we risk lagging behind the curve. As the number of people entering the care system increases, we’ll need to develop our support systems accordingly. 

We need to raise awareness of the support that is on offer. But we also need the data to evidence the need which we know is out there, so that we can meet those needs and ensure students receive the best experience possible at Welsh universities. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer. If you want to support our work tackling Wales’ key challenges, consider becoming a member.

This article was edited by Gracie Richards thanks to the Books Council of Wales’ New Audiences Fund.

Professor Jacqui Boddignton is Pro Vice Chancellor for Student Experience at Cardiff Metropolitan University and a member of Universities Wales’ Learning and Teaching Network.

Also within Politics and Policy