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Who cares for our students when no longer in care?

The latest policy paper yesterday from the Department for Education demands better support for care leavers to access and participate in universities. With ‘Principles to guide higher education providers on improving care leavers access and participation in HE’ there comes a very belated recognition that such students face enormous challenges. Who pays for this and the amount involved are questions that should have been addressed more fully. TEFS now calls for a new charter for ALL students to have equal support available to them regardless of circumstances. The reality for many students is far from the personal experiences of government ministers as described in the Guardian ‘Academics Anonymous’ this week with, ‘My struggling students desperately need maintenance grants back’

The TEFS ideal of ‘One casualty is one too many’ might be a better ‘principle’ to set from the outset.

Too little too late.

The policy is belated because the adverse fate of those in care, or those designated as ‘care experienced’, has been well known for many years. There is little new here. Conversely the removal of maintenance grants in 2016 simply made the hurdle higher for them. But this latest reversal is muddled and confused in its advice and relegates all responsibility and costs to the individual universities. The minister responsible for Higher Education, Chris Skidmore, cemented the policy with an article in Times Higher Education with ‘We must make sure care leavers are supported to succeed at UK universities’ where he said that “Subsidising accommodation and providing bursaries for student essentials can go a long way in helping care leavers realise their potential”. 

Then he puts emphasis upon unspecified “most selective and well-resourced universities” to do the most. The delineation inherently accepts that other institutions will be unable to help such students to the same extent. This firmly entrenches inequality of opportunity and so much for ‘Principles’. 

The latest policy guide emanates from the development of the Care Leaver Covenant launched in October last year (See also dedicated www site for Care Leaver Covenant). This set out the support that all organisations, employers, colleges and universities alike, should offer to those that have been in care. The fact that, unlike many employers, few universities have taken the bait seems to have precipitated the latest policy. The activities of the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL), established as far back as 2013, seem to have been lost in the mists of time. Now there are too many questions to be answered.

Who pays and where does this leave the Office for Students?

The Office for Students (OfS) appears to have been bypassed in a policy document aimed directly at the so called ‘providers’. This is strange as access and widening participation are key elements of their regulatory role. Much of what the government proposes is already in place and set out by the OfS in ‘Care leavers and looked-after children’. The muddle is further inflated by the conflicting advice given to the Office for students in ministerial advice last year. The fact that many universities have not taken up the ‘Care Leaver Covenant’ might be down to this confusion.

In ‘Access and Participation. Secretary of State for Education Guidance to the Office for Students (OfS)’ in February 2018 the ministerial advice to the OfS in relation to widening access was set out under para 53;

“We expect the OfS to be firm with providers about the way their investment should be allocated, encouraging more investment in outreach and other activities, and less on financial support where appropriate. Outreach inspires students into higher education and maximises the numbers reached, whereas too much focus on bursaries can have the effect of cherry-picking a small number of students at the expense of others who also have the potential to benefit.”

Yet the current policy is now contradictory with, “We would expect the support offer from HE providers to be proportionate to the size of the provider and their resources” and provision of “a bursary of a sufficient amount to cover associated study and student experience costs”.

Universities will ask where the money is supposed to come from. Other better resourced students and hard working families will question the need for their higher fees to be diverted into support for less advantaged students simply to save the face of a poorly coordinated and failing overall government policy.

Unwittingly setting a basic standard for all students.

In setting out ‘principles’ for one small sub-set of students, and assuming that all students should be afforded an equal chance, the government has unwittingly also set a standard baseline for all students. To claim otherwise would be illogical and inconsistent. Skidmore states at the outset that “But what happens if you don’t have the emotional and financial support of family behind you to help you on your way?”

Precisely, that describes care leavers. However, omitting others in similar circumstances, such those estranged from their families or those for whom there is little or no family support, is abandoning a much larger group of struggling students. Setting out basic standards for the “costs of accommodation, associated study costs, such as laptops, software and books”, alongside access to sporting and other activities and a dedicated member of staff, would seem a reasonable expectation for all students. However, this 'black and white' approach to family support is hopelessly middle-class in its perception and assumptions. Those caught in the middle of the spectrum of support, with care leavers to those with full family backing at either end, are all too painfully aware of the challenges they face. Some universities offer more help for students estranged from their families and have signed up to the Stand Alone Charity Pledge. But many others have yet to do so since there is no compulsion from the OfS as the regulator. This also sets out an expectation of resources and help that we might apply to all students equally. But in contrast, last year the Student Loans Company fouled up badly with their aggressive ‘spying’ tactics against estranged students (see TEFS 10th August 2018 The Student Loans Company chasing vulnerable students: A very worrying trend). Their aggressive approach to restricting loans may not have gone away and surely counteracts apparent ‘Government policy’.

How many students are involved?

The cynic might say that the policy looks like a good soundbite but in reality it is proposed because it will not cost much. Indeed that may be the case. The real scandal is that few students in care make it anywhere near a university education in the first place. The DfE’s own data from 2017/18 indicates that six per cent of all care leavers between the ages of 19-21 were in higher education in 2018. This is in contrast to an overall 42% participation rate. But this also hides a simple fact that rates of participation decrease sharply with social disadvantage before putting care leavers firmly at the bottom of the pile.

But what does this mean in numbers and costs?

A comprehensive and detailed study, ‘MOVING ON UP: Pathways of care leavers and care-experienced students into and through higher education’ by the University of the West of England for the NNECL, showed that in 2015/16 there were 1,900 care leavers in university and 3,230 ‘care experienced
' students. This low number means that the cost will remain fairly low unless something more radical is done to help such students earlier in their lives. That seems to be well off the radar of government.

The ‘student experience’ and a call for a fresh approach.

Fairness is the most important aspect of what universities are about. The timely article this week in the Guardian’s ‘Anonymous Academic’ paints a very stark picture in ‘My struggling students desperately need maintenance grants back’. What is described became very familiar to me as the situation worsened over the last 25 years or so at Queen’s University Belfast. Students struggling with part-time jobs, underperforming because of lack of time and sheer exhaustion increased in number. But it is wrong to single out one institution or ask them to pay to rectify the problem. Staff at Queen’s University Belfast did their best to support students. That an individual academic felt that they needed to be anonymous in highlighting this is even more disturbing. There must be many others afraid to speak out, even in their own institutions. However, it is clear that most universities have such issues with students and
likewise try to help. It is nonsense to shift all responsibility onto them and ask them to pay through diverting fees from other students. Instead, in addition to government taking responsibility, two things are urgently needed.

Firstly, a complete overhaul of the university funding model to stop the practice of cross subsidy between students and between research and teaching.

Secondly, a recognition by government that there should be a 'charter' that defines the minimum standard of resource and support needed for all students. They must also seek to organise support across all levels of education and set out a genuine ‘principle’ of fairness in its policies.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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