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”.
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.
See also TEFS 19th October 2018 ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’.
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.
How many students are involved?
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.