Young people who have been placed in care are known to have poorer educational outcomes than other young people and are less likely to go to university. Despite the challenges faced by care experienced young people in getting to university, research suggests that when they do make it to university, many succeed in completing their degrees and achieve good educational outcomes.

My recent research project funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education aimed to identify what helps care experienced students succeed at university and complete their studies.  Interviews were conducted with eight care experienced students and six graduates who had studied at universities in England and Wales to explore the factors that helped these students and graduates ‘stick the course’.

One of the most striking findings from the research was that relationships with key adults, characterised by support, care and encouragement, were crucial in supporting participants’ transitions to university and in enabling them to complete their studies.  For a small number of participants, support and encouragement came from foster carers or personal advisors but more commonly it was partners, friends or university lecturers who provided this support. These key people provided genuine care and encouragement during participants’ time at university which was central to their enjoyment of university and engagement with their studies.

Another significant finding was that accessible good quality pastoral support was important to participants’ experiences of university. However, participants indicated that high quality social and emotional support at university was often inadequate or difficult to access. This finding is significant given that care experienced students routinely embark on university with higher mental health needs than their peers.

A key conclusion that can be drawn from this is that accessible good quality social and emotional support and relationships with key adults characterised by genuine care, support and encouragement are crucial to care experienced students’ engagement and success at university.

Given that many care experienced young people come to university with little familial support and fewer social networks, universities should provide opportunities for students to develop trusting, supportive and caring relationships with peers and staff. At a time when the ‘student experience’ has become a major concern for universities across the higher education sector, it is imperative that universities pay close attention to supporting the social and emotional needs of all students. This could be achieved through the provision of dedicated professionals whose responsibilities focus on the wellbeing of care experienced students. Neglect of this would be hugely detrimental to both students and universities alike.  

For more information about this project please contact Dr Ceryn Evans at Swansea University / @CerynEvansc15

You may also be interested in these related blogs.