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11 January 2024

Engaging care-experienced and estranged students: Start with somewhere safe to live and the rest will follow


Fiona Ellison
Director of the Unite Foundation

Last October, Fiona Ellison, Director of the Unite Foundation, told QAA's Quality Matters Conference* about the practical steps that can be taken to enhance the engagement of care-experienced and estranged students. Here, she explores how we've been able to use NSS data to inform and develop such strategies.  

Over the last few years the statistics have remained stagnant - just 13% of students who have been in care go to university by their 19th birthday, compared to 43% of non-care-experienced peers (OfS, 2022) with care leavers remaining 38% more likely to withdraw from their studies than the general student population (Positive Impact, 2019). To address this meaningfully, we need to make effort to understand their experiences, a challenge made tricky by the lack of national data on this underrepresented group. 


In 2023, the inclusion of care experience status in NSS student characteristic data allowed us to gain some insight into their thoughts on higher education nationally and institutionally, their unique challenges and why they feel like university isn’t the place for them. The data uses HESA return information, which is why we only have data for care-experienced students - not those who are estranged from their families, but we know students show similar experiences when studying without family support.  


Some positive aspects emerge from NSS data. 77% of care-experienced students highly rated their university/college's communication around mental wellbeing support services, compared to 74.1% of non care-experienced students, and 74% of care-experienced students feel their students' union (association or guild) represent students' academic interest, compared to 70.7% of non care-experienced students. This feedback is statistically significant. 


Despite feeling supported in non-academic areas, notably, Q20 and Q21 reveal lower satisfaction among care-experienced students regarding library resources and subject-specific access, possibly influenced by financial constraints and work commitments. The 2023 Student Academic Experience survey highlighted that ‘88% of care-experienced students said they worked in paid employment compared to 58% of non care-experienced’. Care-experienced students also express lower satisfaction in being able to contact academic staff and access teaching support (Q15 and Q16).  


To meaningfully engage and encourage broader participation in, and continuation through, higher education, a student-centred approach is crucial and one which addresses core needs like safety and security. A rent-free, safe and secure home at university alleviates financial worry and, coupled with supported learning, means students with care experience have more opportunity to engage in academic learning opportunities and extra-curricular activities; making the most of everything university has to offer and achieving their best. 


The Unite Foundation's pioneering analysis in 2022, conducted by Jisc, demonstrates the impact of providing up to three years of free accommodation for care-experienced and estranged university students. These students show progression rates and degree achievements comparable to non-care leavers, highlighting the pivotal role of secure housing in fostering academic and personal success. 


So, when you’re searching for that illusive strategy to boost engagement with care-experienced and estranged students and set the stage for success, the research is clear. Start with somewhere safe to live and the rest will follow. 


*QAA Members can access resources from the Quality Matters Conference on the QAA Membership Resources site