Universities must make radical changes to help care leavers thrive, say MPs

New guidance says universities should pay for care leavers' books and offer free year-round accommodation

Free year-round accommodation and bursaries should be offered to young care leavers who want to go to university.

Universities minister Chris Skidmore plus children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi have released new guidance for universities and are calling for a culture change at the UK’s top institutions to encourage those leaving care to stick with higher education.

Just six per cent of care leavers between the ages of 19-21 go to university – even then, they are twice as likely as others to drop out.

Education leaders around the country should also make social clubs more accessible to care leavers and arrange funding for laptops and course textbooks, the new Higher Education Principles show.

Universities must take steps to “make a challenging transition less overwhelming”, Zahawi said, adding: “Far too many of young people leaving care are missing out on opportunities that their peers take for granted. Many universities are already improving their offers to care leavers, through our Care Leaver Covenant and beyond, but I want this to become the norm – not the exception.”

The ministers want buddy systems for care leavers to be designed in higher education.

The new guidance also places emphasis on the work required by admissions teams to conduct outreach efforts to councils and schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

The document also explains that year-round accommodation is crucial for students leaving care – because some might not have family to stay with or anywhere else to go during the holidays.

This builds on the Care Leaver Covenant, launched last year, which set out pledged made by the government, businesses and third sector groups to create more opportunities for young people leaving care to work and learn. Of the 73 organisations which have signed up so far, 13 are universities.

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Poet and care leaver Lemn Sissay, chancellor of the University of Manchester, said: “Leaving care without qualifications or direction is seriously hard. I know. I was that person. It’s critical that we come together to make sure that all young people, including those who have left the care system, have every opportunity, which is why these principles are so important, so vital.

“It’s truly great to see the Department for Education working so closely with universities in the interests of vulnerable young people leaving care. For me it is a historic moment. It’s never happened before.  One day I hope all universities will be able to say we are signed to the Care Leaver Covenant.”

The ministers hope pushing universities to do more to support care leavers will significantly reduce the number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) which currently sits at nearly 40 per cent of care leavers aged 19-21.

Currently, aall care leavers who go to university can claim a £2,000 bursary from their local council, £1,200 from the college if they go into further education and £1,000 for the first year of an apprenticeship.

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the office for students, said this is a positive move but that more “can and should be done”.

He said: “Care leavers have been a priority group for access and participation investment for a number of years.  Many universities are now targeting care leavers within their plans and have made commitments to improve their support during the coming years.

“We are pleased to see an increased focus on looked-after children in our recent strategic guidance from the Secretary of State for Education, and we welcome the Department for Education’s new guidance to universities.

He described the Care Leaver Covenant as a “public statement of [universities‘] commitment” to take action.