Policy in Focus: Higher Education Support in Greater Manchester

On 12th March, our Manchester Policy Forum were delighted to be invited to the Greater Manchester Care-Experienced Education Network: a forum of stakeholders in the region who are committed to supporting care leavers in education.

Five members of our Policy Forum, who are all students at different higher education institutions in Manchester, presented their experience of what it is like to be a care leaver at university. Here is what they think works well, and what could be even better:

Accommodation

  • Some universities offer care leavers priority when finding student accommodation which is useful especially to students in their first year.
  • In some cases, care leavers may be provided with free accommodation for the whole year including over the holiday period where halls are usually closed. However, the application process is currently too complex and should be simplified to not discourage care-experienced students.
  • There must be more recognition that not all care leavers have access to a guarantor (or have the money to pay for one through ‘Housing Hand’ for example). This means that private renting, as most students do after their first year, is often not possible for care-experienced students.
  • An offer of free storage for care leavers’ belongings whilst they’re at university would be useful to avoid losing furniture and belongings bought through the setting up fund. University of York, for example, offer free storage for care leavers during years abroad or years in industry.
  • All universities must offer affordable accommodation over the summer period to prevent young people becoming homeless or accumulating unnecessary debt.

Financial Support

  • Bursaries from our local authorities and from the university itself have been useful. However, standardisation of these offers would level the playing field for care leavers – no matter where they are from or what university they attend;
  • University incentive payments encourage us to stay in higher education whilst providing us with a safety net and financial stability.
  • Best practice: Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) have a JobsForStudents scheme which unconditionally offers all care leavers an unconditional job as a Care Leaver Ambassador which is a great way to earn some extra money, meet other care leavers and get some work experience.
  • Care leavers need help with the costs associated with graduation. This is a big milestone and what should feel like an opportunity to be proud is often very anxiety inducing for those from a care background. Helping with the cost would give care leavers an extra incentive to attend and feel comfortable at their graduation ceremony.
  • There must be some kind of safety net in place so that care leavers can maintain stability when Student Finance funds arrive later than expected.
  • Universities should consider supporting care leavers with opportunities to earn money or obtain extra financial support during the summer months.

Careers

  • With research constantly stating how easy it is for care leavers to ‘fall through the cracks’, we feel it is important to have someone who can keep us on track. Sometimes it can be hard to see past ‘today’, especially in hard times. A good careers service or advisor is vital for ensuring that care leavers can reach their full potential.
  • Best practice: Both MMU and University of Manchester (UoM), as well as many other universities across the country, have careers services that help with writing CVs and personal statements.

Contextual Offers

I don’t think a one grade reduction accounts for everything we’ve gone through’ – Zahra, Psychology student at UoM

‘I really struggled during my A Levels. If it wasn’t for my school sending a letter of recommendation, I wouldn’t be here’ – Sophie, PGCE student at MMU

  • Many care leavers do not consider applying to top universities due to the high grade requirements. Although UoM currently offer a ‘one grade’ reduction offer, we do not feel that this goes far enough. Contextual offers must seriously consider the severe disadvantages care leavers may have faced or are still facing, especially at the key transition points of leaving care.
  • Letters of support from schools should be taken into consideration in place of concrete grades.

Support plans

‘Being a care leaver is often not considered as mitigating circumstances… support plans are very important for making sure we stay in education’ – Zahra, Psychology student at UoM

‘There’s not enough encouragement to reach your full potential’ – Saskia, Early Years and Childhood Studies student at MMU

On the topic of support around course content: ‘It’s about recognising that something could be triggering’ – Laura, Nursing student at MMU

  • Student care leavers need specific, individualised support plans. These must be separate to disability and other support plans.
  • Mitigating circumstances must cover a wider range of issues that care leavers may face. For example, the fact that care leavers may find certain times of the year incredibly difficult should be taken into account, such as birthdays and Christmas, which can cause significant mental distress.
  • There should be increased liaison between universities and local authorities. This must include recognition of progress and identification of support where needed.
  • Lecturers and course coordinators must recognise that some course content could be triggering, for not only care-experienced individuals, but also vulnerable young people in general. Warnings and additional support would be useful here.
  • Student counselling must be accessible and care leavers should not be rejected from services, as some of us have done, because our issues are ‘too complex’.
  • Leading on from the last point, we feel that care leavers should be able to access counselling and/or therapy without going through the long-winded process with GPs.

Holidays

‘My library is open on Christmas Day which I love. If you want to forget about Christmas you can just go and get your work done’ – Saskia, Early Years and Childhood Studies student at MMU

  • We would like to see a similar Christmas offer to that of the University of York. This includes a ‘winter hosting scheme’ where volunteers host care leavers at their homes for a family dinner in December. They also do a Christmas stocking appeal to raise money to fill a stocking with presents for all care leavers who otherwise may not receive anything. 
  • It should be a requirement of all universities to offer accommodation for care leavers throughout all holidays. 

Combatting loneliness

  • We would love to see a residential trip away offered to care leavers who hold conditional offers. This could be a chance to meet others and form friendships before university begins. It could even be arranged so that care leavers can live in halls with somebody they know.
  • In general, the more chances to meet other care leavers the better! Life is a lot easier when you finally meet someone you can identify with. Whether this is through work, societies, or other groups, universities should all offer care leavers the opportunity to meet other care leavers.

Clarity of Knowledge

‘When I got to university I went to the GP and asked if there was any support that they could give me as a care leaver. The GP made a referral and told me that someone would be in touch. I was then contacted by an occupational health professional who asked if I needed a stair lift! It is just so worrying how many people don’t even know what a care leaver is.’

  • A lot of opportunities are missed because we are not well informed and end up finding things out too late and can’t make use of them. Websites such as ‘Propel’ are useful, but we need to know about these prior to starting university. 
  • UoM have a page that advises local authorities exactly how much an individual will need to live on whilst at university. This is a great way of ensuring that local authorities are providing care leavers with adequate financial support. 
  • It would be useful to have a care leavers’ forum or website where key questions are answered – we know that Greater Manchester Higher are already working on this though!
  • Finally, it is imperative to make sure that tutors and university staff know what a care leaver is and what it entails… it sounds obvious, but you would be surprised!

This was a fantastic meeting and really encapsulated what our Policy Forum is about: having care-experienced people’s voices heard. But not only did the various universities present at the meeting learn from our group, we also learnt from them.  Without such a platform, we wouldn’t have known that many of these universities are already putting things in place to ensure that care-experienced students are better supported.

We are really excited about the work of Greater Manchester CEEN and feel confident that care leavers’ experiences are central to what the group is doing. Hopefully groups like this will help to minimise the ‘postcode lottery’ that many care-experienced students face. One day, we hope that all care leavers going to university can be confident that they will receive the same, consistent support no matter what HE institution they choose to go to.

Megan Davies

Head of Political Engagement

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