Uni advice for care-leavers and young carers
For a young person who has spent time in care, going to university can seem like an unattainable dream. As the Who Cares? Trust launches its new Propel service, a guide to higher education for care-leavers, UniBox looks at the huge amount of support available to help those young people realise the ambition of doing a degree.
Young carers, too, may feel that university is beyond them. So we take a look at the support they can access.
Universities recognise that care-leavers have long been under-represented on campuses, and for a host of different reasons.
All universities have to offer some level of support to young people who have been in care, to help them overcome the difficulties they face in getting a university place, and then in managing and completing their studies.
Liz Ferguson, an outreach officer at the University of East Anglia, explained that all care-leavers’ circumstances are different and the UEA strives to understand each individual’s needs, worries and ambitions.
Thinking about university?
Liz goes to talk to groups, both of young people and those adults who advise them, in schools and colleges and in forums around Norfolk. She’ll often take UEA Student Ambassadors with her – those are current UEA students who can talk about the experience.
Liz can arrange bespoke visits to the campus for individuals. These tours can include whatever the young person wants to see, and will typically involve Student Ambassadors too, so they can get an honest picture of university life.
It could include shadowing a student as they go about their daily routine (with vouchers for a free lunch provided if necessary). The visitor can bring a friend along for moral support if they want.
“We don’t do hard sell,” said Liz. “We answer questions and hear concerns. We find out how we can help. If there are concerns we can dispel by bringing them onto campus, we can do that. We like to have them come to campus and see it’s really friendly, that students are utterly ordinary people and that it’s not some unachievable secret society.”
Young people who have been in care may be outside the mainstream structures of support. They might not have anyone to tell them about university open days, help them with UCAS forms, talk to them about student finance, and so on. But getting that can begin, quite simply, by contacting a university and asking for it. The UEA even has a travel fund to help meet the cost of getting to an open day.
Liz stressed that it’s important for the care-leaver – whether they are an applicant or just thinking about applying to university – to be open about their circumstances and their concerns.
“You can’t get help if you don’t ask for it,” she said. “Students have to advocate for themselves. Be prepared to tell the university about your circumstances so you can get the help you need and that’s right for you. It’s so they can make sure they are providing the right services.”
Very often, three or four years at university just seems too expensive. But a student loan is not the millstone it’s sometimes made out to be. (You only have to repay it when you can afford to. See other UniBox articles and online resources like MoneySavingExpert.com for a full explanation of how they work).
Liz said: “Money is a massive issue. The headlines around student finance aren’t helpful, particularly if you are from a low income household.”
The UEA offers a bursary to care-leavers of £3000 a year, for up to four years of study. That’s not a competitive award – it’s given to anyone who meets the criteria. At the UEA, it is given if you have been in care for 13 weeks in the five years before your course and if you are under 25 before the course starts. It has to be your first degree and an undergraduate degree.
Many universities offer such financial assistance, though they are free to set their own amounts and terms, So it’s important to ask what’s on offer, and under what circumstances.
The UEA’s bursary recognises that young people who have been in care would typically be arriving at a university as an independent student. In other words, they don’t have parents’ income to declare – or to rely on.
This means there’s nobody giving them the kind of help that others take for granted: a little financial top-up when they need it, bags of shopping to go back to uni with after the holidays, and the like.
The money is to help in another important way: much student accommodation is only rented out for nine months of the year and most students will likely go home for the summer. Care-leavers, though, will often have to pay an extra three months’ rent.
(Incidentally, the UEA also makes accommodation available to care-leavers for the summer months, if they need somewhere to stay.)
Again, the key thing is simply to be open with the university about your circumstances. This process starts with ticking a box on the UCAS form, and getting a bursary and other help is then a matter of making sure the university is fully aware of your needs.
Liz said: “I’m sure there are students who don’t tick the box because they are worried about stigma.”
Life at university
University life can be stressful for anyone. Young people who have had very disrupted childhoods may have suffered mental ill-health, and this can rear its head again. This can be because money is tight, or having to switch accommodation reguraly. Someone who has had a disrupted education may arrive at university slightly older that the rest of their year group, which makes quite a difference if you are 20 and the rest are 18 – it can be harder to fit in.
So it’s important to know that universities have counselling services to help students who are struggling for whatever reason.
And in Liz’s experience, young people who have been in care can be very resilient, even beyond their peers. Someone who left care at 16 will probably have experience of managing on a really low budget and finding accommodation, so this can actually be turned to their advantage.
Another aspect of Liz’s job is to promote higher education to young people who are carers themselves.
In Norfolk, there are groups (mainly in the charity and voluntary sector) like the Norfolk Young Carers’ Forum and the
Benjamin Foundation – a charity that supports young people with a range of services like accommodation for the homeless, anti-bullying work in schools and more.
(Crossroads Care East Anglia, the charity which has run the Norfolk Young Carers’ Forum, closed down at the end of September but the forum will continue to be run by Carers Trust Cambridgeshire.)
Liz and the Student Ambassadors visit these groups of youngsters and their adult infuencers, both to tell them about the opportunities and to hear what the UEA can do to help.
Someone who has care responsibilities may feel that going to university just isn’t possible, especially if it would mean travelling to another part of the country.
“Lots of students have jobs,” said Liz, “but having a job that pays you is very different. If you are living away from home and there’s something you have to go back for, it can be costly in terms of time, energy and money.”
But again, universities will try to be understanding and flexible – for example by discussing extending deadlines – as long as they know about your situation.
Liz said: “I would encourage students to talk to their academic advisers about their circumstances, and ensure those circumstances are noted by the university. Where possible universities will always strive to help with that.”
If you are a care-leaver, or a young carer, and want to find out more about studying at the University of East Anglia, or if you are an adult adviser and want to arrange a group discussion, contact Liz Ferguson, Outreach Officer, via email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01603 591960.
Developed with the support of an advisory board made up of care leavers and stakeholders from across the higher education sector, Propel replaces the popular Higher Education Handbooks produced annually by The Who Cares?
Trust since 2012. A searchable website, Propel provides full information about each educational institution’s provision for care leavers, as well as inspirational stories from care-experienced students. Using Propel, young people will be able to make an informed choice about the right course at the right institution for them. It will also help them ensure that they access all the support to which they are entitled, reducing the numbers of care leavers forced to drop out.
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