SummaryCare leavers as a distinct group of students within higher education (HE) in Scotland have very little presence: “only a small percentage, in comparison to the national average, go on to study at university” (Scottish Care Leavers Covenant 2016). Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Office for Fair Access puts it bluntly “there’s almost no more underrepresented group in higher education.” Without significant support mechanisms many often struggle to cope financially and emotionally which impacts on their ability to academically achieve.
The paper reports on a study, conducted by a research intern at the University of Strathclyde, which investigated the retention and progression issues impacting on care leavers, specifically in relation to their experience with the University. It seeks to identify a positive environment for care experienced students and pinpoint best practice of effective transition support for students who encounter difficulties in their academic career. In addition to looking at the academic career of a care experienced student, the potential barriers of care leavers in accessing placements, internships and international opportunities were also investigated. Furthermore, a study of contemporary literature was used to identify key themes relating to care experienced students. To examine best practice elsewhere the study was conducted in collaboration with an intern at the University of Stirling whom had a similar remit. It is hoped that outcomes of the study will influence future developments in this area at the University.
This project was supported by Enhancement Theme funding from QAA Scotland.
The full report is available at the bottom of the page
Project lead: Louise Martin, Widening Access Team (email@example.com)
Intern: Kieran Shellon, 3rd year undergraduate, Strathclyde Business School (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The current Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) Enhancement Theme is 'student transitions', meaning the transitions that people make into, during and out of higher education. During the period 2014-2017 universities across Scotland will undertake work to better understand the challenges students face in moving through their studies, and to improve the support for key points of transition. This study is intrinsically linked to the QAA Enhancement Theme. It is timely given that it coincides with the Scottish Government’s recently published ‘Blueprint for Fairness: The Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access’.
An intern was appointed within the Widening Access team at the University to undertake a study and produce a report relating to the retention and progression issues impacting upon care leavers, identifying effective transition support throughout their academic career including possible barriers in participation of placements/internships and international opportunities. The intern was a current undergraduate student at the University of Strathclyde and whom was primarily based within the Widening Access office for the duration of the internship.
The report was compiled using a mixed method design. A review of contemporary literature was used and acted as a foundation for the report, general themes were identified to discuss and formed the structure of engagement: with care experienced students; support and administrative departments within the university; strategically chosen senior personnel from the four faculties (Faculty of Science, Faculty of Engineering, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and Strathclyde Business School) of the University and external organisations. External organisations included Children and Young Peoples Commissioner Scotland (CYPS), Buttle UK, Who Cares? Scotland and the Scottish Government amongst others. To examine best practice elsewhere the study was conducted in collaboration with the University of Stirling. Where good practice was identified at other HE institutions they were also contacted for their input.
Care experienced students were interviewed from across all faculties whom were at various stages of their undergraduate academic career. It was viewed that because there was an emotive nature to the study that one to one informal meetings were adopted as opposed to an impersonal electronic survey or rigid questionnaire.
The content of the interviews gave a reality in the context of Strathclyde, supplementing the literature. Where there was a common theme identified similar points were grouped together, analysed and used to form the discussion element of the report. Thereafter, recommendations were made that could make a positive change on care leavers during their time at university and beyond.
First and foremost the report identified that generally the provision of support at the university appears to be fairly well developed and that it is heading in a positive direction. It suggested that change should continue at a fast pace with a view to being renowned with care leavers, influential organisations and throughout Scottish universities.
Specific recommendations centred round the importance of accommodation and finance on a student’s ability to enter and continue to participate successfully in higher education, as such how this can be positively developed was a key recommendation.
The report identified initiatives currently in place that enhanced the offering to students specifically from a care experienced background, from the process of initially identifying students with such a background, a mentoring scheme and the summer school ran by Humanities and Social Science faculty. The report recommended that these should be developed further and encouraged dialogue between faculties to share best practice. The report went on to make recommendations about support that should be in place for students who encountered academic difficulties. Recommendations were made which sought to facilitate care experienced students ability to participate in relevant work experience and international opportunities.
The recommendations in detail are:
- The security of tenure has been identified as a major enabler for students with care experience. The university should explore the feasibility of developing a comprehensive accommodation provision policy for care-experienced students that provides the security of access to accommodation throughout a student’s association with the university. The policies of Glasgow Caledonian University, University of Portsmouth and University of Bristol should be explored with a view to being used as a benchmark.
- How the burden of finance could be relieved to the level that it allows students to participate in placements/internships and international opportunities – similar to the University of Portsmouth should be explored. To ensure it is positively received and has a positive impact careful consideration should be given as to how this is propositioned to students with a care experienced background.
- Good practice was in place at the University in terms of identifying students from a care experienced background in the form of the ‘double lock’ system in which students could declare their background upon registration at UCAS and then again whilst matriculating – this should be developed further. The facility to ‘self-declare’ at any point during a student’s academic career with the University should be considered as is in situ on the student portal at the University of Dundee.
- Having been rolled out in 2015 the mentoring scheme has been positively welcomed. This scheme is in its infancy; further exploratory work should be undertaken to ascertain how this could be developed to further enhance the experience of student care leavers at the University with a view to increasing retention and general engagement for care experienced students.
- When a student experienced academic difficulties that resulted in resitting examinations there was evidence of strong support in some faculties. This should be the benchmark throughout the University. Where re-sits require to be undertaken a move towards meeting with the student at least twice prior to the re-sit diet would be beneficial: immediately upon identification that a re-sit is required and then at some point thereafter to discuss progress. The faculty should seek to identify the specific issue(s) which led to the need to re-sit examinations. Enhanced engagement with the student and the department thereafter should be encouraged. It may be that this triggers a pairing with a relevant academic for the duration of the student’s academic career as an additional source of support. Best practice should be shared inter-faculty in a suitable forum.
- The merits of having an offering similar to that of the Study Skills Top Up Programme Summer School introduced by HASS in 2015 across all faculties should be discussed in a suitable forum. The impact the programme has had on students should be analysed and developed accordingly.
- A policy should be developed where during or after a period of significant academic difficulty has occurred that this should trigger additional on-going support outwith the faculty they are matriculated. In formulating a policy it would be helpful if dialogue took place with the Deputy Head of Careers and Employability, Careers Development Centre, University of Stirling to ascertain the positive impact that confidence building and enhancing courses has had on students there.
- In terms of care experienced students being able to facilitate and undertake work experience the University should continue to be aware that a very real deficit might occur. In terms of the social and professional opportunities (and those identified by Bourdieu) a care experienced student may have access to may be magnified to the extent that they are not necessarily weak – it maybe that they are non-existent. The university should seek to continue to use its reputation to increase the scope of the opportunity of work experience.
- A way of facilitating a discussion about the opportunity of studying abroad should be promoted on a one to one basis with care-experienced students. Any conversation should be more akin to that which would be reasonably expected to take place in a home environment. It may be that this discussion is repeated frequently throughout the students’ academic career. The positive and determined approach by the University of Stirling should be adopted where possible to overcome barriers. The possibility of a shortened exchange programme as opposed to 1 year should be considered.
- Further analysis should be done to examine the extent to which purely finance is a barrier to internship and work experience. That the financial costs of travelling to a work experience placement and associated costs, like appropriate clothing, are out of reach for many care leavers should be examined. Consideration should be given to the relatively large percentage of care-experienced students at the University of Portsmouth in receipt of additional financial support who are undertaking work placements.
- Generally the provision of support appears to be fairly well developed – change should continue at a fast pace with a view to being renowned with care leavers, influential organisations and throughout Scottish universities.
To date, the report has been well received by staff throughout the university and the recommendations made are already being taken forward.
It is acknowledged that there may have been other ways to tackle the investigation, for example by using a more scientific methodology. However it is felt that by not adopting such methods that the investigation was enhanced because of the one-to-one interviews with care experiences students, academics and support staff.
To ensure authenticity this was a completely student led project, albeit with the support and guidance from staff within Widening Access. The project provided a funded internship for the student. Compiling a report after undertaking such a study developed the student’s skills, for example his communication skills and his ability to liaise with professionals within and outwith the university. The student intern also interviewed six current student care leavers as part of his research.
The full report is available to download below