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About Care Experienced Students in Higher Education

By Amalia Mihailescu, on 17 October 2019

Hanan Hauari, whose research and collaboration with us has focused on understanding the university experiences of care leavers, has given us an insight into her most recent study to help us understand why this type of work is so important for social mobility in a higher education environment.

In recent years, there has been a lot of coverage of how few care leavers make it to university and recent reforms in higher education has meant that all fee charging universities (above £6000 a year) must formally commit to widening participation in their institutions. But how do young people from under represented groups experience higher education? Are their experiences different from that of their peers and if so in what way? The answers to these questions are not clear. Little research has been done on the student experience of disadvantage groups in higher education. However, with attention now on retention rates and a recent study (click here) reporting that nearly 20% of care leavers in university will leave before completing their course, research into the higher education experiences of care experienced students is long overdue.

Our project is a collaboration between UCL Institute of Education’s Thomas Coram Research Unit and the Access and Widening Participation office of UCL. The collaboration sought to understand the university experiences of care experienced students with a view to identifying what support is needed to improve student retention and help inform university policy and practice. We wanted to get as close as possible to the lived experiences of care leavers and therefore chose a walking interview method, a form of mobile ethnography, where participants guided researchers around their university campus and the surrounding area to explore day to day life at university. The environment is used as a kind of elicitation technique to prompt meanings and connections to place and to provoke rich and critical reflection on pastoral, academic, health and wellbeing and personal development aspects of being a student, including accessing help. Altogether, these areas give us a richer understanding of the bigger picture.

Our collaboration with the Access and Widening Participation office demonstrates UCL’s commitment to evidence led policy and practice on social mobility and education. If universities are serious about raising the aspirations of students from groups who are under-represented at university and supporting them through their journey in higher education, they need to understand what it is really like to be a care experienced student at university and the challenges they face. Only then can the appropriate support be identified and put in place.

A word from the writer:

I grew up in inner city London where I was educated in a local comprehensive. I later studied History and Politics at undergraduate level and gained a Masters degree in European Politics. I began my research career working in applied social and public policy research organisations and worked extensively on research projects under the Every Child Matters policy framework. In April 2007, I joined the Thomas Coram Research unit, IOE, UCL and continued  my research on children, young people and families. To date, much of my research has focused on the lived experiences of young people that have grown up in local authority care. I am particularly interested in their transitions out of care and into adulthood, including their educational journeys, with a focus on exploring the interacting personal and social attributes which determine their individual experiences and can therefore help inform how they can be better supported to make successful transitions in adulthood.

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