TW: Mental health, homelessness
Towards the end of March, as people began flooding out of halls to head home for the year once it became clear that the Summer Term would be delivered online, awkward conversations ensued about why I wasn’t going home.
Having left care at 18, I have been going solo at university for two years (with one year at another university), and so as lockdown ensued, it became very clear that I’d be living alone in my six-bedroom two-bathroom flat in halls, as everyone else had elected to go back to their families. Thankfully, I have a bunch of flatmates and friends who all understood my situation (though I hate to use the word ‘situation’) early on, so it was a very simple conversation to have. But I fear that for the most part, care-leavers or estranged students feel some sort of fear or anxiety about talking about something which is such a taboo subject in higher education.
The Department for Education’s data for the 2017-18 university application cycle says that 6% of all care-leavers aged 19-21 entered higher education, while most care-leavers of that age group ended up as NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training). The data for 18-year-olds is experimental, but suggests that less than 3% of care-leavers were in higher education, with the Office for Students confirming that this is only entry data – even fewer will actually make it to graduation as many will drop out of their course.
There are many, many barriers to accessing higher education for care-leavers, some of which I have experienced personally.
Firstly, financial hardship. Estranged students and care-leavers often have to pay rent and bills all year round, as well as incurring other costs like groceries all year round too. An article from Save the Student earlier in 2020 suggests that the average living costs at university are around £9,700 per year. This budget is slightly flawed – it accounts for illegal drugs, holidays and a lot of takeaways, as well as groceries.
Combined with the fact that a loophole makes it impossible to apply for Universal Credit whilst taking out a student loan, suddenly surviving on around £9,000 for a full academic year becomes an issue. Having stupidly already checked my student finance balance, I am on course to graduate with a six-figure debt by the age of 22 that I will almost certainly never pay off, and will linger with me into my 50s.
Thankfully, most universities have recognised the issue and provide fantastic support – whilst I’m not advertising the uni here, Southampton’s inclusion team have been incredible since I’ve moved in. My former university – one of the “best in the world” (in quotes as my experience suggests something very different) – failed to provide year-round accommodation (as stated on their website), a point of contact (also stated on their website), or any real pastoral support (until it became clear that they would no longer get my annual tuition fees).
Being thrust into independence at 18 is a scary thought in and of itself. Combined with all of the regular pressures of being a fresher, and suddenly going to university becomes much more daunting than it would be in ‘normal’ (perhaps this is the wrong word – what really is ‘normal’ at university?) circumstances. Loneliness, isolation, fear – all natural emotions at university and certainly not ones to worry about – are exacerbated when you live, work and study within the same four walls, 365 days a year. Mental health issues can become prominent, and if you have no contact with people outside of university, it can become difficult to handle them. I am grateful to have good people around me, but this is certainly not the case for everyone.
A final note of concern for care-leavers – and one I think is reasonable – is accommodation, and indeed whether one is ready to live completely independently, often in a new city. Rent costs during my freshers year amassed nearly £8,000 alone (in a very expensive area outside of London), and were probably higher if I count the times that my former university gave me no option other than to live in Airbnb’s.
And so back to the pandemic. I lost work, but was thankfully able to survive as I wasn’t forced to sleep rough (I don’t know where I’d be if I stayed at my first university). But I am lucky to have had a good experience, second-time round, as a care-leaver at uni.
It is vital, though, that I am not an isolated case – I know from personal experience that not all universities are the same, and I would love to see a day when universities and HE providers are forced, through legislation, to provide a good service to care-leavers who often are paying the most to continue their studies when you combine maintenance and tuition fee loans, and potentially other loans to fund study. Vitally, this service can’t stop at the end of the first year – 1 in 5 of the few care-leavers in higher education won’t complete their degree. If everything went well, I’d be on course to be graduating with a BA in Spanish and Linguistics, but I wasn’t able to do so. I found a good alternative at Southampton, but if I hadn’t, who knows what I’d be doing? I would have been part of the 1 in 5.
Michelle Donelan, Gavin Williamson, and whoever else can make a change – I hope to see a day where the 6% of us can grow to become a lot more. But we can’t do it alone.