Professor Sally Mapstone FRSE is the Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University of St Andrews. She is also the Vice Convener of Universities Scotland and chairs our Admissions Policy Group.
Universities are powerful engines of social change and the University of St Andrews has, for over six centuries, provided the requisite skills and knowledge to its students to enable them to transform their own lives and the world around them. But universities have a moral and social obligation to ensure that everyone has access to this opportunity, and it is in this context that we recognise Care Day – a moment for us to reflect upon the steps Scottish universities are taking to help and support students from care-experienced backgrounds.
People who are care experienced will often have faced challenges that many in society have not. The upheaval, disruption, transition, and uncertainty of the care process significantly impacts one’s ability to learn and progress through education, with the knock on effect that many such students are unable to realise their full potential at school. University, however, is a place where we can recognise potential where it exists, redress prevailing imbalances, and nurture our people so that they can perform at their very best, whatever their background.
It was in recognition of this that Scottish higher education sector, and its 18 constituent universities, made a collective commitment to the Care Experience Guarantee in July 2019. This commitment guarantees an offer of a place at university to care-experienced applicants who meet minimum entry requirements at the institution to which they are applying, informed by a recognition of the unusual context in which many care-experienced applicants have achieved their qualifications. The first students to benefit from this guarantee took up their places in September 2020 and are currently in their second year of study. At St Andrews alone, our number of care-experienced Scottish students has increased five-fold from 2016/17 to now.
The Guarantee aims to make our sector as broad and inclusive as possible, and that is reflected in its eligibility criteria: anyone qualifies for the Guarantee if their care has been provided in one or more different settings such as residential care, foster care, kinship care, or being looked after at home but with a supervisory responsibility for another. Our key message to potential applicants: if you are care experienced, you will be eligible for the guarantee and there is no age limit on eligibility.
Universities are interested in people of all talents and we recruit on potential alone. Those from care-experience backgrounds who achieve regardless do so by exhibiting attributes that universities treasure: resilience, organisation, and tenacity. I want to be part of a society that sees everyone supported in attaining their very best, and that requires those of us who can, whenever we can, to remove hurdles and level the playing field. Next month’s annual Widening Access report from the Scottish Funding Council will demonstrate how well we are doing in advancing equality and diversity at Scottish universities, but it will also show that there is much still to do. We are committed to doing that work.
We also recognise that getting into university is only part of the picture, and students without a support network to fall back upon can face additional challenges, particularly with regards to affordability and accommodation. The Guarantee also supports targeted interventions throughout the student life cycle and regular mentoring of, and practical support for, students who identify as care-experienced, alongside the creation of peer networks and support groups to ensure that our students thrive as part of a wider community.
If you are care experienced and considering whether university, or the University of St Andrews in particular, is for you, my message is simple: get in touch with universities, learn more about the experiences on offer to you, and apply without reservation of whether or not you will fit in. You are wanted, and we will warmly welcome you into a community committed to seeing you thrive.