Scotland’s universities lead the way in widening access to students with care experience

A new report into the educational experience of students with a care background has hailed the progressive approach taken by Scotland’s universities in committing to a care experience guarantee in 2019, highlighting the positive impact it has already had on this group of students.

The report, Next Steps: What is the Experience of Students from a Care Background in Education? was published by university admissions body, UCAS, on Wednesday, 29 November 2022.

Since 2019, Scotland’s universities have operated a system of minimum entry requirements in their admissions processes for applicants who apply from socio-economically disadvantaged areas. The commitment to care experienced students goes one step further, committing to offer an undergraduate place to any care experienced applicant who meets the minimum entry requirements.

The progressive policy in Scotland’s higher education sector was implemented by universities in recognition of the significant challenges such students must often overcome to succeed in education. The Next Steps report found that education can be disrupted for this cohort, and changing schools is common: 19% had moved schools once, 11% had moved school multiple times. Care-experienced students’ journeys through education are often longer and nonlinear.

Noting the success of this policy, the UCAS research report states that Scotland’s approach:

has already had a positive effect on recruitment, with the proportion of care-experienced applicants more than tripling over five years – from 0.5% of all undergraduates in 2015/16 to 1.9% in 2020/21.”

The report calls on universities across the rest of the UK to follow the example set in Scotland. Recommendation 2 in Next Steps states:

Higher education admissions policies to recognise the impact of educational disruption, with clear commitments regarding offer-making strategies for care-experienced applicants published online.”

The care experienced guarantee was launched by Universities Scotland in August 2019 by Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, Principal of the University of St Andrews and Professor Pamela Gillies, Principal of Glasgow Caledonian University. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP and Who Cares? Scotland joined the launch at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Commenting on the UCAS report and the impact of the admissions policies, Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, Convener of Universities Scotland and Principal of the University of St Andrews said:

“It is so rewarding to know that the care experienced guarantee, introduced by every one of Scotland’s universities in 2019 has made a difference to people’s lives and has helped to create more opportunities for people with care experience. UCAS’s research report found that the number of people with care experience applying to Scotland’s universities has more than tripled over five years in Scotland.

“The UCAS report recommends that universities across the rest of the UK should consider introducing minimum entry requirements for care experienced applicants. This is another aspect of the progressive approach to admissions that Scotland has led on and has had in place for applicants from a range of underrepresented backgrounds for a number of years now. There’s more we can and will do in Scotland to support those with care experience. The data and insight in UCAS’s’ report will be very helpful to universities in taking this agenda forward, including doing more to promote awareness of the admissions guarantee, so that a greater number of people have the potential to benefit.

“Scotland’s universities are deeply committed to action to widen access and continue to shift the dial when it comes to policy and action. Scotland’s universities met the interim access target of 16% of entrants from the most deprived areas ahead of target and remain focused on working towards the 2030 target. Such an ambitious agenda requires partnership and there are actions that the Scottish Government, Scottish Funding Council and the next Commissioner for Fair Access can take with us to help realise better outcomes for people with experience of care and others who are underrepresented in higher education.”  

Universities Scotland remains committed to widening access to university to underrepresented students, including students with experience of care. Last year (2021), institutions met interim targets for access by reaching 16% of entrants from the 20% most disadvantaged postcode areas of Scotland (SIMD20). The sector is working towards reaching 20% of entrants from SIMD20 by 2030 as part of a wider strategy called A Blueprint for Fairness: the Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access.

The research findings in UCAS’s report confirms there is no room for complacency. Even with  the progress achieved in Scotland, students with experience of care remain underrepresented at university. The report is clear that not enough students with a care background know about the support available to them and a and a third of pupils with care experience did not discuss this with anyone at school unless they had to. More must to be done to raise early awareness of the opportunities and support available. The data and insights in Next Steps will be a valuable resource for universities to keep building from.