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Recruiting and supporting care leavers in Australian higher education

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posted on 15.07.2021, 05:19 by Andrew HarveyAndrew Harvey, Perri Campbell, Lisa AndrewarthaLisa Andrewartha, Jacqueline Wilson, Pearl Goodwin-Burns
This report follows a multi-state, cross-institutional analysis of care leavers in Australian higher education. Those who have left out-of-home care – including foster, residential and kinship care – typically face extreme challenges to participate and succeed in higher education, highlighted both by our multi-state interviews and our national data analysis. Care leavers, for example, are relatively likely to suffer from anxiety and/or mental health disorders, to be from low socio-economic status backgrounds, and to have suffered disrupted schooling and family lives. While some of these issues are beyond the scope of universities to address, there are numerous policy changes that would improve access and success. Moreover, our evidence also highlights that care leavers can bring particular strengths and forms of capital to higher education which not only help them to succeed, but which could be harnessed more broadly by institutions. Transitioning from a deficit model to a richer understanding of both the challenges and strengths of care leavers has the potential to benefit all students on campus. International evidence is clear on the extent of under-representation of care leavers in higher education, but also on the potential for growth. Our review of recent research confirms that policy changes at both government and institutional level can dramatically improve access and success rates. Moreover, since our initial report (Harvey, McNamara, Andrewartha, & Luckman, 2015), several more dedicated educational resources have been developed internationally to support schools and universities, such as a practical guide to educating children and young people in care in the United Kingdom (Cameron, Connelly, & Jackson, 2015). Research continues to confirm the importance of raising expectations, normalising and demystifying higher education as a destination, listening to the voices of care leavers, providing targeted and accessible support, and measuring university participation, success and outcomes. In this project, our collection of data and institutional advocacy enabled development of important new methods of measuring access and success. Through advocacy of the research team, changes were made to university enrolment forms, and the educational access schemes operated by state tertiary admissions centres. Introduction of these two methods, as previously advocated in our initial report, now provides a template for collection of data at or before enrolment, by which institutions can quantify and monitor care leaver data. In addition, one partner institution was able to identify care leaver students through a new bursary scheme, providing a further point of data access. Similar to disability, care leaver status may be self-identified subsequent to enrolment, enabling targeted resources to be formed and outcomes to be tracked. Through the various modes of data collection, we have the first understanding of likely care leaver enrolments in Australian higher education, and templates that can be expanded across the sector to build an evidence base. Further, from the sample of students we were able to monitor, we received some important initial indications of course profile and achievement. Perhaps most notable here was the relatively high achievement of enrolled care leavers, the reasons for which became increasingly clear from our qualitative research. Our qualitative research involved detailed interviews with university care leavers across three states and four institutions. Several themes were clear, including the desire of care leavers to be treated as normal students, an over-representation of anxiety and mental health issues, a relative unlikeliness to report such issues within the institution or to seek help through counselling and other services, a powerful resilience and determination to succeed, and potential issues of campus climate where experiences clearly differed from other students involved in coursework and informal conversations. For Indigenous care leavers, specific cultural connections and issues were strong themes, and access to a dedicated Indigenous unit on campus was seen as beneficial not only for direction to other university services, but as a space of cultural understanding and community. To raise university access levels, participants noted the need for further education of carers, case workers, and related staff, and for higher expectations among school teachers and others. One of the most notable lessons from our research relates to a discrepancy between the genuine disadvantage of many care leavers and their relatively low take-up of financial and support services. Interviews revealed the reality of care leaver experiences, in which financial hardship was common, mental health was frequently cited, and disadvantage was often extreme. Our quantitative analysis, however, suggests that eligible care leavers rarely apply for compensation for educational disadvantage through the tertiary admissions centre schemes, rarely apply for scholarships and financial bursaries, and often do not access disability, counselling and other support services once enrolled. The gap between lived experience and request for support highlights the need to normalise student support and service use, and to simplify and demystify bursary and scholarships applications. Research suggests that care leavers are particularly likely to be confused by tertiary application processes, including financial aid, and reluctant to seek services and deal with bureaucracies, particularly where privacy fears are involved. Mitigating these concerns is important not only to ensure that care leavers are receiving compensation that is deserved, but to ensure that other disadvantaged students are not similarly being marginalised by systems that reward cultural capital and inside knowledge rather than genuine disadvantage. Equally, the qualitative research and quantitative data provided corroborated evidence of resilience and determination among care leavers. This resilience has arguably been understated by previous research focussed on barriers and disadvantage. However, the rapid rise in British university enrolments of care leavers since the adoption of targeted policies and strategies in 2004 – from 1% to 7% - provided early evidence of the potential for improvement. One of the reasons such enrolment growth was possible was that care leavers often have reserves of determination and persistence that enable them to overcome severe educational barriers and challenges. Our quantitative data revealed relatively strong academic performance, and our qualitative research also highlighted uncommon levels of persistence and independence among care leavers. These strengths reveal the capacity for similar growth in access and success if Australian policies were adapted to reflect international best practice. Interviews also revealed the need for further research into the qualities and assets that care leavers, and other under-represented students, can bring to higher education. Relatedly, some interview participants observed issues of campus climate, for example perceiving that other students had limited life experience and focussed on issues that appeared trivial or inappropriate to the care leaver cohort. Wider challenges exist for universities to promote inclusive excellence and to understand the potential benefits of diversity for student learning and growth. There also remains a challenge to translate academic success to retention and completion, as financial and other barriers often remain prevalent throughout the candidature of care leavers. Our report concludes with guidelines for prospective care leaver students, and a set of guidelines for university staff. The student guidelines address many of the issues raised above, including demystifying higher education and providing practical guidance around course and university selection, enrolment, and access to bursaries, scholarships, and services. The guidelines for staff focus on the need to understand specific concerns of care leavers, but also to normalise higher education and to keep expectations of achievement high, particularly in outreach activities. Students interviewed highlighted university outreach as central to raising participation, and it is important that universities conduct their outreach activities not only with proximate secondary schools, but with flexible learning schools and other educational sites, working in conjunction with welfare agencies and other service providers where relevant.


Australian Government Department of Education and Training through the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program - National Priorities Pool 2015.


Publication Date


Commissioning Body

Australian Government Department of Education and Training

Type of report

Other research report


Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research, La Trobe University

Place of publication

Melbourne, Victoria





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