Care leavers case study: University of Exeter
The University of Exeter has put in place a clear and joined-up approach across the student lifecycle to show care experienced students that higher education could be an option for them and then ensure they are supported throughout their student journey.
Research indicates that approximately 12 per cent of care experienced students attend higher education, and barriers exist for them at each stage of the student lifecycle.
The University of Exeter has seen an increase in its numbers of care experienced students in recent years. However, it is very clear that achievement in access, while important, is just one area where efforts need to be focused.
The university is a signatory of the Care Leaver Covenant and an early adopter of the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers pledge, both of which have encouraged development of a holistic and strategic package of support.
One of the key challenges facing all organisations supporting this group is the need for a clear and joined-up approach across the student lifecycle.
The university reaches out to young people to show higher education could be an option for them, and then ensures they are supported throughout their student journey, from before application through to graduation.
For example, both the Office for Students and the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education have recommended higher education providers work more closely with local authorities and virtual schools to try to ensure care experienced learners are less likely to fall between the cracks.
The University of Exeter has taken a three-pronged approach in supporting this group of students.
An access and success officer based in the student recruitment team not only focuses on the access provision for this group, but also takes a lead on the strategic approach to supporting them throughout their time as a student.
This person flags up with senior management any financial or resource requirements needed to support this work and helps to ensure the university is working in an evidence-led and impactful way.
A designated member of staff for care experienced students based in the wellbeing team has specialist knowledge and is the key contact for these students during their studies.
Finally, a widening participation coordinator based in the students’ union manages the care leavers bursary and provides a crucial student-facing role through the Student Guild Advice Service. All three work closely together to ensure that these students are best supported from before enrolment through to graduation.
As part of this strategic approach, the access and success officer chairs the Under-Represented Students Governance Group, which brings together colleagues from across the university to address the needs of many of the Office for Students’ targeted under-represented student groups.
This working group feeds directly to the Success for All Strategy Group and senior management, enabling intelligence, reporting, evaluation and strategy to flow both upwards and downwards. This member of staff also sits on regional groups and steering groups, so the university can feed into national policy as needed and collaborate with local partners.
The university has a shared mailbox that both the designated member of staff for care experienced students and the access and success officer manage. This makes it easier for students to contact a member of staff while sharing administration and management and making support more resilient.
The members of staff have worked together on initiatives and events. For example, before the COVID-19 pandemic the university and the students’ union ran regular brunches for care experienced students to meet each other informally. The cost of these events was shared between the university and the students’ union.
Since the lockdown, these staff have run weekly online coffee mornings and collaborated on a long-standing commitment to provide support at Christmas. For example, the widening participation coordinator made contact with students over the Christmas 2020 vacation, sending a card and gift voucher.
This three-tier approach works for the University of Exeter and enables it to be reactive, strategic and ultimately fleet-of-foot. It has improved its data processes so it can analyse and monitor its student numbers and the impact of its work. For example, it is clear that there is some further work to do to understand the experience of students who interrupt or withdraw from study.
Although staff have distinct roles, they are able to support each other in what can often be a complex and sensitive area of work. Ultimately the aim is that students feel that they belong to a caring and supportive university community and are less likely to slip through the gaps.
This collegial approach has been very beneficial. Firstly, practitioners are not working in isolation and can each employ their specialist skillset. As much as they are able to react quickly and provide urgent support in times of crisis, they are also able to work more strategically to plan and learn from best practice. For example, the university recently expanded its definition of this cohort to encompass care-experienced students in addition to care leavers.
This process benefitted from collaboration towards a consistent approach to definition, data and monitoring and widened the pool of eligible students. There is now a larger volume of students meeting this definition, which makes analysis and evaluation more robust. There is definitely more to do.
There is better communication, both internally between colleagues and externally. For example, a relationship developed with a local authority at pre-entry level is naturally continued throughout. This approach allows the university to be both reactive and proactive.
Feedback received from the students is received by all three practitioners working collaboratively and fed back up through the working group to senior management. For example, at one of the brunches students commented that during welcome week they were unable to participate as fully as they had hoped, as their student loan hadn’t arrived and they had little money. As a result, the university introduced the ‘welcome packs’, which include either sport or society membership, supermarket vouchers and laundry costs and home basics starter pack, which have been positively received as a feature of transition support.
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