Case study: University of Cumbria

The University of Cumbria supports and listens to care leavers to gain a fuller understanding of barriers to access and success, and focuses on robust evaluation to support solutions and effectively implement interventions.

The University of Cumbria is committed to understanding the needs of students more vulnerable to disadvantage at all stages of the student lifecycle, to proactively identify their needs and trial solutions.

Care leavers are one priority group for the university within an embedded framework of support. One of the tools with which it aims to support this group is the access and participation plan and the associated cross-organisational steering group that oversees its delivery.

As part of this commitment, the University of Cumbria has invested in the evaluation of this work, aiming to achieve the highest standards of best practice and encourage a culture of learning through the introduction of robust and consistent evaluation in the 2020 to 2025 access and participation plan.

The University of Cumbria has had a small population of care leaver students in the past three years, with numbers increasing steadily each year from 35 in 2017-18 to 51 in 2019-20.

The small cohort makes it very difficult to generalise the issues around attainment and progression, and also to prevent individuals being identified. This has guided the university to focus on robust evaluation to support the solutions and effectively implement interventions. The challenge is to understand and respond to this group within an overall package of support for all students.

For retention and attainment, the small cohort figures make it very difficult to make statistically valid conclusions but there are encouraging signs that the situation is improving. For example, for attainment in 2019-20, 100 per cent of care leavers achieved a first or upper second class degree.

For progression, it is even harder to generalise with the small numbers but the gap has also narrowed between the progression rates of care leavers and non-care leavers.

The access and participation plan for this group committed to ‘support and listen to care leaver students to gain a fuller understanding of the barriers to access and success. This work will allow us to set new objectives for care leavers for implementation from September 2022’. The current package of support includes:

  • funded transport to the campus for an interview day or applicant visit day
  • an entry package (subject to availability) to get students started at university
  • a dedicated pre-entry and post-entry contact as per below
  • an initial meeting with a key contact including an initial finance meeting
  • advice and guidance on applying and personal statements, which can be done via telephone
  • increased priority in being allocated a Cumbria Bursary for young care leavers who declare their status
  • young care leaver mentoring with current university students who are care leavers themselves (wherever possible)
  • accommodation available 365 days a year at Carlisle, Lancaster and Ambleside
  • exit package upon graduation, to include careers guidance.

Once on the programme, in addition to skills workshops and webinars throughout their studies, students can make appointments with or email advisors with their academic, library and digital skills questions.

Should a student need to resubmit an assignment, advisors are on hand to help them action feedback and enhance their work. As students transition to the next level of study, advisors can work with them to reflect back on what they have achieved and what they need to develop.

There is a final-year care leavers’ package which includes a joint newsletter. Graduating students are contacted by phone and offered a named careers coach to help with a job search – finding work immediately and beyond graduation, career planning support, help with writing CVs and applications and practice interviews.

In addition, the university directly promoted a specific care leaver internship opportunity. Students have access to the central programme of career essentials webinars, which include finding opportunities and applying for jobs.

Research argues that there is some reluctance to be defined as a care leaver, and these students often disengage with targeted support as a result. Further evaluative research into ‘what works’ for supporting this student group to access and succeed within higher education would be beneficial.

In particular this is linked to the development of a realist evaluative approach to the work, with strong links to leading academics in realist practice. Realism aims to uncover causal patterns between interventions and results, tests assumptions behind interventions and takes into account context.

The University of Cumbria continues to prioritise robust evaluative practice in its access and participation plan and will continue to explore new and innovative ways of supporting this particular group of students.

Published 10 May 2021

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