Care experienced students in higher education: Building a fuller (data) picture

The Office for Students (OfS) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency have been working to improve the way data about care experienced students is captured.

Care experienced students can face barriers at each stage of the higher education lifecycle. The numbers entering higher education are low, in large part as result of disruption and gaps in their earlier educational journey. Those who do make it to university or college can continue to struggle, with non-continuation rates being particularly high.

The OfS is collaborating with universities, colleges and third sector bodies to improve support for care experienced students. Our work with the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) is one aspect of this work.

A wider field of vision

The OfS and HESA have developed an improved HESA field to identify and record a broader range of students who have experienced being in care. The field is broken down into sub-categories to differentiate between formally recognised ‘care leavers’ and those who have experienced care, but are not supported by their local authority.

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HESA field: HESA collects and publishes data on all aspects of the UK higher education sector. Universities and colleges record the characteristics of their students with HESA when they enter higher education. A HESA field forms part of the student record.

UCAS tick box: Care experienced students are encouraged to tick the box on their UCAS applications to say they have spent time in care. Ticking the box means that universities and colleges can identify applicants at pre-entry stage and connect them to the right support.

The improved field reflects a shift in higher education towards using ‘care experienced’ as a broader term than ‘care leaver’ for those requiring support. Evidence shows that students with experience of care who do not fall under the statutory definition of ‘care leaver’ face many of the same barriers to successful participation in higher education as those who do. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that these students may require enhanced support from their university or college, as they do not receive it through the local authority.

The improved field will enable universities and colleges to examine more closely the outcomes for each of the care experienced groups with particular circumstances at different stages of the student lifecycle, and to evaluate the effectiveness of particular interventions for each group. Over time, this has the potential to improve the support for care experienced students through access and participation plans and to reduce the cost and burden of identifying them.

It’s worth noting that HESA data on care leavers is not currently available at an individual, university or college level.

Improving support for care experienced students

This may seem like a small technical adjustment, but it’s important. The previous HESA flag did not capture all students with experience of care. Because of this, universities and colleges wishing to record and support a broader group of students tended to apply differing criteria. This resulted in an inconsistent and imperfect data picture. Consequently, some students with experience of care may not have received appropriate support.

The improved field will help higher education providers to more easily identify who their care experienced students are, so that they can tailor support accordingly. It will also help to strengthen the existing data picture about access and outcomes for these students, both nationally and in individual universities and colleges.

Next steps

The new HESA field is now live for universities and colleges to start incorporating into their student information databases. It will be used to collect information for students entering higher education in the academic year 2022-23.

UCAS data on student applications prior to entry will also now help providers to identify students who may have care experience. However, there is no verification process at the UCAS stage.

Universities and colleges will therefore need to talk to their applicants during the admissions process to determine their status, identify what support they already receive and assess what additional help they will need to participate successfully during their time in higher education. 

This conversation will allow providers to identify the HESA category best aligned to the student’s circumstances. This exercise will also help universities and colleges to better evaluate the effectiveness of any interventions, including financial support for specific groups of care experienced students.

Further information

See the new updated care leaver field.

The HESA website provides detail on what happens to the personal data it holds.

The National Network for the Education of Care Leavers has produced a decision tree document to help practitioners determine the status of their students and assist providers in the verification process. The network will be running a webinar on the HESA field changes for universities and colleges on 25 January 2022.

UCAS student support pages link to information on why students should declare their care status and ‘tick the box’.

The Care Leavers’ Association is able to advise students and practitioners on evidence of care experience and how to access it.

See our topic briefing on care experienced students.


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Published 02 December 2021

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