Posted Thursday 14 January 2021
KU Cares is Kingston University's support programme for students who come from care backgrounds, are estranged from their families, are young adult carers or sanctuary scholars. As the scheme celebrates 15 years, he University's Head of Access, Participation and Inclusion Jenni Woods reflects on the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the next steps to advance equal opportunity for young people from marginalised groups.
Kingston University was one of just six universities nationwide to work with children's charity Buttle UK in 2006 on developing a pioneering sector framework to support young people going to university from care.
KU Cares was created – initially to support care leavers, then later expanded to include estranged students, young carers and refugees and asylum seekers, who all face multiple challenges to access and success in higher education. In 2006, Kingston was an early recipient of the Buttle UK quality mark for its commitment to supporting care leavers at university.
Over the last 15 years there have been significant changes in higher education. Against this backdrop the number of students accessing KU Cares has continued to grow from one student in 2006 to more than 260 in the current academic year.
The success of KU Cares has been achieved with the commitment and support of governors, senior leaders, and staff across the University who have gradually increased their understanding of the multiple challenges faced by these young people, along with an appreciation of their unique strengths and qualities.
The specific needs of KU Cares students are considered in the delivery of all services, from finance and credit control to health and wellbeing. The programme has also received essential backing from alumni and external supporters – with funding from the Mohn Westlake Foundation particularly helping us maintain and enhance our support.
This institutional approach has been driven by the dedication and tenacity of a small central team who have drawn on their specialist knowledge, lived experiences and consultation with students to develop a comprehensive and exemplary programme. Through taking pre-emptive steps to identify and remove real and perceived barriers, the team have helped hundreds of students stay on course, reach their potential and progress to successful graduate careers.
The Covid-19 crisis highlighted the importance of this proactive and tailored approach. University students were allowed to return home during the first UK lockdown, but initial government guidance failed to recognise the unique and challenging individual circumstances of some students for whom this was not an option.
At Kingston, we were acutely aware that many KU Cares students live alone and had no access to family or parental support. Those remaining in halls were particularly vulnerable to feelings of isolation as they watched their friends leave, while young adult carers were struggling to manage remote study alongside increased caring responsibilities with no respite.
The KU Cares team has maintained regular contact and remote support with these students throughout the crisis. We have offered emergency hardship bursaries, equipment loans, WiFi grants, exit bursaries, food packages and ongoing graduate support.
Kingston was one of the first signatories of the Standalone Pledge to support estranged learners in higher education, signed in 2016. An early adopter of the government's Care Leaver Covenant we have facilitated discussions between government ministers and KU Cares students, and provided feedback on a set of Department for Education principles to support the access and participation of care leavers.
Policy and sector developments have undoubtedly led to progress over the past 15 years. In 2006, only one per cent of young people went to university from care. This increased to six per cent by 2015, while a recent report put the figure at 12 per cent. There is no reliable sector data available for estranged learners, young adult carers and asylum seekers, but participation figures for all these groups remain woefully low.
The barriers facing KU Cares students are all too familiar to those of us who have worked in this space for any length of time.
Educational disruption, often exacerbated by changes to placements, social workers and advisers, results in young people having no-one to ask about their future options. Support from local authorities is inconsistent, amounting to a postcode lottery for young people in care.
Estranged learners and forced migrants are often in unstable living situations and can require emergency accommodation at short notice to avoid homelessness. Maintenance funding is calculated based on the academic calendar but must cover living costs throughout the year, so students without family support or access to rent-free accommodation over the summer period must work long hours to make ends meet.
More consistency is needed across local authorities and higher education providers so choices for care leavers and other groups are not restricted by the support available to them.
A review of student finance in relation to students without family support is long overdue. In addition, universities need at least one designated member of staff with the specialist knowledge and capacity to build stable and meaningful relationships with young people who may have lacked consistency or been let down by other people in their lives.
Training, development, and support should be offered to all staff so they can develop the knowledge, skills and understanding to ensure these young people are fully included and supported.
As the higher education policy environment develops, it is imperative that the access and participation of students from KU Cares groups can be maintained and enhanced.
It is essential that policymakers work with higher education providers, local authorities, third sector agencies and students themselves to understand and respond to the key issues. Only through building on what we have collectively learned over the past 15 years, can we achieve the step-change needed to secure social justice and equality of opportunity for these incredibly talented, resilient, and determined young people.
Emily Hughes dedication
In her role as access and inclusion manager at Kingston University, Emily Hughes was instrumental in developing KU Cares in close consultation with students from those backgrounds.
Over the 14 years Emily worked at Kingston, her approach centered around her belief that students from all backgrounds should be supported to succeed at university. Under her leadership hundreds of students have had their lives transformed through participation in the KU Cares programme.
Emily sadly died in April 2020 and is missed by all staff and students who knew her. She was honoured by University Alliance with a posthumous Braveheart Award and with an Aim Highers Outstanding Contribution Award, recognising the impact of her leadership and advocacy for students from the most challenged backgrounds.