8th September 2022

Care leavers practical guide to starting university

As Children’s Commissioner for England, I want to support all care leavers to pursue their dreams. If you are a care leaver who is thinking about applying to university or have already secured a place to start this year, I hope you find this guide of tips and resources helpful.

IMO website

Firstly, I want to signpost you to the IMO website my team runs. IMO aims to amplify the voices of teenagers in care and for care leavers and is a place to share experiences and get advice about topics that interest you. My team and I are always interested in hearing directly from you, if you are interested in sharing your experience of university please reach out via the Become a Creator section on the IMO website.

On the IMO website you can access a list of contact details for the care leavers teams at universities and colleges. The care leaver teams have the responsibility to support you during your transition into university and throughout your course.

There are lots of podcasts from different care leavers sharing their experiences on IMO, listen to Cambridge graduate and care leaver Ashley John Baptiste’s experience, Isabelle’s experience of leaving care and university and Steven’s story. There are also videos on IMO on starting university, one on studying at the University of Oxford as a care leaver and another on applying for university as a care leaver.

Help at Hand

My Help at Hand team is also available to any child in care or care leaver to support with liaising with the university’s care leavers support team on issues regarding accommodation and financial support.

As a care leaver you will also have the right to independent advocacy through the leaving care team that supports you. If you want to find out more about your rights and what support you are entitled to, you can contact the Help at Hand team on 0800 528 0731 or through their email [email protected] .

Examples of support that the Help at Hand team has provided to care leavers at university:

The Help at Hand team has supported many care leavers with navigating starting university. Here are a few examples of the types of support the team has provided in the past.

Chloe is a 23-year-old care leaver from England. After working for a while, she decided to go to university in Wales and moved there before she started her course. She contacted Help at Hand for advice about whether she should apply for her student loan in England or Wales and how she could access financial support to help her throughout her studies. The team supported her to access a range of resources, including a bursary which she was entitled to as a care leaver until she was 25.

Tom is a 22-year-old care leaver who contacted Help at Hand after he had completed his undergraduate degree to ask for advice about how to access financial support during his postgraduate studies. The team advised him that his local authority (LA) may be able to provide support but that it would depend on his LA’s Local Offer for Care Leavers. The LA offered a one-off bursary for master’s degrees which was allocated on a case-by-case basis. To support Tom to access the financial support he needed to complete his master’s degree, the team wrote a supporting letter to service managers on Tom’s behalf which set out why he should receive this funding. In response the LA allocated the bursary which will support him throughout his studies.

Tips for navigating university

Below is a list of tips and resources for finding out more about applying to university, and if you are starting university, for settling in and making the most of your experience.

Tip 1: Reach out for support about navigating applying for university or starting university  
  • Be sure to let your Personal Adviser (PA) and social worker know as early as possible that you plan to apply for university or are starting at university as they will be able to give you advice and support throughout the process.
  • For guidance and support on applying to university visit the Propel website. The website is run by Become, a charity dedicated to children in care and young care leavers.
  • Connect with the care leaver support team at the university you are interested in finding out more about or planning to attend. As mentioned above, you can find a list of contact details for the care leavers teams at universities and college
  • Once you have contacted your care leaver support staff and personal tutor be sure to ask them for as much advice and support as you need, they are there to support you.
Tip 2: Do some research to compare different universities support offers for care leavers
  • The Propel website is a helpful resource which allows you to compare what’s on offer for care leavers, including the financial support available, at different universities and colleges.
Tip 3: Seek out emotional wellbeing support, there are people out there ready to help you 
  • Connect to other care experienced young people through the Estranged and Care Experienced Students (EaCES) community. EaCES is a peer support platform by and for students who are estranged, care experienced, care leavers, orphaned and at risk of becoming estranged. There is a EaCES handbook which is a virtual guide full of useful tips and resources to help care leavers navigate university.
  • There is also the This is Us Community which is an online forum for care experienced and estranged students in Higher Education.
  • Stand Alone can offer advice and online support groups for people estranged from their parents, who may not meet the formal definition of being a care leaver.
  • Brightside offers mentoring for care leavers, which can include supporting students applying to college or university.
  • The Mix is a support service for young people under 25, you can call the helpline but also chat online via the online community. It offers support on a range of topics from money management to mental health support.
  • For mental health support you can contact Shout via text anytime or you can join the online mental wellbeing community
Tip 4: Find out about what financial support you can access as a care leaver at university
  • As a student you will be entitled to student discounts which are offered by many shops and services. You can also purchase an NUS card to increase the offers and discounts available to you.
  • There are several charitable organisations that provide grants, bursaries and scholarships for care leavers, for example Buttle UK, Unite Foundation and the Care Leavers Foundation.
  • Universities offer bursaries for care leavers, contact your university’s care leaver team to find out about what support they offer and to ensure they liaise with your leaving care worker back home.
Tip 5: Consider what accommodation options are available to you as a care leaver
  • Some universities offer year-round accommodation for care leavers, you can find out more about the options available to you by speaking to the care leaver team at the university or through Propel as mentioned above. As the support that universities provide for accommodation can vary, it is important to do some research early on or speak to your PA to see if they can assist you.
  • As mentioned above, some organisations such as Unite Foundation run schemes to support care leavers with the cost of accommodation.
  • It is important to remember that your local authority will be responsible for providing you with accommodation during holidays from university.

University is an incredible experience and I hope you enjoy yourself. Be sure to join societies and clubs. Every university has a students’ union which will often host a fair during the first term showcasing all of the clubs and societies on offer. Joining a club or society can be a good way to make friends with like-minded people and discover new passions and hobbies.

Finally, I wish you the best of luck in your university journey ahead.