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You are reading: Out of care, into university: Raising higher education access and achievement of care leavers

Written by Dr Andrew Harvey, Dr Patricia McNamara, Lisa Andrewartha and Michael Luckman, Access & Achievement Research Unit, La Trobe University

Around 40,000 Australian children are estimated to require out-of-home care in Australia and this number has risen every year over the past decade (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2014a). Young people up to 18 years who are unable to live with their birth families are placed in different forms of out-of-home care, including kinship care, foster care, residential care, family group homes, and independent living. People who spent time in out-of-home care before the age of 18 are subsequently referred to as care leavers when they transition out of the system (though there are numerous formal and informal definitions of care leaver and these are outlined in the Background section of this report).

Care leavers rarely transition to higher education. They are largely excluded from the level of education that brings the highest wage premiums and lifetime rewards. Despite their extremely low university participation rates, there is no national agenda for improvement. This research project was conducted by La Trobe University and funded through an external research grant provided by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University. This report aims to provide the basis for such an agenda by highlighting the nature and extent of the problem, and suggesting practical solutions within both the education and community service sectors. Our research adopted a mixed methods approach and included: a literature review; an examination of national data sets; an online survey of public universities in Australia; and interviews with senior representatives from major out-of-home care service providers. We provide recommendations targeted to the Australian Government, state and territory governments, higher education institutions, and community service organisations.

Our findings reveal three major reforms that are required to improve the access and achievement of care leavers in higher education. First, the collection of nationally consistent data on higher education access and outcomes is essential. One of the reasons this problem is out of mind across the nation is that it is out of sight. Existing data on the education of Australians in out-of-home care is limited. Data are typically held at state or territory level; within human services departments; and only for minors (up to the age of 18 at best).

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has proposed a major project linking child protection data with National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) data (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2013b). However, despite these advances at primary and secondary school levels, there are no documented plans to collect educational data beyond the age of 18. This gap exists despite the stated priority of ‘transitioning to independence’ and an acknowledgement within documents supporting the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009 – 2020 that the transition period continues up to age 25 (FaHCSIA, 2010b, 2011). The latter developmental timeframe indeed appears more consistent with contemporary Australian experience of the same-age general population. Extending the Institute’s remit to post-secondary level, and collecting out-of-home care status data at university enrolment level, would be valuable initiatives to begin building the evidence base.

Second, policy reform is required within both the education and community service sectors. Within the higher education sector, there is urgent need for greater recognition of this under-represented student group. The absence of higher education data collection at national level is partly related to the nature of the national student equity framework established in 1990, and partly to limited advocacy. The framework, A Fair Chance for All, identified six disadvantaged groups who were underrepresented in higher education: people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People; women, particularly in non-traditional courses and postgraduate study; people from non-English speaking backgrounds; people with disabilities; and people from rural and isolated areas. The establishment of these six categories has proven both powerful and durable – university admissions policies and national funding have been directed to support the six groups, and no categories have been added to the framework since its foundation. While care leavers are often subsumed within the six broad categories, we believe that the extent and nature of their disadvantage requires tailored policies and specific data collection. Given the low number of care leavers in higher education, data could initially be collected by universities at application or enrolment. Broader reform of the national equity framework could also be considered. Separately, universities need to provide stronger and more transparent support to raise university aspirations and increase the recruitment, access, and achievement of care leavers.

Within the community service sector, further policy and legislative reform is required. Legislative reform is needed to support the transition of people from out-of-home care to adulthood. Current legislation at the level of state and territory jurisdictions does not typically mandate ongoing public support for care leavers once they have reached the age of 18. The lack of post-18 legislative support stands in contrast to the United Kingdom, whose reform program since 2000 is outlined within this report and has enabled care leavers to remain supported as they transition into higher education. The voices we captured from the community service sector were consistent with international research: care leavers require support beyond the age of 18. Equally, community service organisations need access to greater individualised data, and increased capacity to provide education and training to carers and the related workforce.

Finally, there is an overarching need for cultural change. The soft bigotry of low expectations is omnipresent for care leavers. Stakeholder voices, national research, and the international literature all reveal a group underestimated and overlooked by others. In some cases, even those closest to care leavers are either unaware of educational possibilities for them, or unable to explore these possibilities. For Indigenous care leavers, cultural challenges and responsibilities can be particularly acute, and intensive resources are required to support transitions. The rate of Indigenous children in out-of-home care is ten times the rate of non-Indigenous children (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2014a) – providing educational opportunity and support to this group is critical.

Egalitarianism is an empty word if those most marginalised are denied access to the highest, and most profitable, level of education. A national policy for care leavers in higher education requires strengthening the evidence base, reshaping the equity policy framework, and reforming legislation and policy within both the higher education and community service sectors. Through these material reforms, a greater cultural change is possible.

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This report is one of a series of 12 funded by the NCSEHE’s 2014 Student Equity in Higher Education Research Grants Program.

Harvey, A., McNamara, P., Andrewartha, L. and Luckman, M. 2015. Out of care, into university: Raising higher education access and achievement of care leavers. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Perth: Curtin University.
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