Nadhim Zahawi is Minister for Children and Families and is the MP for Stratford-on-Avon.
Imagine going to university, or remember back to it. It’s a big deal, one that is greeted with a mixture of excitement and trepidation by any student.
Now imagine that you’re doing it without the financial support of the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’, when every book you buy, every gig you go to, you’ll have to pay for yourself.
It’s a big change, learning how to live away from home, manage your own finances, and adapt to higher level of study than you’ve experienced before. The support of a family can be a huge part of helping you to overcome those challenges.
Now imagine arriving for your first day in a totally new and alien environment – alone – with no friendly face to drop you off, help you settle in and wish you luck before sending you off with a big hug and as you’re settling in, no one to ring for support if you’re feeling low, and no haven to retreat to in the holidays.
More likely than not, this is the reality for any care leaver who wants to go to university.
It isn’t too surprising, then, that the proportion of care leavers going to university is far lower than that of their peers – and even lower than those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
And when those young people who have been raised in care triumph over the obstacles that stand in the way, it is sadly all too often the case that the pressures of university life are too great. We know that care leavers who do make it to university are nearly twice as likely to drop out than non-care leavers.
I believe passionately that there should be no limit on opportunity and it is our responsibility as a society to help them, regardless of their background.
That is one of the guiding principles of the Care Leavers Covenant – a promise to help care leavers aged 16 to 25 to live more independently and unlock any limits on their potential. It’s a wide-ranging promise and we want private, public, and voluntary sector organisations to get behind it – including universities.
But I want them to go further. There are amazing things happening across the higher education sector but we need to raise the bar and make sure that good practice becomes the norm.
That is why we are publishing a set of principles to guide universities in thinking about how they can support care leavers.
These principles are designed to help universities to first, increase the number of students in care who apply and go to higher education; and second, ensure that when they get there, care leavers are given the support they need to succeed.
That support could actually be really simple things like offering every new care leaver student a personal welcome. They do this at Nottingham University. Care leavers there are helped to settle in, given a ‘welcome goodie bag’, shown to their accommodation, and taken on their first supermarket shop. A small gesture but at a time of first-day nerves, it could be invaluable.
Financial support – such as bursaries covering all-year-round accommodation costs, and associated study costs – is great and universities should do more of this. However in many ways emotional support can be just as important.
For students who lack the parental support that so many of us take for granted, it is vital they have someone in the institution they can trust and whom they can turn to in times of difficulty – to provide them with good advice and a shoulder to lean on.
That support doesn’t have to start when students set foot on campus though. Universities can play a crucial role in helping any disadvantaged young person, but particularly care leavers, realise that going to university isn’t ‘something that other people do’.
For example, St Mary’s University have been running a fantastic series of summer schools for looked-after children under the auspices of the ‘First Star’ programme. These schools can help with a whole range of personal and emotional issues, and help them to realise there is no limit to their potential.
So far 15 universities have signed up to the Care Leavers Covenant and I want more to follow their lead. This covenant and the principles we have published today are not just about providing another box for institutions to tick. They are a commitment, a real commitment to improve the lives of thousands of young people. Why wouldn’t you sign up?