Care-experienced young people in the United Kingdom are less likely to attend university than peers who have not been in care.  This study set out to find out more about this situation, particularly the expectations care experienced young people held towards university attendance during the years leading up to university application and how these expectations changed over time. The study was also interested in care experienced young people’s experiences of applying to university and in their wellbeing and progress once there.


The study wanted to answer the following questions:

  1. What expectations do care experienced young people have in respect to going to university and how do these change over time? 
  2. What influences care-experienced young people’s expectations of applying to and attending university?
  3. How can key care, education and university stakeholders help best support care-experienced young people in their consideration of and application to university?
  4. What support is needed for care-experienced young people once in university?

How we went about it

The study was carried out in two stages:

The first stage consisted of analysis of Next Steps, an existing dataset following the progress of a cohort of over 15,000 English young people of whom 231 were classified as either in care or care experienced at the start of the study.  Within this, the study explored the expectations of care experienced Year 9 pupils in relation to going to university, how these changed over time, and how they related to later involvement in higher education. 

The second qualitative stage o gained richer detail of care-experienced young people’s expectations and attitudes to university  and what influences them over time. This stage used  face to face interviews with six secondary school pupils, 11 care experienced university students and a focus group attended by a mix of care experienced young people – some of whom had been to university and some who had not.

Key findings

The study confirmed that young people who were in care or care experienced at 13-14 years of age had significantly lower expectations of attending university than peers who had not entered care. These lower expectations remained even when other factors such as Special Educational Need,  school exclusions, and family benefit levels were taken into account. In addition, of all the young people who when in Year 9 said they thought they were likely to apply for university, those who had care experienced were much less likely to be in higher education at age 20 than those who had never been in care. This was true even when factors such as SEN, history of exclusions and family benefits were taken into account.  

When talking to care experienced young people the study found:

  • Further evidence that the support care experienced young people received from schools and carers and the priority given by social workers to education were key influences on care experienced young people’s expectations of going to university. 
  • Some local authorities are not giving sufficient attention to young people’s transition to university or wellbeing while there, with some finings that the support promised by local authorities did not materialise. 
  • Where universities provided good levels of support they largely met care experienced young people’s needs, especially needs of a financial or emotional nature. This support reduced anxiety about going to university and made students feel better supported when there.


This report has a few clear implications. First, that although expectations for university are lower for care-experienced young people than their peers, that this need not be the case and that many of these young people find their expectations lowering throughout their educational journey.

This fall must be arrested, and the gap between the expectation and reality for these young people closed, if we are to ensure that young people who have been in care have the same chances and opportunities in life as other young people.

It is also clear that the responsibility for this does not fall to one person within the child’s life. The qualitative findings show that social workers, teachers, and higher education providers can all contribute to ensure that young people believe in themselves, in their chances for the future, and are given every tool and opportunity to achieve what they set out to.

Next Steps

The research highlights that there are many individuals and organisations who can positively affect a young person’s likelihood to attend university. We want to better understand what higher education providers, local authorities, charities and other organisations are doing to support care experienced young people to access and succeed in higher education. What Works for Children’s Social Care, in partnership with Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), has launched a call for evidence and practice from these groups, to feed into a report to be published later this year.