15/09/2016 12:03 BST | Updated 16/09/2017 06:12 BST

Higher Education Bill Must Prioritise Care Leavers

Over recent months the media has paid particular attention to the fact that disadvantaged working class white boys are five times less likely to go to university than those from the most advantaged backgrounds. However, few seem to acknowledge that that only 5 per cent of young care leavers went to university last year.

As part of the drive to help increase participation in higher education from underrepresented groups of young people, the Government introduced the Higher Education and Research Bill, which entered Committee Stage in the House of Commons recently. This is a Bill that will make a number of wide ranging changes to higher education in the coming years, including aiming to improve access and participation for disadvantaged students. However, we are yet to hear about how this Bill will help increase participation for care leavers.

Care leavers have a unique relationship with the state. They are young people who have had the state intervene in their lives in the most extreme way possible - by being taken from their birth parents. So as this Bill progresses through both Houses, MPs and peers should be considering the particular impact that this piece of legislation could have on this group of vulnerable and underrepresented young people, and they must ensure that care leavers are named as a priority group. Otherwise they will not be fulfilling their duty as the ultimate corporate parents for all children in care right across the country.

By making care leavers a priority group, Government will be upholding the belief that all parents have, that their children can achieve their potential whatever their start in life.

One of the provisions that the Bill puts in place is the requirement for universities to have a Student Protection Plan in case the university or course closes. It is imperative that this plan includes added protections for care leavers. Care leavers often attend local universities for financial or accommodation reasons. It may be particularly difficult for them to move to a different university that can meet their academic and pastoral needs, as well as convincing their local authority that they should continue to support them. Given the duty on local authorities to provide financial assistance to care leavers in education until they are 25, it would not be fair if any additional financial burden fell on a care leaver or local authority due to a failure by a university that is beyond the young person's control.

This Bill will also allow universities to charge higher fees, linking them with teaching quality. Linking teaching quality to fees puts a premium on excellent teaching and will force debt adverse students to consider compromising teaching quality to lower fees. We have worked with care experienced students, and the universities that support them, as part of our work on access to higher education, and we know that concern about finances can play a huge role when care leavers make their decision about where and what to study. Whether it is choosing courses or universities with fee waivers, bursaries or low tuition fees, finance plays a much bigger part in the decisions that care leavers make than it does for many of their non-care experienced peers.

As the effects of the loss of the maintenance grant and National Scholarship Programme are felt by all students, those with experience of care will be looking for even more ways to save money.

The Bill alone won't solve access and participation issues for care leavers. Many of the barriers to higher education for these young people begin while they are in care, rather than suddenly appearing at 19. However, we know that many universities offer excellent packages of support for care leavers that acknowledge the journey that these students have taken.

This piece of legislation has the power to make a real difference to disadvantaged students. However, unless there are safeguards put in place, it also has the power to put care experienced students at greater risk of dropping out of higher education, choosing lower quality provision than their peers, or maybe not even going to university at all.

We also know that many care leavers go on to university later in life, when they are at a more stable point in their life, or have had the chance to go back to take qualifications that they didn't get when they were younger. This is great, and something that should be celebrated. But care leavers should be adequately supported to go to university at the same time as their peers if they wish.

Many care leavers, by the time they enter higher education, have faced huge inequality and disadvantage and we must not disadvantage them further. Instead we call on the Government to ensure that the Higher Education and Research Bill does all it can to help this inspirational, hardworking, and diverse group of young people take the opportunities that they deserve, and to achieve their potential.

We run Propel, which is a resource for care experienced young people across the UK looking to access higher education.