Out of Care, into University: Raising Higher Education Access and Achievement of Care Leavers

Dr Andrew Harvey, Dr Patricia McNamara, Lisa Andrewartha, and Michael Luckman - LaTrobe University Access & Achievement Research Unit


In Australia, 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. 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. The authors’ 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. The authors provide recommendations targeted to the Australian Government, state and territory governments, higher education institutions, and community service organisations. The authors’ 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. 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. Finally, there is an overarching need for cultural change. The authors argue that 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.