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Care-experienced academics – shedding light on an invisible community

29 Sep 2022 | Dr Neil Harrison Neil Harrison (associate professor, University of Exeter) reminds us that some academic colleagues had challenging journeys through the education system and wants to understand more about the career paths of those who spent time ‘in care’ as children.

While there is no definitive figure, something like one million adults in the UK spent some of their childhood ‘in care’, usually due to neglect, maltreatment, or other difficulties in their birth family. Indeed, the number of young people in care has risen rapidly in recent years – partly due to the global refugee crisis – and now totals around 100,000 on any given day. This includes fostering, kinship care with extended families, and residential children’s homes, while the time spent in care can vary from one day to a whole childhood.

While each is unique, the life stories of care-experienced young people tend to share some similarities. For most, the legacy of trauma impinges on their ability to engage with education. Frequent absences and unplanned school moves are common, often because of health issues or changes in caring arrangements. Many report stigma and low expectations from teachers and social workers.

As a result, the number of care-experienced students forging a route into higher education was, until recently, thought to be vanishingly small. Thanks to improved data, we now know that around 13% of those in care at 16 in England go on to higher education by the age of 19 – this figure rises substantially with age, as many care-experienced people participate in higher education somewhat later in life. When one crunches the numbers, this means that there might be as many as 10,000 care-experienced students in our universities and colleges. Efforts to increase this number further have accelerated in recent years and they are now considered an important target group for outreach work.

A growing academic community

What happens next for these care-experienced students is still not well understood. We do know that they are less likely to complete their degrees than other students, which appears to relate to a collection of challenges associated directly or indirectly with their earlier lives.

However, those who do get to the end generally do well. In a recent analysis of data from the national Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, my colleagues and I discovered that care-experienced students were only slightly less likely than their peers to achieve a positive graduate outcome – either professional work or further study – six months after completing their degree. In fact, they were significantly more likely than their peers to progress immediately into postgraduate study, with 25% doing so.

And this brings us to the main focus of this blog post. Given this relatively high rate of progression into postgraduate study, it follows logically that there should be a growing community of care-experienced academic staff working in our universities and colleges. In fact, there has been for decades – a largely invisible community that has reached the highest echelons of the education system despite significant hurdles. 

Indeed, the Alliance for Care Experienced People in Higher Education was launched in 2020 as a mutual support network for those working (or studying) within the sector.

Making the invisible visible

I have recently started work on a national research study to find out more about our community of care-experienced academic colleagues. The study is kindly funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust.

As a starting point, it would be useful to know some basic information – how many care-experienced academics are there, in what disciplines do they work, what roles do they hold? However, I am mostly interested in the pathways into their career, their evolving identities as academics and the challenges that they have encountered (and seemingly overcome) along the way.

For example, in informal conversations when planning the study, I learnt about the difficulties in committing to doctoral study without the financial ‘safety net’ associated with family. People also talked about the continuing fear of stigma and the subtle workplace microaggressions that arise from normative assumptions about who and what an academic should be.

I believe that understanding more about the working lives of care-experienced academics is important for the profession. Firstly, it will enable us to shine a light on the ways that we support postgraduate students to succeed – especially those with the greatest challenges. A few universities (e.g. Liverpool) now target scholarships at care-experienced postgraduates and hopefully others will follow suit. Secondly, it will help us to understand how to better welcome those who do enter the profession and enable them to thrive.

Ultimately, I hope that my study will indirectly lead to more care-experienced people entering – and thereby further diversifying – academia. I am also hoping that we might gain new insights into how to help young people in care to flourish in the school system, drawing on the life stories of those who did so in the past.

What next?

If you are a care-experienced academic working in higher education in the UK, I would be very grateful if you could complete a very short online questionnaire about your career so far. You will also be asked if you would be willing to participate in an online interview. If you know any care-experienced colleagues, it would be really helpful if you could pass on this link.

If you have a role in your university or college’s efforts to support equality, diversity and inclusion, you might add a discussion about care experience to the agenda for your next meeting or include something in your next newsletter. Otherwise, you could ask your institution whether they hold the quality mark for supporting care-experienced students and whether they have plans to offer scholarships or mentoring opportunities to improve access to postgraduate study.


Dr Neil Harrison is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Exeter. His recent work has focused on educational outcomes and labour market transitions for care-experienced people. He is also a trustee of the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers.

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