11 September 2023

Why are there only five care leavers at Oxford University but 65 at Cambridge?


You’re more likely to meet an undergraduate from Luxembourg than a care leaver at Oxford University. That’s a pretty poor record for a university that propels graduates into the higher echelons of business and society. Officially sourced figures show there are approximately five care leavers among the 15,000 undergraduates at the famous university (although the university itself has a different number on file), but ten Luxembourgers make the short journey from central Europe to Oxford. Without stoking Oxbridge rivalries Cambridge manages 65, hardly very impressive but much more than their nearest rival.

Every year there is confected outrage among some MPs looking for a cheap headline complaining about the university prospects of some group or other. No one ever seems to mention care leavers who are the least likely group of young people to get into university, behind travellers and children with severe special needs. Even the poorest children are twice as likely to get a university spot than a care leaver. The difference is the state actually has a legal, parental responsibility for these children but the state makes a lousy parent.

We endlessly debate the merits of a university education versus vocational training but it is still, just about, true that getting a degree will give you a head start in adult life. This is certainly true for care leavers who face miserable prospects.

It might make sense to give this group a shot at a university degree in the hope of avoiding the worst experiences adult life has to offer. It is a wonderful thing that we open up our best universities to the good people of Luxembourg, a historic and beautiful city state – it is less wonderful that our own care leavers miss out on places at top universities, or any university at all. About half of all young people will go from school to university, the figure is 14% for care leavers. Just 90 children from care will make the same journey and win a place at our elite universities.

It isn’t news that care leavers have pretty dreadful outcomes in all sorts of areas that end up costing the state a lot of money, but it turns out when they do go to university and come out with a degree the earnings gap almost disappears. Their employment prospects are similar too. In simple terms instead of living on the dole or taking up a space in a prison cell or some other costly occupation they earn just as much as any other graduate. It is quite the transformation. You might think ministers would be more interested but the vague commitment made by the education department to ‘close the gap’ between care leavers and young people who didn’t grow up in care will take 107 years to achieve at the current rate of progress.

This isn’t the case in Scotland where numbers have tripled in little more than a single parliament. Ministers there got universities to agree to guaranteeing a place on their courses for any care leaver who made the required grades. The government then gave care leavers a hefty bursary when they got there to cover living costs.

There is plenty wrong with our universities, they are too woke and many offer courses that lead to life of debt, but we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to do something worthwhile for once. One recent study found the lifetime ‘social cost’ – a fancy way of saying costs of welfare and public services – for each care leaver was well over £1m.

Education ministers recently admitted they have little idea what happens to children from the care system after their GCSEs and how well they do in education between 16 and 18. That is quite an important thing to know if you really do want to close the gap on children who didn’t grow up in care. It’s not just down to universities to produce glossy leaflets or special open days – if there isn’t the pipeline of children getting the grades they won’t be getting into university, especially one of the more famous top tier ‘unis’.

Congratulations to the future class of 2027, some will find the university degree they are about to embark on will change their lives for the better, some may well find it has been a huge waste of money. Whatever the outcome for Johnny and Jemima Middle Class, for your typical care leaver university will transform their prospects and represent better value for the taxpayer. Breaking the so called care ceiling might sound like the sort of thing a worthy backbench MP might say for a few social media likes, but it might actually turn out to be a better idea than leaving care leavers to languish on the state.

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Frank Young is director of research and communications at Civitas and co-author of Breaking the Care Ceiling.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.