Around 40,000 children are estimated to require out-of-home care in Australia and this number has risen every year over the past decade (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2014a). 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. Our 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. We provide recommendations targeted to the Australian Government, state and territory governments, higher education institutions, and community service organisations.
Three reforms are required to improve the access and achievement of care leavers in higher education:
- The collection of nationally consistent data on higher education access and outcomes for care leavers.
- Policy reform within the education and community service sectors including greater recognition of this under-represented student cohort and support for the transition of young people from out-of-home care to adulthood.
- An over-arching need for cultural change that challenges the often low expectations for care leavers.