The University of Oxford has been ranked as the worst university for care leaver admissions, a study has found. Out of about 15,685 Oxford undergraduate students, only five were care leavers (0.03%) in the 2021-22 academic year.
In contrast, Cambridge ranked significantly better, placing 109th out of the 149 UK universities, with 65 care leavers of 13,645 undergraduates attending the university.
Russell Group universities generally ranked poorly, with five appearing in the bottom ten universities, and only three making it to the top 100. The report also mentioned that across the 24 Russell universities, there were just 1,730 care leavers registered, accounting for 0.4% of their student populations. This proportion is half of the national university average of 0.8%.
The report, published by the think-tank Civitas, used official data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), to rank all 149 UK universities and higher education providers. It found that of the 1.95 million undergraduates in 2021-22, 15,555 had been in social care for at least a year before 18.
According to the think-tank, almost half of non-care leavers (47%) started university in 2021-22, compared to just 14% of care leavers, which Civitas has called “the care ceiling”.
Based on the current rate of progress, it is estimated it will take 107 years to close this gap, possibly even longer for elite universities with low baseline proportions, as when care leavers are admitted to university they are twice as likely to attend one with a “low” UCAS-tariff compared to a higher one.
Civitas also found that children receiving free school meals and those in the bottom 20% wealth bracket are more than twice as likely to attend university before the age of 19 than care leavers.
The Care Leaver Officer at Oxford’s Class Act campaign told Cherwell: “While the University of Oxford has historically prided itself upon its prestigious reputation, there is without a doubt a concerning lack of support for care-experienced and estranged students, which runs contrary to their claims of commitment to inclusivity and equality.
“Despite a slightly increasing number of care-experienced and estranged students being admitted to Oxford, the figures are still devastatingly low- a mere five undergraduate care-leavers in 2021-22 gained admission.”
The Civitas report advocates for a “scholarship” system, which it claims has seen success in Scotland. Current support for care leavers at Oxford includes assisting in securing 365-day accommodation through Colleges, the Crankstart scholarship (means-tested), and a care leaver bursary of up to £3,000 per year.
Furthermore, in 2023 the Care-Experienced Academic Futures scholarship for graduate students was launched to assist with course fees and living costs.
The University has also refuted the published figure of five as not a reliable reflection of the actual population of care leavers it had. A spokesman for Oxford University told Cherwell: “Oxford is committed to supporting students from a care background and ensuring that finance is not a barrier for talented students who want to pursue study here. Between 2019 and 2022, 72 undergraduate care leavers were accepted to Oxford.
“We continue to review and enhance the support we offer to under-represented students at Oxford to help improve equality, diversity and inclusion in Oxford’s student body.
“In addition to the tuition fee and maintenance support available to UK undergraduates, Oxford provides a range of non-repayable financial support for care experienced UK students.”
Figures differ between different institutions; the number Oxford uses is pulled from UCAS where a “care flag” is present. This does not necessarily document and capture, or ask to declare if someone is a care-leaver. Numbers obtained from Student Finance England (SFE) are lower with 19 care-leavers at Oxford.
Civitas told Cherwell that the reason for this divergence is how care-leavers are defined and what metrics are used to count them, adding that “the different datasets do indeed frequently have different results, and these results favour different institutions.”
According to the think-tank, the UCAS “care experienced” tick-box and means-tested funding data used by SFE have high false positive rates. They argue that their approach gives “the most accurate view of this count” but acknowledge that it may not capture all care-leavers.
Civitas also told Cherwell: “Universities – especially elite universities – without carefully designed strategies to widen participation of care leavers tend to have very few care leavers as care leavers will almost always apply to universities that offer free year-round accommodation and full funding.
“On this, Oxford’s program for widening participation (the Astrophoria Foundation Year Programme) started this academic year, so the numbers will take a few years to tick up. This is key to note; Oxford’s very poor performance is almost certain to drastically improve in the coming years as the wheels are well in motion on improving it.”