NPP Projects

Recruiting and Supporting Care Leavers in Australian Higher Education

Lead University: La Trobe University

Lead Researcher: Andrew Harvey

Research Team: Andrew Harvey, Perri Campbell, Lisa Andrewartha, Jacqueline Wilson and Pearl Goodwin-Burns

Year Funded: 2015

Funding Received: $127,000

DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.6988805.v1



This project produced a model for attracting and supporting care leavers into higher education. Analysis of international research; analysis of data collection methods; and in-depth interviews with care leavers provided insight into the group’s experiences and outcomes. Project outputs included guidelines for students who have spent time in out-of-home care and guidelines for university staff delivering outreach and support to this target group.

Project outline

  • Care leavers, including people who have left foster care, residential care and kinship care, typically face extreme challenges to participate and succeed in higher education. They are likely to have mental health issues, to be from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, and to have experienced disrupted schooling and family lives.
  • While some of these challenges are beyond the scope of universities to address, there are numerous policy changes that could improve access and success.
  • Approximately 43,000 children and young people live in out-of-home care in Australia and a substantial proportion of them come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • International evidence is clear on the extent of under-representation of care leavers in higher education. International research continues to confirm the importance of raising expectations, normalising and demystifying higher education as a destination, and listening to the voices of care leavers, while providing targeted accessible support and measuring university participation, success and outcomes.
  • The project was a multi-state, cross-institutional analysis of care leavers in Australian higher education. It had five components:
    • analysing lessons from international research
    • analysing methods of collecting data on care leavers in higher education
    • in-depth interviews with care leavers to capture their voices
    • producing guidelines for professional and academic staff working in universities to support care leavers
    • producing higher education guidelines for students who have spent time in out-of-home care.

Key findings

  • New methods of measuring access and success were developed. Changes were made to university enrolment forms and educational access schemes operated by state tertiary admissions centres. These changes provide a template for data collection by which institutions can quantify and monitor care leaver data.
  • From detailed interviews with care leavers across three states and four institutions, several themes were clear: the desire of care leavers to be treated as normal students; an over-representation of mental health issues; and a relative unlikeliness to report such issues or seek counselling.
  • Care leavers had a relatively low take-up of financial and support services. Financial hardship was common, mental health was frequently cited; and disadvantage was often extreme. However, care leavers rarely applied for compensation for educational disadvantage; rarely applied for scholarships and financial bursaries; and often did not access counselling support services when enrolled. Care leavers were also likely to be confused by tertiary application processes, including financial aid, and reluctant to deal with bureaucracies. Mitigating these issues is important to reducing marginalisation.
  • Care leavers were also found to have a powerful resilience to succeed, corroborated by qualitative and quantitative research. They often demonstrated high reserves of determination and persistence enabling them to overcome severe educational barriers and challenges.


  • The report produced guidelines for professional and academic staff working in universities to support care leavers in higher education.
  • Higher education guidelines were also developed for students who have spent time in out-of-home care.

Summary prepared by the NCSEHE.


Posted 30 May 2018