Care leavers in Australian higher education: success and graduate outcomes

Year: 2021

Author: Harvey, Andrew, Tootell, Naomi, Cakitaki, Beni

Type of paper: Individual Paper

International evidence suggests that care leavers (those who have left foster, kinship or residential care) often record poorer completion rates and graduate outcomes than other university students (Courtney 2016). To date there has been no equivalent longitudinal analysis of completions and outcomes for care leaver university students in Australia. This paper will present the first such analysis of care leaver data collected across two Australian universities. The quantitative analysis will be supplemented by thematic analysis of qualitative data collected through interviews with Australian care leaver graduates. The paper will also suggest initiatives and strategies for universities, governments, community organisations and employers to improve university success, retention and completion rates as well as graduate outcomes for care leavers, in a climate of pandemic, rising unemployment, and precarity.  Care leavers are one of the most disadvantaged groups in Australia, and their disadvantage has been further heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic (Mendes & Waugh 2020). While there is no national data collected on care leavers in higher education in Australia, the evidence that exists suggests their participation rate is very low (Harvey et al. 2015). Previous research also suggests that care leavers who attend university often have reserves of strength and resilience that enable them to overcome severe educational barriers and challenges (Harvey et al. 2017). Drawing on data collected by two Australian universities since 2016, this paper will provide the first comprehensive picture of care leaver university students in Australia. The quantitative research will compare the success, retention, completion, and graduate outcomes of care leavers with low SES students, other equity groups, and students overall within the selected universities and the higher education sector. Results will be analysed against university and sectoral benchmarks and will include an international comparative focus with England and the United States, where similar outcome analysis has been conducted (Harrison 2018; Courtney 2016). The quantitative analysis will be contextualised by qualitative research exploring care leaver participation in, and experiences of, extra-curricular activities, work-integrated learning, placements, and careers services, as well as graduate perceptions of employers, industry, and community supports.The research will provide the first robust evidence of how care leavers are performing and graduating compared with other university students. Such evidence is critical to identifying gaps in initiatives and strategies required to support care leavers and other marginalised students to graduate successfully and find employment. The importance of equitable graduate outcomes is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.