Strathclyde Cares

Jennifer Lynch

The University of Strathclyde has a firm commitment to widening access to higher education and creating an environment in which ability – rather than economic or social circumstances – determine success in gaining a place to study.

The University exceeded its targets for recruiting students from traditionally low-participation groups two years ahead of schedule. There are many initiatives which have contributed to this achievement, including the award-winning Strathclyde Cares programme.

This programme – the first of its kind in the UK– helps and supports students with experience of the care system throughout their higher education journey, from pre-application to graduation and beyond. It was the winner in the Retention, Support and Student Outcomes category of the 2018 Guardian University Awards.

Strathclyde has had 161 care-experienced students since 2008. More than half – 84 – are currently studying at the University.

 Recruitment Officer Debbie Duncan (far left) and Widening Access Support Adviser Louise Martin (second right) receive the Guardian University Award for Strathclyde Cares. Photo Alicia Canter for the Guardian.

A student's story

One of the students to have benefited from Strathclyde Cares is Jennifer Lynch, who is in the fourth year of her integrated Masters course in Forensic and Analytical Chemistry and who has experience of the care system.

Here, she speaks of the support she has received through the Strathclyde Cares programme and its benefits to her:

“Getting a place at university was always my greatest goal and is now my greatest success. Growing up, school was the only place I consistently felt safe and valued, so I always saw education as my escape from anything I was facing. Getting a place at university was more than just an academic goal though, as it allowed me to leave my foster placement and gain independence of my own in a manner that was safe and supported.

“It was both unusual and incredibly fortunate for me that, even when things were at their toughest, I still managed to get myself in to primary school each day. I was also fortunate that I was able to remain in just one foster placement throughout my high school education, giving me the invaluable stability necessary to get the qualifications to get into university. I know many other young people from similar backgrounds who were unable to do this, due to having to care for younger siblings or relatives or simply from being moved schools or foster homes so many times that they simply slipped through the net of education entirely. Unfortunately, for those of us who do miss out on education, there is rarely adequate support in place when we return to allow us to reach our potential.

Best decision

“The move to university was the best decision I ever made, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also very tough at times. Moving away from everything I had come to know in my foster care environment did bring up a lot for me, as the last time I had made such a seismic move had been on going into foster care. I had to work hard to remind myself that this move would be different, that I had chosen this, that I was now old enough to look after myself and build the future that I wanted.

“It was also a time that highlighted how different my experience was from many of my peers. I saw many of the people around me being checked on by loved ones every few days, being able to simply ask for more money when they were struggling, always having a loving home to go back to at weekends and never having to worry about where they would spend the holidays. Yet I never felt I had to hide my care experience from anyone at university, none of my friends reacted negatively when I mentioned my background, with many offering support as well as being genuinely curious to learn about how the care system functions.

“Over the years I have found an incredible support network among my uni friends, where I feel more accepted, respected and loved than I ever did growing up, I doubt they will ever truly understand the incredible nature of what they have given me.

“Even from long before I arrived, Strathclyde’s widening access team were contacting me to highlight scholarships and support programmes I would be eligible for, as well as offering me a mentor when I started my first year. I went on to do both voluntary and paid work for them promoting their projects, I got the opportunity to represent the university overseas, become involved with several of Scotland’s care experienced charities through them, speak at conferences and, most recently, to be the student representative for the university at the Times Higher Education Awards in London.

Genuine care

“I cannot be thankful enough for the support my mentor and the staff at widening access have given me over the past three and a half years; their genuine care for every student is something I never expected to experience. When they say they are proud of me, I know that they really do mean it, and that makes all the work just that little bit more rewarding.

“I want to continue my education and see where it takes me. I have very few set goals besides being happy, general success in whichever form it comes, and seeing as much of the world as I can. However, I would like to achieve these things safe in the knowledge that the young people coming after me have a more supported and loving journey through the care system than me or my predecessors did.

“My work with WhoCares?Scotland and The Life Changes Trust has brought me into contact with both Bruce Adamson, the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland, and Fiona Duncan, who is currently chairing the independent review into the Scottish care system, and I can honestly say that they have restored considerable faith in me that Scotland’s care system is on the track to improvement.

“Between their passion for their work and the announcement by Nicola Sturgeon of bursaries for care experienced students at university, we are beginning to see a step change in the way the government, educational institutions and the care system are learning to come together to love and support their vulnerable young people.”