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Patricia McNamara, PhD & Andrew Harvey, PhD & Lisa Andrewartha / La Trobe University

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Care leaver transition to university in Australia: Applying local and international evidence to improve participation and retention

Few Australian out-of-home care (OOHC) leavers complete high school and transition to higher education. Those who do transition, often struggle to complete. Until recently, poor education outcomes of young Australians growing up in OOHC have been consistent with international experience. However, innovative initiatives in Europe (Spain, Sweden and the UK especially) and in the US, have seen improvement in rates of high school graduation and successful completion of university study. Those endeavours, along with a growing level of local concern, gave rise to a recent Australian scoping study. This mixed methods research aimed to identify opportunities and barriers to higher education transition for care leavers.
International research evidence was reviewed, together with a desktop analysis of Australian policy and practice; an online survey of OOHC equity provisions within all public higher education institutions and interviews with key OOHC providers were then conducted.
Qualitative findings from the survey and interviews are presented here. These suggest that few policies or programs exist to support successful care leaver transition to university in Australia. Premature ‘ageing out of care’ and enduring impacts of trauma create barriers. A pervasive culture of low aspiration and expectation for those in care and post-care possibly constitutes the most substantial obstacle. Governments, universities and community service organisations can, however, empower students from OOHC backgrounds with strategies such as extended foster care placements, psycho-social and study skills support, mentorship, family/extended family engagement, advocacy, housing and financial resources. Drawing on international experience, implications of the study’s findings for policy, practice and further research are suggested.

Keywords: out-of-home care higher education transition Australia international