The journey towards a common definition of care-experienced

The importance of evaluation and evidence, as well as understanding an issue, was highlighted by John Blake, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office of Students, at the recent UUK Access, Participation and Student Success Conference 2023. At Go Higher West Yorkshire (GHWY), we have a strong focus on using research – our own, and that of others – to start to understand the experiences of the groups of learners with whom we work. 

Around a year ago, colleagues from Leeds Arts University put GHWY in touch with a PhD student at Leeds Trinity University – Gillian – who was researching Care Leavers and Estranged Students at several higher education providers (HEPs). Initial conversations with Gillian highlighted the difficulties caused by the lack of a common definition in higher education (HE) of ‘care experience’. Some HEPs use the very narrow ‘care leaver’ definition, and others use their own phrasing and eligibility.  

With the need clearly evidenced, a solution was identified: HE providers using the same definition as UCAS for care-experienced students. Gillian’s findings were used to speak with GHWY’s Care-Experienced and Estranged Students Network about a proposal for a common definition of care-experience across GHWY’s 13 member institutions. Subsequent presentations were used to gain buy-in from the Access and Participation Strategy Group, and to listen to concerns and thoughts from the GHWY Board. 

We were able to bring all GHWY members on board with a common definition of care experience by using data, evidence and a collaborative approach. The approach was not just across GHWY but with support and the sharing of experiences from the North East Raising Aspirations Partnership, who had implemented their own common definition a few months earlier. 

The outcome of this will have wide-ranging positives: 

  • For care-experienced HE applicants and their key influencers, who will now know with certainty at the application stage that they will be eligible for support from a GHWY member institution 
  • For care-experienced learners who have progressed to a GHWY member institution, where those who do not meet the very narrow ‘care leaver’ definition – yet who arguably have as great if not a greater need for support – will be eligible for support 
  • For our member institutions, who should start to see a better-quality data picture coming through around their care-experienced cohorts 
  • For West Yorkshire, as we are seen as a destination where support for care-experienced learners is paramount 
  • For the wider sector, as we push for greater commonality of understanding around this cohort, which will improve the national data picture  

This was a fantastic example of joint effort across so many staff in our member institutions, and we are hugely grateful for your input. We couldn’t have done this without you. 


Laura da Costa, Access & Participation Development Manager at Leeds Arts University, and Helen Sykes, Head of GHWY