Thu 18 Apr 2019
The Guardian (open access)
When Lucy Davis left school at 12, falling into addiction and ultimately homelessness, the last thing she thought she’d be doing at 30 was going to university. But now she’s planning to start a fine art degree in September. Davis is one of five students – all homeless and mostly recovering from addiction – who have applied to university after enrolling in a new pre-university access module at the University of Chichester. The module is designed to empower vulnerable people with the confidence and skills to apply for degree courses.
I was motivated to develop the module after I was asked to develop a resilience workshop by the local homelessness charity, Stonepillow. I was struck by the extent to which “being intelligent” and “being educated” are not the same. Lots of the homeless people I met at these workshops had not been privileged enough to receive a good education. They would never even have considered going to university, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t capable of doing so.
Supporting homeless people to achieve their potential matters now more than ever. The latest figures from the charity Crisis show that homelessness has increased by 60% since 2012, reaching 320,000 people. This has created a modern-day diaspora with no clear pathway back into society. For this vulnerable group, with complex needs exacerbated by barriers to basic services such as housing, health, employment and benefits, attending university is low on the list of aspirations. Yet for many, a university education will help them get their lives fully on track, enabling them to find fulfilling work and a regular income.
Many homeless students are nervous about entering higher education, since they lose access to benefits as soon as they receive a student loan. Universities need to work harder to make these students understand that they will not be losing out: the loan equates to nearly the same value as their lost benefits, they can apply for additional financial support through a hardship fund, and they can work during the holidays, which would otherwise cause them to lose their benefits.
There are other more practical barriers, such as the initial £18 payment to complete the Ucas application form, or the way not having a long-term permanent address interferes with the registration process. Many homeless people have moved around so often that they no longer have proof of prior qualifications.
According to research by Patrick Mulrenan from London Metropolitan University, homeless students often don’t use available pastoral support and financial advice. This is why the homelessness module we designed introduces students to crucial support team members before starting their degree, so they know who to turn to for information or when crises occur. This is particularly important given that many people recovering from addiction or who have experienced homelessness are struggling from mental health problems.
It’s also important to listen to homeless people to find out what their needs are. At Chichester, we created the module in collaboration with the homeless students themselves, aiming to develop and assess academic skills to ensure they are ready for the first year of university. We are using lived experience to develop academic reading, writing and research skills, self-confidence, self-esteem and self-belief. Honest and insightful links are made between themes like emotional intelligence, reflective practice, decision-making skills, critical thinking and past, often painful, experiences.
While the project is small-scale and localised, we hope that this concept will gain momentum. The students know passing the module and starting a degree is only the beginning of a journey full of challenges, but they are motivated by a renewed sense of hope. Despite this, there is remarkably little evidence or data on how this vulnerable group accesses and experiences university.
Innovative courses such as the master’s-level course in homeless and inclusion health at the University of Edinburgh raise awareness of homelessness within higher education, and support the development of effective professional skills. But more direct work needs to be done by universities to offer a different future for those trying to leave homelessness behind.
But we need government support. The module at Chichester would not have run without the money the local homelessness charity raised through crowdfunding. Only with a stable funding stream will universities be able to work together to become part of the solution to the growing problem of homelessness.
- Becky Edwards is a lecturer at the University of Chichester