How to pay for university when you’re a care leaver

Applying to university in the UK can feel expensive and shrouded in mystery. But there’s loads of funding and support out there, with extra help for care leavers.

Ruth Bushi
6 min readOct 28, 2020
Teens sitting at cafe table with laptops, laughing

Who counts as a care leaver?

The Care Leavers’ Association says a care leaver is any adult who has spent time in care as a child. This includes if you’ve lived in a children’s home, with a foster carer, or with others outside your immediate family.

A couple of extras may come into play when you apply for university or student funding. For instance, how long you were in care, at what age. Many universities approach this quite broadly, though.

Why does it matter?

When you apply for university, you can choose to say you’re a care leaver. You can do this by ticking the box on your UCAS form (i.e., course application). And you can mention it to universities directly.

Doing this makes it easier to get extra support to start and stay at university. Read on to see what’s on offer.

Quick note: Universities decide their own support and criteria. Most is reserved for full-time undergrads under 25, and who are home-status (UK) students. Use this page as a starting point, then dig up details relevant to you.

Not sure where you stand? Talk to your support worker. There’s also info about eligibility on university websites, and via the Student Finance portal for your country:

How much does university cost?

Course fees vary around the UK. It also depends where you normally live before uni.

Here’s the most that universities can currently charge

Table with maximum UK university course fees for students with ‘home’ status

These are maximum fees. Some courses charge less. And fees can change from year to year. Check the UCAS website and individual university websites for full details on courses you like the look of.

You’ll also need to budget for other study costs (such as books and stationery) and living expenses. Living costs are everything you need to get by in life: rent, bills, food, socialising, etc. Save the Student works this out as £795/month while studying.

No, it’s not just you — the numbers sound scary on paper. But in reality, most students don’t have to pay fees upfront. There’s also funding for living costs, with extra support for care leavers.

Bottom line: if you want a degree, don’t let money worries hold you back.

How to pay for university

If you’re a first-time student, you’ll likely be eligible for a Student Loan (you apply for this through the Student Finance organisations above). The loan is made up of two parts.

First, there’s a tuition fees loan. The money is paid directly to your university each year of your course, and covers the full amount of fees.

You can also take a maintenance loan for living costs. This is paid into your bank account in instalments, and you can use it to cover daily costs like bills, groceries and bus fares. (In Scotland you might get a bursary instead of a loan).

Usually, maintenance funding depends on your parents’ income. The more they earn, the less funding you get, with parents expected to top up the difference.

Care leavers are usually assessed as independent students, so parental income doesn’t matter. This typically means you’ll be eligible for the maximum amount, so you should have plenty to live on at uni.

Worried about taking a Student Loan?

Although it’s called a loan, this official funding works more like a graduate tax. You only start to repay it once you’ve left your course AND earn above a certain amount.

If you earn less than this income threshold, loan repayments stop until you’re back over the line. In other words, repayments back off when you don’t earn much, or times when you’re unemployed. Then, after around 30 years, anything you still owe is written off.

This flexibility makes the Student Loan a manageable way to pay for university — so don’t be put off by the name.

This Money Advice Service guide explains in detail how the Student Loan works.

Extra Student Finance

When you apply for courses, Student Finance will usually also assess whether your details make you eligible for additional support.

Unlike the Student Loan, these are grants. That means you don’t have to pay them back. There’s special funding for:

  • Parents and carers
  • Disabled Students’ Allowance
  • Travel grants for clinical placements or if you study part of your course in another country.

Contact Student Finance to learn more about these, or to see how support varies for courses in medicine, social work or teaching.

Heads-up: grants, bursaries and scholarships are all types of free money: you don’t have to pay them back later on (unlike loans). This can change if you leave your course early. You don’t need to worry about this yet — it’s just handy to know.

Tailored support for care leavers

Most universities have their own care leavers’ package (some are open to care experienced students, too). Once you’ve spotted a course that appeals, get in touch with the uni and ask what they offer.

Ask about:

  • Care leavers’ bursary. Can be worth anything from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds, either as a one-off or yearly payment
  • Fee-waivers or discounts
  • Free, guaranteed or low-cost housing, including during vacations
  • A named contact or buddy system to help you transition to uni life or living independently.

Your local authority may also offer:

  • A Higher Education (HE) bursary
  • Housing, or money for housing during vacations
  • Help choosing a course, preparing for interviews, plus other practical skills.

Ask your support worker or university contact what’s available in your area.

Other university funding

As well as help tailored to care leavers, universities will have other support that all students have a shot at.

These may be called grants, bursaries or scholarships. The key thing is that you don’t need to repay them.

Some give payouts to all new students or those on select courses. Others reward grades or achievements. There’s usually a decent spread, so it’s worth checking the university’s website to see what’s up for grabs (and how to apply).

If you run into unexpected money problems after starting your course, you may be able to apply for hardship funds (also called access funds). These may be grants or loans.

Charity grants

A number of charities offer grants for care leavers at university. As they’re grants, you don’t need to pay them back. They’re often awarded for hardship, study materials and costs not covered by other funding.

Keep in mind these programmes tend to have set application windows and limited funds (often first come, first served). Check them out as early as possible so you can plan ahead.

Your support worker or uni student services team can tell you about others.

Other sources of student income

There’s a lot of funding out there. But if you need it, there are even more ways to boost your income.

  • Get a part-time job. There may be vacancies in university departments or student facilities. Look online for remote work. Or consider working for yourself.
  • Use the grants and benefits checkers at Turn2Us to see what else you’re eligible for.

Putting it all together

If you want to go to university, there’s no shortage of cash to help make it happen.

This doesn’t guarantee things will all be plain sailing. But just as with funding, there’s lots of support to help you meet the challenges.

  • Your university will have loads of resources for learning to deal with money — make the most of them. Budgeting is the #1 way to make the most of any funding or income you get. This student budget planner may help.
  • Lots of students worry about homesickness or living independently. University support staff have seen it all before, so don’t be shy about asking for help if you need it.

Resources

Photo credit: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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Ruth Bushi
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Freelance journalist & writer: student money expert and former university guides editor. Also books, film and culture. Bylines: Guardian, Metro & more. She/Her.