Care-experienced students in higher education: A case for re-figuring higher education worlds to widen access and further social justice

Samantha Child*, Rosanna Alice Marvell

*Corresponding author for this work

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While the higher education (HE) literature highlights how the sector is designed for a typified imagined student, the issues are particularly acute for care-experienced students. The dominant HE discourse assumes that all students will be able or want to participate in ‘stereotypical’ aspects of student life and have stable networks to offer emotional, practical and financial support. Here, we deploy Holland et al.'s formative heuristic of figured worlds to interrogate how socially and culturally constructed realms and artefacts establish ‘givens’. People ‘figure’ who they are through navigating different realms which are conceptually and materially produced. We take particular inspiration from figured worlds’ focus on unequal power in social space; socially and institutionally endorsed understandings of how things ‘should’ be celebrate certain subjectivities and ways of ‘doing’ university while marginalising others. The paper discusses biographical-narrative interviews and collaborative analysis with six students with experience of foster, residential and kinship care, all studying at a post-1992 English university. Crucially, conversations highlighted participants’ exceptional maturity, educational passion and tenacity. Yet challenges remained. This paper focuses on four domains where our participants felt forced into peripheral subjectivities: student accommodation, wellbeing support, societies and curricula. Halls became hostile spaces through high rents, late-night/loud drinking cultures and their transitory nature. Wellbeing services felt inimical when designed for quotidian anxiety and stress, neglecting more complex stories. Similarly, society membership fees, requisite team kits and ‘cliques’ materially and symbolically constricted participants. Finally, specific areas of curricula and pedagogical delivery posed problems, namely when traumatic and/or painful content (e.g. domestic violence and safeguarding) was not assumed to relate to anyone in the classroom. Despite these barriers, participants continued to navigate their HE journeys with skill and creativity. Although this paper's perspective is partial, we argue for theorising the holistic student experience through the lens of figured worlds. This reveals how norms and practices make dominant subject positions hard to access for care-experienced students, contradicting and undermining their obvious value. In concluding, we discuss how locating problems as structural speaks back to deficit discourses, challenging us to reimagine and reconfigure HE through alternative discourses of worth. Attention is needed within and beyond the classroom; students’ lives are multifaceted and played out in multiple figured worlds.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Educational Research Journal
Early online date31 Aug 2023
Publication statusEarly online - 31 Aug 2023


  • care experience
  • higher education
  • students
  • widening participation

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