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The pioneering university project helping homeless people get degrees

The University of Chichester’s Adversity to University programme helps people who have experienced homelessness get onto degree courses. This week it welcomed six new starters.

Six people experiencing homelessness will attend university this week as part of a pioneering course to open up higher education to people who have faced life without a home.

The University of Chichester launched the Adversity to University programme in 2018 to open the door to people who have faced homelessness, working with local charity Stonepillow.

Becky Edwards, a senior lecturer at the university, has developed the 12-week pilot course which has so far enabled 27 people to study for qualifications on the programme.

Edwards has created a toolkit for other university lecturers across the country to replicate the model and allow people to lift themselves out of poverty and homelessness through education.

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“We have people standing there with certificates going ‘This is the first time I’ve ever finished anything in my life’,” said Becky. “It’s about just building that, that self-belief and that self-esteem that has gotten lost somewhere along the way. 

“Our whole ethos is that education and intelligence are not synonymous. But in the UK, we get them really muddled up and some people just haven’t been lucky enough to have a good education or people who value education around them. It’s that thing about equality of opportunity. That’s what we’re trying to create.”

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The bridging module sees students given a series of lectures to introduce them to academic life and to allow them to find areas of study they want to pursue.

The course is intended to build academic and critical thinking skills using the lived experience from students’ own lives and has been developed in collaboration with people experiencing homelessness.

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Completing the course sees students achieve 20 academic credits at Level 4 – equivalent to a module in the first year of a Bachelor’s degree – and is accepted at the University of Chichester as a non-traditional pathway onto degree courses.

So far, the alumni have gone on to study degrees in teaching, adventure education, fine art, sociology and games design.

homelessness degrees Darren Higginson
Darren Higginson dreams of becoming a counsellor as he starts his journey through university in 2022. Image: Darren Higginson

Darren Higginson is among the new starters this week. The 57-year-old is staying in sheltered accommodation after battling alcohol addiction following the death of his partner around 14 years ago.

Higginson is now on the path to doing a sociology degree at the university in a bid to become a counsellor and told The Big Issue it would not be possible without Adversity to University.

“It would have been quite tricky to go down that route because this has really been my guide to getting into it,” he said. “I don’t think I could have put myself in this position in my mind a year ago. Nothing would have been further from my imagination.

“I really do think that this would be amazing if other universities were doing it, it gives you something that you wouldn’t have dreamed that you’d be doing, you wouldn’t imagine that you would do it yourself.”

While Higginson is just starting out his journey at university, Lucy Davies is nearing the end of her time at the University of Chichester.

She was one of the first people to attend the Adversity to University programme and is now in her final year of studying for a fine art undergraduate degree. She is set to be the first person from the programme to graduate a full three-year course.

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The achievement is a far cry from the situation she found herself in before joining the course. 

Davies told The Big Issue she was home educated as a youngster and only attended school for one term when she was 15, leaving her with no GCSEs.

The 32-year-old has experienced spells of homelessness since she was 16 after being kicked out of her family home and spent time living in a car in Chichester. She has struggled with anxiety and depression that has prevented her from progressing with her life.

homelessness degrees Lucy Davies
Lucy Davies is now in her third year of studying fine art at the university and is set to become the first student from Adversity to University to complete a three-year undergraduate degree. Image: Lucy Davies

The course has helped Davies to get her life back on track and she now lives in a caravan while she is studying for the end of her undergraduate degree. Once she graduates later this year, she intends to continue her studies for a postgraduate degree in fine art at Bath Spa University.

“The bridging module was the beginning of a new chapter in my life and it was almost like a bit of a rebirth experience,” she told The Big Issue. “Homelessness kind of strips you down to absolutely nothing and in my sense of identity and who I was, I wasn’t anything anymore.

“I really never would have thought I’d ever go to university. But the course was very accessible, it started off really easy, and it was very friendly and diverse and interesting and fun. It then grew in difficulty each week, whereby we didn’t really notice the difficulty, until in the end we were writing essays and doing independent research.”

Edwards is continuing to develop the course and is hoping other universities will follow suit.

For every university across the country to offer their own version would be “the dream”, according to Edwards.

Not only has it boosted the prospects of local people experiencing homelessness, it has also changed perceptions of the issue inside the university.

Becky Edwards homelessness degrees
University of Chichester social work lecturer Becky Edwards has developed the programme over the last four years. Image: University of Chichester

“Even if it changes one person’s life, then it’s worth doing,” said Edwards. “It’s not about number crunching. But if you could get every university around the country to get at least two people going on into higher education, those start being numbers that can make a real difference.

“It’s broken down our stereotypical view of homelessness, it’s the most humbling, incredible thing that I have ever done. I have never worked with people who are so hungry to learn.

“The good thing is that once they register, they are students with us. From now until May when they hand in their assignments, they get a student card, they can access our libraries, our career advice, our pastoral support.

“My favourite day every year is when they get their cards, I love that. They just stand there and they all say, ‘Oh, I’m part of a community that isn’t homelessness and addiction now. I’ve got proof’.”

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