Topic briefing: Estranged students
This briefing aims to stimulate thinking and discussion about how universities and colleges can improve higher education access and participation for estranged students, who are studying without the support or approval of a family network. We hope it will support and encourage evidence-informed approaches tailored to institutions’ own contexts and circumstances.
This briefing gives an overview of why higher education providers should consider offering specific, tailored support for students estranged from their families. It also highlights the work currently being done through access agreements, gives effective practice examples and includes questions for institutions to consider when developing their work. The briefing has been produced jointly by OFFA, Stand Alone, and The Unite Foundation; charities supporting students who are estranged from their family. We are encouraging institutions to consider how they develop this work further in 2019-20 access and participation plans.
In higher education the term ‘estranged’ applies to students who are 18 to 24 and have no communicative relationship with either living biological parent, or often their wider family. Research by the Unite Foundation and Stand Alone highlights that estranged students are more likely to be from groups who experience disadvantage in education. For example, over 30 per cent were registered homeless or had considered registering homeless before their course began.
Research from the University of Cambridge indicates that students who are ‘estranged’ or ‘disowned’ often break contact or are cut off from varied dysfunctional family backgrounds. Abuse, and particularly emotional abuse, clashes of values, personality and mismatched expectations around family roles were prominently chosen as the main reason for their relationship breakdown. More specifically, issues connected to divorce, honour based violence, forced marriage and family rejection of LGBTQI+ students are common in this group.
The New Starts report shows that 9,338 students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were officially recognised by the Student Loans Company as independent and ‘estranged from parents’ in 2013-14. It is likely that this figure is greater when considering those students who have been estranged from their family for less than 12 months and/or could not find the relevant trusted independent person to verify their estrangement at the time of applying to the Student Loans Company (SLC) for finance. To address issues with the application process, from 2016, the SLC has provided each prospective estranged student with a named Estrangement Assessor.
OFFA’s guidance on people estranged from their families
Estranged students are disadvantaged in higher education and therefore may be included as a target group in your access agreements. It is recommended that institutions assess the outcomes for estranged students and the barriers these students face within their own context and then tailor support accordingly.
Local authorities have no statutory responsibility to look after the welfare of estranged students
It has been highlighted by Stand Alone that estranged students face some similar barriers to accessing education as care leavers. However, local authorities have no statutory responsibility to look after the welfare of estranged students, or provide accommodation in the holiday periods as they do for care leavers who have been in care for at least thirteen weeks spanning their sixteenth birthday. Therefore, estranged students may be at greater risk of financial, welfare, and accommodation barriers while in higher education.
It can also be challenging to identify and target interventions at this group of students. However, UCAS’s website encourages estranged students to contact the universities and colleges they are interested in before they apply, to find out what support they can offer them; and they will shortly be adding a question to their application process to enable estranged students to identify themselves to their prospective institutions pre-entry.
Estranged students are more likely to be from groups shown to be disadvantaged in higher education
Estranged students are more likely to be from groups shown to experience disadvantage in higher education. For example, they are more likely to be from Black and minority ethnic (BME) groups (figure 1) than the general student population. The New Starts report highlighted that 22 per cent of estranged students are from a Black background as opposed to seven per cent of the general student population. Analysis of the latest data on degree classifications shows that, regardless of entry qualifications, the proportion of Black students achieving a first or 2:1 is lower than their White peers.
In addition, 15 per cent of estranged students in the same survey said they had registered as homeless with their local authority before they started their course, and an additional 18 per cent said they had considered registering as homeless. Furthermore, 19 per cent of estranged students surveyed had been in local authority care as a ‘looked after child’ but do not fit the ‘statutory’ definition of a care leaver. Finally, the research found that 52 per cent of estranged students were mature, compared to 34 per cent of the general student population.
To read more about the issues affecting certain groups and how to effectively support BME students, care leavers, mature students, and students from lower socio-economic status groups please see OFFA’s topic briefings on these subjects.
Figure 1: Ethnicity of all students compared to ethnicity of estranged students, 2011-14
Source: Stand Alone and The Unite Foundation New Starts (2015)
In addition, research conducted by Stand Alone in collaboration with the Student Loans Company found that 14 per cent of estranged students had suspended or deferred their current course of study. 27 per cent of students in the same study had considered doing so. Financial stress was given as the main reason for withdrawing from/suspending their studies, or considering doing so.
Estranged students are more likely to study in London
Research by Stand Alone and The Unite Foundation indicates that 60 per cent of estranged students are registered in institutions in Greater London, compared to only 16 per cent of the general student population. There are further concentrations in Birmingham (8.45 per cent) and Manchester (8.25 per cent).
Estranged students are more likely to encounter financial, accommodation and wellbeing difficulties
Estranged students are treated as independent students by the Student Loans Company, which means that they are assessed on their own household income as opposed to their parents. Finance is often reported as the biggest hurdle for young estranged students because the finance package available does not meet their needs. Research found that 55 per cent of estranged students believe the finance available to them is not enough to meet their living costs, compared to 36 per cent of all students and around 45 per cent of care leavers.
Research about estranged students carried out by Stand Alone, the Student Loans Company and the Unite Foundation showed that:
- 4 per cent have used payday loans or other high interest credit while at university, compared with an average of 1.5 per cent
- 7 per cent have used their institution’s hardship fund, compared with an average of 2.5 per cent
- students in this situation are more likely to be stretching their current financial package over 52 weeks of the year due to the lack of family capital over the holiday period.
This same research also found that accessing student finance is often a major challenge for young estranged students due to the complexity of the system. Around a quarter of students surveyed experienced delays in receiving their student finance of three to ten months into the academic year. The survey highlighted the key issues as the ‘length of the process’ and ‘unclear, inconsistent advice on evidence requirements’. In a report by the NUS, students stated that the support provided by advisers in institutions or students’ unions was critical in navigating the estrangement process for funding bodies.
Accommodation needs for estranged students often differ from other students. For example, estranged students may require accommodation for 52 weeks of the year because they will not have the use of a family home over the holiday periods, unless they are able to utilise the resources of a wider family network. ‘Focus on access and retention: Risks for students who are estranged or disowned by their family’ showed that 14 per cent of estranged students are at risk of homelessness during the summer months. This figure may not include students making do with unsafe or unsuitable accommodation over the summer, such as hostels or sofa surfing.
Furthermore, the New Starts report showed that estranged students are less likely than the whole student population to live in university halls, and significantly more likely to live in privately rented accommodation not with other students. Those students who were living in private accommodation not with other students were also those who most often found their finance package was not sufficient to meet their needs (Stand Alone, 2015).
Estranged students may also have greater difficulty finding a guarantor to fulfil entry to certain types of accommodation.
Young estranged students who have no contact with their family are often at risk of social isolation. A significant proportion have suffered domestic violence and abuse and this increases the likelihood that they will develop mental health difficulties. This risk increases if they are also facing financial stress. Research shows that mental health difficulties are a significant factor in the decision by estranged students to withdraw from or suspend their studies.
It is common for young people who are estranged from their family to feel stigma and shame, particularly as the process of estrangement is often instigated by the student and not by a statutory service. These feelings can act as a barrier for accessing support, and young people may fear being judged or misunderstood by professionals at their institution. University of Cambridge research shows that 68 per cent of people who are estranged felt there was a stigma around their circumstances, and that 90 per cent felt that Christmas is a particularly difficult time of the year which may increase perceived social isolation.
What is already being done through access agreements?
59 institutions report that they are supporting estranged students in their 2018-19 access agreements, up from 15 institutions in 2016-17. Many institutions have aligned their provision for estranged students with their care leaver provision.
Sign the Stand Alone pledge
In 2016, Stand Alone launched The Stand Alone Pledge for higher education institutions. So far 37 institutions have pledged support for estranged students. This is a commitment to develop support for estranged students in:
- access and transition
- mental health and wellbeing.
It requires institutions to identify their current provision of support for estranged students, and to compile an action plan for developing existing support. The pledge is taken by a member of the institution’s senior management through writing a letter of commitment to Stand Alone.
Provide support throughout the student lifecycle, including a named contact
Many institutions, including all those who have signed the Stand Alone Pledge, provide a dedicated named contact for estranged students who can support them throughout the student lifecycle, from the application process to graduation. Some institutions, such as Liverpool John Moores University use video clips or photos of their named contact, so that estranged students know they are friendly and approachable.
Some institutions make contact with applicants holding offers to highlight the named contact and provide assistance with student finance applications.
Other institutions have developed webpages and literature, such as leaflets for distribution on open days, specifically for estranged students. Some examples of webpages include the University of Westminster, the University of Exeter, and Liverpool John Moores University.
Coordinating student services
Institutions may wish to coordinate the services relevant to estranged students. For example, Manchester Metropolitan University created the LOTUS project which brings together professionals from across the institution to identify the needs of estranged students and align the services provided.
In addition, Bedford College has a vulnerable learner bursary for estranged students. These students are tracked through the institutions’ Student Services Intuition database which includes details of key multiagency contacts and tracks students on a termly basis to monitor attendance, retention and success.
At the University of Salford this process started with a group of estranged students meeting with a Pro Vice Chancellor to discuss their needs. The associated student statement can be viewed here.
Some institutions highlight that they provide additional financial support for estranged students to aid retention and success. Stand Alone research notes that finance is a primary reason for estranged students withdrawing from their course. OFFA requires that if an institution chooses to support students using financial support they can evidence impact of how it will improve outcomes for under-represented and disadvantaged students.
For example, De Montfort University offers a bursary of £1,000 to estranged students. Also, the University of the West of England has an enhanced bursary fund (UWE Cares) which provides an initial £2,000 first year bursary for estranged students, followed by progression bursaries of £1,000 for every study year of study undertaken after that (see the full case study).
Some institutions provide 365 day accommodation options for estranged students. For example, the named contact at University College London supports students to find 52 week student accommodation.
Other providers act as guarantor or offer a small percentage of rooms without requiring a guarantor. Goldsmiths, University of London has created a rent guarantor scheme for students who are able to show no debt to the university and have a satisfactory academic record, financial backing to maintain rent payments and a satisfactory accommodation reference.
Other institutions waive the need for a deposit from estranged students living in university-provided accommodation. For example, the University of Westminster offers year round accommodation and a deposit waiver for students starting at the University.
Institutions could also highlight the opportunity for estranged students to apply for a Unite Foundation scholarship which provides some students with accommodation for 365 days a year for three years.
Some institutions offer mentoring for estranged students, either as a specific programme or as part of an institution wide scheme. For example, the Leeds College of Art provides each estranged student with a dedicated contact from Student Welfare as soon as their UCAS application has been processed, offering pre-entry support which includes coordinating accommodation and finance.
Other institutions have student led societies for estranged students. For example, the University of the West of England Student Union has a Care Leavers, Carers and Estranged Students Society. In addition, Goldsmiths, University of London Students Union has a Care Leaver and Estranged Students Officer, specifically to represent the needs of these students.
Institutions may also consider extending the availability of counselling services for estranged students, particularly around the festive period when they may feel isolated. Institutions should also consider making estranged students aware of specialist service providers such as Stand Alone, who run therapeutic peer support groups for estranged young people in London, Newcastle and Sheffield, and NAPAC who run therapy groups for those surviving abuse nationwide.
Questions to consider
- Has your institution made the Stand Alone pledge?
- Does your access and participation strategy include estranged students? Are they a target group for your institution? What are the degree outcomes and retention rates for estranged students at your institution? How does the data compare with students who are not estranged?
- Does your institution have a named contact for estranged students to support them throughout the student lifecycle?
- Do you know how many students are estranged at your institution?
- Do you have schemes already in existence that could be extended to estranged students? Do you have care leaver policies around 52 week accommodation or extra bursaries that can be extended?
- Are you taking a collaborative approach to supporting estranged students? Tailoring conditions for estranged students involves collaborating strategically with colleagues from accommodation, counselling and wellbeing, finance, widening participation, student advice and your student union.
- Does your student-facing information clearly state that the institution supports estranged students and welcomes applications from them?
- Is your institution’s senior leadership team engaged with this issue? How could you engage them further? Is data relating to the recruitment, progression and success of estranged students included in your institution’s annual monitoring and review reports?