Topic briefing: Estranged students

Questions for universities and colleges to consider

    1. How are you collecting evidence to enable you to develop a strategic understanding of the challenges faced by estranged young people and students in the areas of access, student success, and progression?

How will you collaborate with external partners (such as Stand Alone and the UNITE Foundation) to enhance policy development and improve practice concerning estranged young people and students across the country?

    1. What systems do you have in place to robustly evaluate the impact of your work with estranged students?

How will you contribute to national evidence by sharing these findings to help inform effective practice?
How will you engage with further research being undertaken to enhance policy development and improve practice concerning estranged students across the country?

  1. How could you better listen to and engage with estranged students, individually and collectively, so that you can provide effective support and address any barriers facing them?

    For example, do you have a named point of contact for estranged students and how is this advertised?
    Do you provide clear, accessible and timely information to estranged students about the support available to them?
    Does your student-facing information and publicity make it clear that you welcome applications from estranged students and follow effective practice in supporting such students?

  1. How do staff members at your institution work flexibly and collaboratively with others at all levels across the institution to support estranged students?

    For example, do you have regular working groups involving representatives from across different departments and taking a consistent approach to the delivery of support to estranged students across your institution?
    When providing support for estranged students, do you involve colleagues from accommodation, counselling and wellbeing, finance, widening participation, student advice and the student union?
    Are those senior strategic leaders with university-wide responsibility for widening participation, the student experience, student support and student success, aware of the support needs of estranged students and proactively developing strategies for their recruitment and continuing support?

  1. How do you work with external partners to build a shared infrastructure of support and delivery for estranged students?

    How are you collaborating with organisations such as Stand Alone to provide sustained pathways of support for estranged students?
    What systems do you have in place to monitor and evaluate collaborative activity to ensure that your collective resources are having impact?

  1. What systems do you have in place to develop and test new, impactful approaches to target estranged students in your unique institutional context?

    Which policies and schemes already in existence for other disadvantaged groups such as care leavers could be extended to estranged students?


This briefing gives an overview of the current challenges faced by estranged students in higher education. At present, there is very little information reported in access agreements, but in response to the difficulties that estranged students can often face, OFFA will be placing greater emphasis on this topic in our future access agreement guidance.

We hope this briefing will stimulate thinking and discussion about how estranged students can be supported more effectively by universities and colleges, using evidence-led, focused approaches. The briefing has been produced jointly by OFFA, and Stand Alone and The Unite Foundation, charities supporting students who are estranged from their family or key family member.


How do we define estranged students?

Students who are ‘estranged’ have no communicative relationship with either of their living biological parents and often their wider family networks as well. Local authorities have no statutory responsibility to look after the welfare of these young people, 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).

Student Finance England and NHS Student Bursaries must assess estranged students for financial support on their own household income and not that of their biological parent(s). To be eligible, students normally have to provide evidence from an independent trusted person (e.g. teacher or social worker) that:

  1. they have had no written or verbal contact from their parents for 12 months before the start of their course (exceptions to this timescale can be made in extreme circumstances)
  2. they expect this situation to be irreconcilable.

What do we know about estranged students?

The New Starts report indicates there are 9,338 students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland officially recognised by SLC as ‘estranged from parents’ in 2013-14. This figure does not include students who have been estranged from their family for less than 12 months, those that have not had their estrangement approved by the SLC, and/or those who have not declared themselves as estranged – as may be the case with many mature estranged students.

Research from the University of Cambridge suggests students become estranged from their families because of abuse, particularly emotional abuse; a clash of values; and mismatched expectations around family roles. In many cases, there are issues related to divorce, honour-based violence, forced marriage, and family rejection of LGBTQI+ students.

The majority of ‘estranged’ students remove themselves from a dysfunctional family situation without professional intervention, most frequently between the ages of 16-19 years. Although estranged students share some similarities with care leavers in terms of the challenges they face, 76 per cent of estranged students surveyed in research conducted by Stand Alone and the Student Loans Company had not been in local authority care.

Some estranged students will face homelessness – 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.

How can estranged students be supported through access agreements?

Key challenge: Finance

Research by Stand Alone suggests that finance is the biggest hurdle for young estranged students. Accessing student finance is often a major challenge for young estranged students due to the complexity of the system. Research about estranged students carried out by Stand Alone, The Student Loans Company and The Unite Foundation showed that:

Figure 1: Percentage of students who had suspended/withdrawn from their course or considered doing so

Fig1 Estranged Students topic briefing

Note: 584 respondents were asked: Have you ever suspended or deferred your current course of study? (By suspended or deferred we mean you have taken a break from your studies for a period of time and then returned to complete your course.)

Source: Stand Alone: Focus on access and retention – Risks for students who are estranged or disowned by their family

What are universities and colleges doing and how can this work be developed further?

Liverpool John Moores case study
Key challenge: Accommodation

Estranged students are often not able to pay deposits in advance, and/or provide a suitable guarantor. Many of these students will reach out to institutions when they find they are unable to meet these requirements and it is only then that institutions will know that such students are estranged. Furthermore, research has shown 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”. A number of institutions offer 52-week accommodation options and these are commonly offered to care leavers. This type of support could be extended to estranged students.

What are universities and colleges doing and how can this work be developed further? 

Key challenge: Wellbeing

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 by  FOAAR shows that mental health difficulties are a significant factor in the decision by estranged students to withdraw from/suspend their studies (or to consider doing so).

It’s 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 HEI. University of Cambridge research shows that 68 per cent of people who are estranged felt there was a stigma around their circumstances.

Case study De Montfort UniversityWhat are universities and colleges doing and how can this work be developed further? 

Further reading

The topic of estrangement and informal family breakdown has not been widely researched in the UK, and estranged students in higher education have subsequently been an under-researched group.

In 2008, NUS published the report ‘Evaluating Estrangement’. This outlined the key difficulties for students in proving their family estrangement to Local Education Authorities, who were then responsible for assessing student finance applications in England and Wales.

In 2015, three further significant pieces of research were published as follows:

The Stand Alone Pledge

In 2016, Stand Alone launched The Stand Alone Pledge for higher education institutions. This is a commitment to develop support for estranged students in four areas:

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 HEI’s senior management through writing a letter of commitment to Stand Alone.