This is a guest blog post by Susan Mueller. Susan is HE Director at Stand Alone, a charity supporting and campaigning for adults estranged from family. Susan is responsible for the higher education project and the Stand Alone Pledge across the UK. Before joining Stand Alone, Susan managed the Buttle UK Quality Mark for Care Leavers at Buttle UK.
Estranged students: coping on their own
Estranged students are those who have either made the choice to break away from an abusive, dysfunctional parental home to be independent and go it alone or who have been disowned by their family for deciding to go to university. Mental and physical abuse, a clash in religious values, sexuality, or escaping forced marriage are the most frequent causes of estrangement.
Covid 19 has hit estranged students even harder than many of their university peers. Why? Because they have no choice but to manage on their own without financial or emotional support from their parents and in most cases, from their wider family network. Unlike care leavers, estranged students have no entitlement to local authority support.
What challenges do estranged students face?
Even in normal times, getting into and through university successfully is a challenge for estranged students. Estrangement and the consequence of having no parental support affects students at every stage of their university journey.
With no financial support from parents, estranged students have to top up their Student Finance loan by working alongside their studies – often holding down more than one part-time job to make ends meet.
Covid 19 has enhanced the effect financial insecurity has on estranged students’ mental health and levels of resilience dramatically. Most income streams for students have dried up, yet they cannot claim Universal Credit.
A study at the start of lockdown by Stand Alone and other third sector organisations found that only 7% of estranged (and care-experienced) students thought they would be able to pay their basic bills over the summer.
About a third of estranged students in higher education have issues around homelessness. 15% of estranged students in HE have actually experienced periods of homelessness before starting university.
The main reasons for registering as homeless, or considering homelessness, are because of lost housing or being kicked out (often by family). Or, simply not being able to pay for accommodation and therefore living on other people’s sofas. When at university, many estranged students struggle to pay rent over the summer vacation and may become homeless if they can’t stay with a friend.
Covid 19 restrictions during lockdown meant that estranged students did not have the option of going home or sofa surfing at a friend’s; many were stuck in halls, often isolated on near-empty campuses.
The circumstances estranged students come from, and the situations they are living in while in higher education, are stressful and challenging.
Individuals can suffer from depression, loneliness enhanced by feelings of isolation, and the stigma of estrangement. Add to that the pressure of having to pay rent and bills, as well as doing well academically and fitting in with peers.
Who can estranged students turn to for emotional and moral support? Some students have told us that at times, they find themselves considering dropping out and finding a job as it would be much easier than to keep going with their studies.
Even at the start of lockdown in March, 55% of estranged (and care-experienced) students surveyed by Stand Alone said they were particularly worried about loneliness, isolation and their mental health. The high level of uncertainty, especially at the start of the pandemic, led to enhanced feelings of anxiety and even suicide amongst this cohort.
I don’t have a “safety net” if something goes wrong with studies/work and I can never really just take a break. I think that makes me more anxious about the future and generally more stress-prone.
A side-effect of teaching and learning moving online as a result of Covid 19 is that it has brought the digital poverty of estranged students to the surface.
Unable to use university IT facilities, they often cannot afford the equipment (e.g. laptop) and software they need, as well as the appropriate internet access, to facilitate online study. They may also not have the space and environment in which to study effectively from ‘home’.
Moving on after graduation
And finally, having successfully completed their undergraduate degree, estranged students are at a further disadvantage when seeking employment or taking up postgraduate study. The student finance loan has ended, but they still need to pay rent and bills, plus cover the cost of finding a job, moving to a new location, etc.
A lot of my friends were able to move back home when they graduated and could save money/take their time finding a good job and preparing for it. I knew I needed a job within a week of graduation or I was screwed, and even then I bought a tent with the full intention of living in it for at least the first month of my employment because my housing situation was so dire.
5 ways HE providers can support students without parents and family networks
This year, Covid 19 has enhanced the visibility of estranged students, primarily due to the fact that they were unable to ‘go home’ during lockdown and turned to their institution for financial and emotional support.
There are many examples of how higher education providers up and down the country rose to the challenge of supporting these students – some examples of best practice are gathered in the OfS guide for ‘Students without family support’ during Covid 19. To name a few, support included:
- Financial aid through hardship funds and other emergency funds
- Reduced accommodation fees
- Food vouchers and care packs
- Provision of IT equipment
- Regular online and virtual mental health and wellbeing support
Most support is generally available to all students, yet estranged students will benefit from being able to access support tailored to their needs. Here are a few things to consider:
1. Priority access
Estranged students and students without family support need priority access to financial support.
Estranged students can also benefit from flexibility and a holistic approach to financial support. Look at a student’s situation as more long-term, rather than repeated one-off payments. Make the process as streamlined as possible for the student and reduce the amount of information they need to provide each time they apply.
3. A safe and secure living environment
Somewhere safe and secure to live is key. If students are living in university halls, make sure estates and accommodation security are aware of those students. They may need to be safeguarded from unwanted visits by parents or family members, which can be distressing and even harmful to them.
4. Community feel
Create inclusive communities, possibly online. These need to feel like safe spaces, where not having a loving, supportive family is accepted and respected.
5. Someone to turn to
Consider there being a dedicated member of staff for estranged students who builds strong relationships of trust with individuals. This would be someone they can (and will) turn to if in need of support, not just financial but also emotional.
Having the financial support is very important, but the thing that really matters to me is having someone there offering me support. Having someone to talk to is so important to me. Knowing that there’s someone there when I feel down, or I’m doubting myself, or I’m struggling with work, it means everything to me.
Christmas can be an especially difficult time
Covid 19 aside, times like holiday periods and festive days when there is lots of talk about ‘going home’ and ‘looking forward to spending time with family’, are highly sensitive and potentially trigger difficult emotions amongst those who are estranged.
Christmas is coming up soon. Are there opportunities for estranged students at your institution to link up with others who also not ‘going home’?
Think of birthdays and academic milestones like a successful exam or assignment – who can they share their joy with?
Where to go from here?
Estranged students are one part of the diverse tapestry of the student body. These students want to do well and succeed academically. At the same time, their university or college is their ‘home’ and their ‘safety-net’.
An institution-wide understanding and recognition of estrangement goes a long way in making these students feel welcome and supported. Cross-departmental collaboration makes it possible for individual students to access all types of support, without jumping through multiple loops and having to explain their circumstance over and over again to different staff in different departments.
Encouragingly, since its launch in 2016, 90 universities and colleges across the UK have signed the Stand Alone Pledge, a commitment to supporting their estranged students. The Pledge has driven a wide range of institutional support for this cohort both pre-entry and on-course.
Stand Alone’s annual Estranged Students Solidarity Week at the end of November is also an opportunity to send a strong message to estranged students: not only by promoting support available at your institution but also to build a culture of understanding among staff and students alike. This year’s focus is ‘How to be an ally to estranged students’. Find out more, and why not join in? Link up with your Students’ Union and help estranged students be a core part of your institution’s community.