Written by Rosie Neill

Head of marketing

According to the charity Refuge, 8.7 million people in the UK report experiencing economic abuse. Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics says that cases of coercive control, which includes financial abuse, are up 37% from a year earlier. But knowing how to recognise and respond to student victims and survivors of economic abuse isn’t always easy.

Eleni Kazaglis, Economic Abuse Specialist at the charity Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA), explains: 

  • The difference between economic abuse and financial abuse and how economic abuse is interwoven with other types of abuse
  • Examples of economic abuse students may experience 
  • Three important reminders for support staff, plus where to go and where to signpost students to for further support

A quick note from SEA:

“Our work is focused on economic abuse as a defined type of domestic abuse. We explore themes of domestic abuse and how economic abuse sits within coercive and controlling behaviours. This topic can be emotive so we encourage you to exercise self-care and seek support from your colleagues and the support mechanisms in your institution if you find any of these topics distressing.”

Why is it vital to recognise and tackle economic abuse?

Research has shown that economic abuse, of which financial abuse is a subcategory, is interwoven with other types of abuse and rarely exists on its own. For instance:

  • 95% of domestic abuse victims experience economic abuse
  • 86% of those reporting economic abuse also experience other forms of abuse
  • 60% of domestic abuse survivors are in debt as a result of economic abuse

A focus of SEA’s work over recent years has been to advocate for economic abuse to be considered in the realm of domestic abuse.

Defining domestic abuse, economic abuse and financial abuse 

What is domestic abuse?

According to the legal definition of domestic abuse for England and Wales, behaviour is ‘abusive’ if two people (person A and person B) are both aged 16 or over, are personally connected to each other and the behaviour of A towards B consists of any of the following:

  • Violent or threatening behaviour
  • Controlling or coercive behaviour
  • Economic abuse
  • Psychological, emotional or other abuse
  • Physical or sexual abuse

Scotland and Northern Ireland have different, although similar, definitions of domestic abuse.

What is economic abuse?

Economic abuse is when a perpetrator restricts, exploits or sabotages someone else’s access to money and other resources. It can develop slowly and begin with behaviour that can first seem caring or protective – for example, a parent offering to take care of a student’s finances. 

The definition of economic abuse from the England and Wales Domestic Abuse Act is defined as any behaviour that has a substantial and adverse effect on person B’s ability to:

  1. Acquire, use  or maintain money or other property, or
  2. Obtain goods or services

‘Property’ would cover items such as a mobile phone or car and ‘goods and services’ would cover, for example, utilities such as heating, or items such as food or clothing.

The Northern Ireland act is similar and also uses the words ‘acquire, use or maintain’, whereas the Scottish act is different.

What is the difference between economic abuse and financial abuse?

The terms economic abuse and financial abuse are commonly used interchangeably since they involve similar behaviours, but it’s important not to do this as they are different:

  • Financial abuse includes things like stealing money and coercing someone into debt.
  • Economic abuse is broader; it’s about more than just controlling the person’s money and finances. Economic abuse describes the range of behaviours an abuser will use to exert power whereby the control and coercion extend beyond money and finances to other resources such as housing, utilities, transport and food.

Watch this video by SEA for more info:

Examples of economic abuse students may experience

Here are some examples of what economic abuse for students could look like, including from a partner, parent/guardian or other family member:

  • Taking a student’s loan, bursary, scholarship / other payments or spending it without permission, or taking control of their bank account
  • Refusing to support the student financially, despite being able to or expected to
  • Using coercion or fraud to build up debt in the student’s name
  • Destroying property that belongs to the student, which the student then has to replace (for example, one of SEA’s ‘experts by experience’ previously had to buy four mobile phones in a year after a partner would break them)
  • Interfering with the student’s studies or stopping them from studying
  • Stopping the student from working or negatively affecting their employability

Talking to students about economic abuse

Three important reminders

Economic abuse is a sensitive topic and it’s natural to perhaps have concerns about addressing it with students, but remember these three things:

  • Survivors don’t mind being asked – they always have the choice to disclose or not disclose if they don’t feel ready
  • Survivors often want to be asked as they may find it hard to start the conversation – asking may indicate you have knowledge on the issue and may be able to support
  • You may be the only person to have had this conversation with them

Further resources and support

Resources to signpost students to:

  • Surviving Economic AbuseFinancial Support Line, online resources and ‘Tools to Thrive’ for victims and survivors 
  • Refuge – a 24-hour national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247 and live chat online Mon-Fri, 3-10pm. While many of the individuals that Refuge help are women, they welcome everyone as a first point of contact.
  • Men’s Advice Line – advice, information and emotional support for men experiencing domestic abuse, with a helpline on 0808 801 0327 
  • Local domestic abuse services
  • ‘Understanding Economic Abuse’ – YouTube video with information about domestic abuse, how it can take many forms, including economic abuse and examples of behaviour from abusers.
  • ‘How can banks help’ – a resource that might help if students are struggling to provide evidence needed for a hardship fund application

More info for support staff:

  • Surviving Economic Abuse – as well as information for victims and survivors, SEA also provide resources for professionals on their website 
  • Duluth Power and Control Wheel – a tool that highlights how the goal of a domestic abuse perpetrator is to seek power and control, in which economic abuse is one tactic used to achieve these
  • Post-Separation Economic Power and Control Wheel (Glinski, 2021) – an adaption of the original Power and Control Wheel 
  • The Economic Abuse Wheel (Sharp, 2008) – underpins the goal for power and control when it comes to economics
  • Financial Abuse Code of Practice – more detail about the Code, which outlines guidance on how a financial institution needs to respond to types of abuse including domestic and economic, and the financial organisations that have committed to implementing it

Learn more from SEA

Surviving Economic Abuse also run regular webinars and training sessions that can help support staff with: 

  • Further examples of what economic abuse for students could look like
  • Knowledge of how to identify students who are experiencing economic abuse
  • Indicators of abuse to look out for
  • How to have conversations about economic abuse with students 
  • Practical ways support staff can help 

Get in touch with Training – Surviving Economic Abuse to book webinars or training for your team.

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