Susan Mueller is the Director of the Higher Education Project at Stand Alone Charity. Stand Alone was founded in 2012 and its mission is to raise awareness of estrangement and to support adults who are living with the realities of having no contact with one or more family members.
In this post, Susan explores how the cost of living crisis can affect estranged students disproportionately because they don’t have access to the same resources other students do.
Students in higher education are some of the worst off
Everything has become more expensive in this cost of living crisis we find ourselves in. From the basics: food, energy, rent and mortgages to the things we enjoy and that benefit our physical and mental health, like socialising, physical or community activities and holidays.
From everyday purchases to the nicer things in life, everyone is really feeling the pinch.
Students in higher education are a group that are disproportionately affected by the cost of living crisis. Almost 9 in 10 (87%) are worried about money. And within the student population, there are further disadvantaged cohorts, including those estranged from their parents, who are hit the hardest.
Fixed, declining incomes and support costs rising faster than for the population at large and ineligibility for many of the additional sources of support available to the wider population – are creating a perfect storm for students.
For example, only 12% of students surveyed by the NUS in the autumn said that their student loan or bursary covered the cost of their energy bills. Particularly worrying is that since then, the cost of energy bills has risen further.
People who are studying are being left to face spiralling living costs on fixed incomes and with extremely limited means of securing additional income for themselves due to the time-constraints imposed by study. Students today are experiencing a dramatic downturn in their quality of life and their ability to study effectively.
The impact of the cost of living crisis on estranged students
So if this is how the cost of living crisis affects most students, what about those who are estranged from parents and other family members?
The NUS Cost of Living Report highlights that students who live with a disability, are parents or carers, or are estranged are feeling the effects of the cost of living crisis even more than the average student.
Within the student population there are demographics who suffer enhanced disadvantages that compound the detriment to them.
NUS Scotland released a Cost of Survival Report in February 2023, which separates its survey results into respondents from different types of widening-access backgrounds, including:
- Estranged students
- Disabled students
- Care-experienced students
- Students who are carers and come from low-income households.
The report found that estranged students are the worst affected by money worries, which have a profound impact on their mental and physical health. Usually, the cause of this financial stress comes from the pressure of increasing rent and energy bills.
In addition, estranged students are the group most likely to have considered dropping out of their studies, with 59% saying they have considered it. Here’s how this figure compares to other groups:
- Students with caring responsibilities: 52%
- Low-income students: 51%
- Care-experienced students: 48%
How are estranged students trying to make ends meet?
Estranged students are unable to ask their parents and families for financial support when the going gets tough.
While in 2022, 44% of students surveyed for Blackbullion’s annual Student Money & Wellbeing Report said that they depend on financial contributions from their caregivers; for estranged students, the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ is not an available resource.
Estranged students also can’t return to live at home even during the holidays.
And it’s not just the lack of financial support from their parents that is an issue. There’s the lost emotional support as well.
So where does this leave them?
Estranged students don’t have local authority support of any kind.
They have to find ways to cope on their own.
Like many other students impacted by the cost of living crisis, estranged students are forced to work longer hours or take on multiple jobs to cover rising costs. Often this can detract from a student’s academic engagement, leading them to miss lectures and deadlines, which can quickly affect a student’s mental health and physical wellbeing as well as their academic attainment.
They scrimp and save where they can: not buying course materials, skipping meals and using foodbanks. They cut down on the little socialising they are able to afford, turn down the heating, maybe even giving up where they call ‘home’ to find somewhere cheaper (and potentially less safe) to live.
Those that are lucky to have friends may ask them to borrow money or, failing that, build up more debt on their credit cards.
Many may turn to their universities for help.
What financial support can estranged students access from their university?
Over 100 Higher Education Providers (HEPS) across the UK have signed the Stand Alone Pledge – a commitment to improve the support for estranged students.
The financial support these HEPs offer includes specific bursaries for estranged students and priority access to hardship funds to help with rent payments, energy bills or travel costs to and from campus. Alternatively, these HEPs may work with their students’ unions to offer additional help to cope with rising prices.
The University helped me in so many ways but the most important way was through their financial support as I really struggled with affording rent and paying for essential software and equipment that was vital to completing my course.
The national government’s boost to hardship funding in response to the cost of living crisis is welcome but will likely be spread very thinly to account for all those who need it. Estranged students, as one of the most vulnerable groups of students, need priority access to hardship funds.
But remember: it’s not only about finance
Support from universities to help estranged students with their emotional wellbeing is just as important as financial support.
Money and mental health, especially in the lives of students, influence and crucially impact each other. Yet they are rarely addressed as equals.
The bursary available is definitely invaluable and certainly helps to ease some of the financial stress, especially in the current cost of living crisis. However, it’s probably the least important of all (potential) support available. One of the biggest issues for those of us without that wider support net, or people to turn to, is always feeling very isolated and very alone.
The role of family
Family plays a big part in the student experience and for estranged students, not having a family support network has detrimental effects on these students on various levels.
Our Stand Alone report ‘Family Matters’ (2018) looks at the role of family and found that the lack of ability (of estranged students) to share their academic experience with family can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which is exacerbated by seeing other students with strong and close family relationships.
Furthermore, they may feel more isolated at times of financial disadvantage, where the lack of financial and material support from family disrupts their ability to fully engage in their academic studies and student experience.
Such students feel more stress and pressure with the experience of completing their studies alone and relying solely on their own initiative and resources.
How can higher education providers help?
University (support) staff are part of the network of people estranged students can turn to.
The stronger and more positive the relationship is between the estranged student and the staff member, the more of a sense of acceptance and belonging will be created for the student.
Reaching estranged students
To support your estranged students, you need to be able to know who they are.
There are three main barriers to reaching estranged students:
- Estranged students may not know about the support available to them from their university
- Not every estranged student will be confident in contacting their university for support even if they know it’s there
- Many estranged students don’t recognise themselves as ‘estranged’
Due to this, it is really important for universities to identify estranged students and to reach out and engage with them proactively.
There are a number of tools to help with the identification of estranged students, including:
- The UCAS estranged student ‘tick box’
- A question on the university enrolment form, the SLC BAS data
- The student finance estrangement confirmation form
Estranged students are often unfamiliar with the term ‘estranged’ and the terminology used in higher education. Although some may be care-experienced, many won’t have had any involvement with the care system.
Sadly, estranged students often fall under the radar until they are in a crisis. Staff who understand estrangement and how it may affect students are in a better position to spot tell-tale signs and are key in referring them to student services.
Therefore, staff training and raising awareness of estrangement among all administrative and academic departments, for example during Stand Alone’s annual Estranged Students Solidarity Week, is key.
You will also find lots more information on how to find and support estranged students on the Stand Alone website, and you may find Susan’s previous blog posts useful:
For more general information on supporting all students with the cost of living crisis, see:
- 8 ways to support students with the cost of living crisis
- 6 ways universities are helping students with the cost of living crisis
- 7 ways the cost of living crisis is impacting students
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