Written by Rosie Neill

Product Marketing Manager

When it comes to applying for student finance as an estranged student, there’s a specific process that needs to be followed and evidence that must be provided. 

Experts Lynne Condell and Susan Mueller break it down so that university and college support staff feel confident and able to help estranged students at their institution apply for student finance. Including:

  • 5 suggestions to help identify estranged students
  • The definition of an ‘independent student’ (according to the Student Support (SS) regulations)
  • Proving estrangement for SFE/SFW and how to help students that can’t evidence their situation
  • How support staff can contact the Independence Team at SFE for help and guidance
  • Wider financial wellbeing support for estranged students

Lynne Condell is an expert in the HE sector and chairs the Vulnerable Students Stakeholder Group (VSSG), of which estranged students are one of the main focuses. 

Susan Mueller is the Higher Education Director at Stand Alone, a charity supporting and campaigning for adults estranged from family. Susan is also a member of the VSSG. 

5 suggestions to help identify estranged students

It can be difficult to identify estranged students within institutions; a challenge for support staff who are unable to offer help if they don’t know who the students that could need it are. The following suggestions may help:

1. Use Bursary Administration Service (formerly ‘HEBSS’) data

Staff can use the Bursary Administration Service data to help identify estranged students within their institution. The plan is for a specific estrangement filter to be added to the data set during this academic year. In the meantime, the ‘other’ category can be combined with filtering those aged below 25 to combat this.  

2. Refer to internal institution forms

A number of institutions have started adding a question about estrangement to their enrolment process. Hardship application forms can also be used to recognise estranged students.

3. Work with other departments and the Students’ Union

Liaising with other departments, such as Accommodation, can also be helpful. So too can working closely with the Students’ Union, who may be in a position to suggest to estranged students that they’re in contact with that they also make a link with you.  

4. Promote support for estranged students

Spreading the word about the institutional support you have for estranged students can help you identify those students through them coming to you. 

The annual Stand Alone Estranged Students Solidarity Week, next run on 22-26 November 2021, is one initiative your university or college could get involved with and use to signpost to available support. Or sign the Stand Alone Pledge to promote your commitment to estranged students across the institution. 

5. Check the UCAS tick box (TBC)

Still to be confirmed but hopefully from Spring 2022, UCAS will be introducing a tick box on the university application form for estranged students. 

It’s important to keep in mind though that this will, of course, only be for students already estranged at the point of application via UCAS.

The definition of an ‘independent student’ (SS regulations)

Student finance is assessed on gross taxable household income for the prior tax year, less certain disregards. 

According to the DfE’s Student Support (SS) regulations 99.2 (used by SLC to assess eligibility), a student’s ‘household’ consists of:

  • The student’s natural or adoptive parents 
  • The student’s partner

For an independent student, neither of the above will apply. 

Grandparents, foster parents and siblings are not normally included in the assessment. Step-parents only count if they are the current partner of a natural or adoptive parent – watch the webinar recording from 07:17 to 08:58 for more detail and an example specific to step-parents.

You can also find more info for SFE here (section 5) and SFW here (section 7).

10 possibilities that classify students as independent

According to the SS regulations, estrangement is a form of independence. The following 10 circumstances all classify a student as financially independent, as of the 1st day of the academic year for which they are applying for student finance (this is the case for all 10 possibilities):

  1. The student is 25 or over
  2. They have supported themselves financially for a period of not less than 3 years
  3. They have no living parents
  4. Their parents cannot be found or it is not reasonably practicable to get in touch with them
  5. They are married or in a civil partnership
  6. They have the care of a child
  7. They are irreconcilably estranged
  8. They have had no contact with their parents for a period of 1 year (flexible)
  9. The student was looked after by a local authority (within the meaning of section 22 of the Children’s Act) throughout the 3 months before their 16th birthday and have not returned to the care of their parents at any time
  10. Their parents live outside the EU and the Secretary of State (SoS) is satisfied that either it is not reasonably practical or would be dangerous for them to provide their income details 

Watch the recording from 12:06 to 21:32 for more detail and some estrangement ‘fast facts’.

One final note is that the SLC will always use ‘the path of least resistance’; the easiest method of assessing a student in terms of requiring little/least or no follow up actions. 

This will often be different from how institutions need to work to assess eligibility for estrangement bursaries, scholarships etc, since not all students will fit the SLC definition of estrangement according to the SS regulations (even though they are estranged). So it’s important not to rely solely on SLC assessment but for your institution to also have your own ways of identifying estrangement and related support needs.

Proving estrangement for student finance

The student finance estrangement declaration form

For SFE, the form for declaring estrangement is on the website. For SFW, students will need to ring or use the secure messaging service until the form is added to the website.

Watch the recording from 24:22 to 27:58 for a look at the form, more information on acceptable evidence and considerations for support staff.

SLC assessment of the form

When SFE/SFW receive the form, they will check the evidence and the student will fall into one of three categories (and will receive an email to let them know):

  • Sufficient evidence – the student will be awarded student finance. If their evidence is robust, estrangement may be awarded for the entire duration of their course.
  • Less robust evidence – the student will be contacted for more evidence. Student finance may sometimes be awarded for one year and then revisited. 
  • No evidence – if no evidence is available, a ‘caseworker’ will arrange to call the student, discuss what their situation is and what evidence they can get.

Sometimes these categories will be based on whether a parent ‘cannot be found’, rather than estrangement. Watch the recording from 32:04 to 41:00 for other independent student categories and how to help students evidence these situations

Contacting Student Finance England and Wales

Support staff can contact Student Finance for clarification and support about HEI queries surrounding estrangement. The process differs for England (SFE) and Wales (SFW). Contacts include:

England

  • estranged@slc.co.uk – for students who have been specifically assigned a ‘caseworker’, also usable by support staff (Consent to Share would need to be in place first)
  • independent_student_enquiries@slc.co.uk – for all general queries surrounding all categories & requesting declaration forms etc.
  • Your dedicated SLC Account Manager (Consent to Share would need to be in place first)

Wales

  • sfw_senior_assessors@slc.co.uk – there isn’t a dedicated estrangement team for Wales but all staff on the practitioners’ line should be trained to help
  • Secure messaging service – the best way for students to communicate with SFW

How to help students without evidence

Suggestions for ways support staff can help students without evidence include:

  • Guidance in completing the estrangement declaration form – is there someone who can sign it for them?
  • An open conversation – arranging a time to give the student a call to discuss how they are managing the situation and check they’re ok
  • Ideas for other types of evidence – e.g. letters from school, tenancy agreements, proof of benefits claimed from age 16/17, etc. 
  • Building a body of evidence – rather than one document that will cover everything, students can collate multiple pieces of evidence
  • Signpost them to institutional bursaries (more on this below)

Institutional bursaries

Many universities and colleges now have bursaries for estranged (and care experienced) students, but it often isn’t appropriate to insist that to be eligible for these, young people meet the evidence of estrangement that is required for student finance. 

Instead, what’s important is that each institution develops their own policies, checks and balances to ensure that all vulnerable students will be supported (remembering the path of least resistance).

Wider financial wellbeing support for estranged students 

Aside from student finance, estranged students can also face a number of unique challenges when it comes to accommodation, mental health, graduation, digital access and their financial wellbeing. 

Find out more about each of these, along with 5 ways HE providers can support students without parental or family networks, both during the festive period and year-round.

Further resources

Watch the recording of Lynne and Susan’s staff training session for lots more detail on everything covered:

Download the slides from the session here.

If you have any questions or comments for Susan and Lynne, you can contact them directly on:

Sign up to our staff email newsletter to be first to find out about our staff webinars and get free resources to support you in your role as support staff and for you to share with students.

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