Supporting estranged students in higher education

stand-aloneSusan Mueller (Project Director, Stand Alone) writes about how estranged students need need recognition and more help to succeed in higher education. Stand Alone is a charity supporting people that are estranged from their families, working to raise awareness and break down the stigma of estrangement.

“We need support and we need to know it is there for us” – estranged students in higher education tell us they need recognition and more help to succeed.

At Stand Alone, we know that estranged students are studying at higher education institutions without any financial or emotional support from their families. More often than not they are struggling with the after-effects of leaving behind a destructive, dysfunctional family situation.

Research from the University of Cambridge indicates that abuse, and particularly emotional abuse, is a key cause of family estrangement, alongside clashes of values and beliefs and mismatched expectations about family roles. More specifically, issues connected to honour-based violence, forced marriage and family rejection of LGBTQI+ and transgender students are common. There are also a proportion of estranged students who have been disowned for pursuing education against the wishes of their family or extended family network.

Unlike care leavers, who remain the responsibility of their corporate parent while in education until the age of 25, Stand Alone’s research shows that there is a lack of any kind of social service intervention in roughly 60% of estranged student cases. Although around 19% have experienced care as a looked after child, they do not formally meet their local authority’s qualifying criteria as a statutory care leaver.

Across governments and in secondary and tertiary education there is an awareness of the needs of looked after children / care leavers: there are education policies and institutional policies, cross-governmental strategies, entitlements, responsibilities and covenants all aimed at improving the life and educational success of those in and leaving care.

Estranged students don’t have that kind of support or recognition. Across the higher education sector progress has been made – recognition by OFFA, SPA, UCAS, SLC, SFC and individual universities and other sector organisations across the UK. Nevertheless, many students tell us they feel unacknowledged and invisible. And they often do not feel confident to ask for help from their higher education institutions out of fear of being judged and blamed for their family situation.

What would they like to see change?

“Sometimes it is just enough to be listened to and believed.”

“When thinking about and when applying to higher education it would be really great to know that there is support available for us.”

“The cap of six counselling sessions makes you need to save up sessions for when you think you may need it most – such as exam time.”

Students have emphasised the importance and need for IAG specifically for estranged students pre-entry. The new tick box on the UCAS application from 2018/19 intake will provide a hook for university outreach in raising awareness with staff and teachers in schools and colleges who are supporting students with their application. But the stigma around estrangement is so great, students need reassurance that disclosure won’t have a negative effect.

Whether or not there is support for estranged students can influence their choice of university. Having a designated member of staff is vital to estranged students in helping them access the support they need pre-entry and throughout their course. Some say they wished they had known more about budgeting, money management and navigating student finance in relation to estrangement, as well as the ins and outs of independent living at university. They also wished they had known more about what mental health services they could access at university, like counselling or further therapy referral.

Taking the Stand Alone Pledge and so committing to on-course support and pre-entry IAG sends out a clear and visible message to students, staff and the sector as a whole that your institution recognises the needs of this cohort of students. It also signposts to students that your institution is willing to support estranged students aspiring to university-level education and to help them achieve their degree without the support of a family behind them.

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