The students with no support network

We must remember the difficulties faced by students who are estranged from their families, says Becca Bland

January 25, 2016
Student alone

I first became aware of the difficulties faced by students who are estranged from their families after I wrote about my own family estrangement in the media in 2012. A good proportion of the responses to these articles came from undergraduates, outlining the extremely challenging conditions they faced while trying to complete their degree without the support of a family network.

The emails I received often started by outlining the circumstances that had led to the estrangement. Abuse was often mentioned: many felt that cutting contact with the family that had mistreated them was safer for their emotional and physical well-being. Some young people had been rejected by their family after coming out as lesbian or gay.

Others had struggled with contrasting morals, values and beliefs to their family of origin, and were distanced from their family when they rejected an arranged marriage or a future that did not include the freedom to study or work.

The vast majority of estranged students have never had contact with social services, and therefore do not qualify for the sparse statutory assistance available to those leaving care. They are often the young adults that the system has missed as children. Estranged students commonly remove themselves from their dysfunctional family between the ages of 16 and 19, while studying in sixth form or further education colleges, and at an age where they may not be seen a priority for social services.

Almost all these young people went on to write about their struggles with accessing student finance. They detailed the long and arduous process of searching for evidence to “prove” their family breakdown and the pain of eventually being informed that the evidence was not sufficient, not worded correctly, or from a person who had not known them long enough. Furthermore, this evidence was expected each and every year.

A student called Mary wrote: “…every year I am asked to resubmit new evidence to prove that my mother is dead and I still have no contact with my father.”

These initial emails also revealed the subsequent frustrations of living for long periods of time on insufficient funds, the reality of working two or more jobs while studying, skipping meals and struggling to find the energy and focus they needed for their studies. “Sometimes I wonder why I bother,” a student called Sabina wrote. “I can’t concentrate in my lectures because all I can think about is how I will be able to pay for rent and food.”

Many other aspects of university life seem to take for granted family relationships. The need for large lump sum deposits to secure halls of accommodation is difficult for those without access to family capital, finding a guarantor to access private rented accommodation is often a struggle for those without willing family members, and, most importantly, estranged students very rarely have a family home to utilise during the long summer break.

It is thus unsurprising that our first piece of formal research, New Starts, showed that 14 per cent of estranged students had registered as homeless during their time at university and that many more had considered it.

As our research around this group of students developed, it became clear that estranged students who do survive are strongly reliant on bursaries and other financial support from their university, providing vital relief for everyday financial fixes.

However, it is the informal sense of self-removal from a family that can come to act as a barrier to supporting these students. The stigma around cutting contact with family often prevents young people in this position from telling anyone that they are studying without the support of a family network.

And it is understandably difficult for a young person to disclose abuse, or that one’s family has made a judgement about their inherent worthiness or life choices. Many fear that they will be met with judgement, blame and disbelief.

One student called Fiona wrote: “We talk about disability, differences in race, sexuality and religion but not about differences in family situations. Instead, we are all just bombarded with what is apparently normal. I think people are afraid of the idea of estrangement. People think that I must be an awful person to not talk to my family, or to be rejected by my family.”

This is certainly backed up by our study Focus on Access and Retention, which suggests that nearly a third of students did not feel comfortable accessing support from their student services.

Some 41 per cent of a representative sample of 584 estranged students in this research had withdrawn from or suspended their studies, or had strongly considered doing so. This compares with a national non-continuation rate for UK domiciled full-time first-degree entrants following year of entry of 5.7 per cent in 2012-13. Therefore it is clear that these students are genuinely at risk of dropping out if the sector does not offer support.

So how can we reach these students with no support, perhaps the most disadvantaged students? How can we help them to feel that the higher education sector has the capacity to understand and remove some of these barriers? How can we wipe out unnecessary homelessness among the student population?

The first and most important step must surely be awareness.

It is so powerful to stop and listen to the voices of estranged students themselves, both those who are amplified via our organisation and those who study at each and every higher education institution within the UK. The second is commitment to the idea that the needs of those who have removed themselves from a harmful family are real and genuine, as well as a commitment to improving policies and support.

The last is an appreciation of family capital as a measure for disadvantage. We must not let the experience of a dysfunctional family network in childhood become an obstacle to student success. But most importantly we must consider that the marker of this disadvantage is not only interaction with the care system.

Becca Bland is chief executive of the charity Stand Alone. Find out more about estranged students on the organisation’s website
The Office for Fair Access has today published a topic briefing on estranged students.

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Reader's comments (5)

Unfortunately education is expensive. For some people it may be better to work if possible and save money before enrolling in a course, or consider part-time study as an option. The fact that some students have not been encouraged to be financially independent may place an undue burden on other people to keep funding their choices after becoming an adult. Many people have overcome poverty or lack of family support to achieve wonderful things in life. I pity any student who feels alone and distressed, but it is also frustrating to witness many young people using their parents for financial support instead of working to become independent. Pocket money mentality leaves other people responsible for paying your way. At some stage it is mature to fend for yourself instead of phoning home to fill your bank account. Sorry to sound harsh but those who work hard and develop a habit of not being reliant on others for funding tend to be more productive and competent in the workforce and private lives.
If you are willing to hear me out, I would like to show you the other side. As a young person, we often feel misunderstood by the generation who grew up and went to uni in a time quite different to ours. I am a student, currently in their second year of university and living in London where I have lived my entire life. I have my own flat, and have lived in it without any financial support from either of my parents for over two years. My fees for uni each year are £9,000. To afford this, I have to take out a loan from the Student Loans Company that provides most of the student loans in this country. You say education is expensive and people should consider working and saving up first. Except, the only jobs available to people my age leaving school are things like bar work and retail - neither of which allow you to save up £27,000 to afford three years at a university. I have always wanted to provide for myself and not be reliant on others, but how can you expect so many students to work a job that pays £7 an hour, while covering their basic living costs of rent/food/essential clothing and save up enough money? If I did that, I wouldn't be able to go to university till I was 30! (Perhaps not exactly 30, but you must see where I am coming from?) I am sure you could suggest that students could work through 6th form in advance, but A-levels are getting harder and harder, and require far more studying than ever before. University is competitive - you have to get top grades to get a spot. I work 3 days a week to provide for myself and my home, and I'm a full time student who needs time to focus on studying. Yet I also have to afford my £600 a month rent, and food, and travel to uni. Living costs have increased exponentially, and leaves students prioritising work over their studies. I could take out a student loan for living expenses as well as fees, but it is means tested by what your parents earn, because the expectation in the tertiary education world is that your parents will help you. That expectation didn't originate with the students. It came from the government taking away maintenance grants, and hiking up uni fees, and the economy destroying my ability to live in London despite it being my home for 20 years. I can't even get the loan based on mine and my partner's earnings, because I'm under 25 and we're not married. Let's not forget the interest rates on the loans, interest which starts being charged from the day they make their first payment to you. Students don't want to have to take money from their parents. We want to be self sufficient. Most cannot afford to be. I'm lucky, I don't have to ask for anything which is great because they give me nothing. So no, we don't choose to phone home 'to fill our bank account', we'd starve otherwise. We are all working hard just to stay above water. We are not choosing to be reliant on others for funding, we are expected to afford life on peanuts compared to graduated adults. And in this day and age, unless you have the piece of paper saying you've been to uni, no one wants to hire you. Aged between 18-20, an employer in this country is only legally obliged to pay a minimum of £5.60 an hour. To do exactly the same job, someone aged 21-24 gets £7.05, and over 25 gets £7.50. Tell me how you could survive on £5.60 an hour, or save up any money on that.
It's really difficult for people like my self to get enrolled in the universities of Ghana where I hail, especially without financial support from the family .I am 23 and I have been independent since high school. After high school in 2016,I have to work as a waitress for 3year to pay my high school fees so I could get access to my results and also save some for my university. This circumstances have rendered many unable to live up to their dreams and goals.More over most African societies does not believe in female education so it makes them feel reluctant in payment of fee as far as female education is concern . University is son competitive you have to get high grades in order to get support.In my part of the world you would realize that accommodation is more expensive than fees,so it's a big problem.
I am a teacher, I offer mentoring, tutoring, and assist with any college assignments that a student has. She refuses to learn to organize herself, her life is constantly in a disorderly manner, she will accept zeros on assignments without attempting to do them, and she refuse to read a variety of materials to help her grow at work and in the college environment. I have never worked with a sophomore with this type of mental state who would purposely sabotage your own education. I have been teaching for 34 years in varies capacities of education. I would love to hear some advice or comments on this situation about how I should precede in the future with this student.
Oh dear heart, Those young students turn into adults like myself and guess what? It doesn’t get any easier once you hit adulthood. There was no way I could afford to pay for school while also paying rent, Car note, car insurance, Gas, electric, phone. Never mind any luxuries like feeding your self or buying yourself nice things. Or having the energy and resources to go to class and finish assignments. And I’ve tried. I been trying to finish my degree but man, it’s been trying. All I got was debt and minimum progress wage wise. Many jobs I’ve held and liked, they just don’t pay enough because I don’t have a degree. So for now, I’m stuck being poor. And as a poor black man, you get passed over and looked down upon In so many different facets of your life it’ll make your head spin. If I’m being completely honest with myself my reasons for wanting to live diminish every day. But, who can you vent to or talk to without bringing everybody else down or having people feel sorry for you? Who’s there to talk to anyway?