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.