Imagine you are 17 and have run away from home to escape the arranged marriage lined up for you and instead pursue your dream to study at university. You could have been thrown out of your home by your parents for coming out.
Or you are 18, have got a place at university and somewhere safe to live with a secure outlook for the next three years. It also means you can stop sleeping on friends’ sofas after plucking up the courage to break away from the emotional abuse you have been experiencing from your step-father since your mother remarried a few years ago.
In each case, when you get to university you will be free and independent. But you will have to rely on yourself, without financial or emotional support from your parents and often also other family members. You will feel alone at times and may find it hard to fit in. And you may still have to deal with unwanted contact from home, which keeps triggering some of the traumatic experiences you are trying to leave behind.
There are over 8,000 estranged students studying in HE across the UK (SLC/SAAS data AY 2018/19) who have no contact with their parents due to a permanent and irreconcilable breakdown in the relationship with them. A large proportion of them will not have the support of a local authority, as they were either not ever taken into care or are not statutory care leavers.
These students face considerable challenges in accessing and succeeding in higher education. Research by the charity Stand Alone identified that estranged students struggle with financial hardship, especially during the summer vacation and have to juggle earning money with academic work. Many experience periods of homelessness prior to or during their studies, suffer with mental health issues such as loneliness and stigma, depression or anxiety, and often face barriers to graduate employment.
Based on its research into estrangement in HE, Stand Alone launched the ‘Stand Alone Pledge’ in 2016. The Pledge is an institutional commitment to develop support recognising the impact of estrangement across all stages of a student’s journey. To date (Jan 2021) 98 higher education institutions across the UK have signed the Pledge. Has yours?
“The recognition for estranged students has propelled in the last year since the university signed the Pledge”. (Student, University of Leeds)
Alongside bursaries and hardship grants and help with year-round accommodation, most offer personalised support from a dedicated contact for estranged students. Sometimes that includes really vital emotional support: a pep-talk if a student is feeling low or maybe worried about their exams, or simply sending a birthday card.
“When I spoke to my tutor about my estrangement I felt really supported, so much so that I can now let him know when I am having a trigger day such as Mother’s Day and am not up to going to lectures.”
COVID-19 has exacerbated all the difficulties estranged students have to face even in normal times and has added new ones. Surveys by Stand Alone in collaboration with a group of other third sector organisations throughout the pandemic1 have highlighted the serious impact of lockdown on estranged students: while their friends go home and campuses are closed, they are left isolated and alone, often in deserted halls or flats. Many lost their jobs during the first lockdown and don’t have enough money to pay their rent or buy food, or both. Teaching and learning has gone online and as many estranged students rely on university IT and library facilities, they experience digital poverty with their old laptops and insufficient broadband unable to cope with the demands of online study.
As part of their Stand Alone Pledge commitment universities and colleges are looking out for their estranged students during these challenging times. Additional support is available, both of a practical nature to allow students to continue their academic studies, eat and pay their rent but also through virtual emotional support so they have someone to talk to and feel less cut off and still part of their university’s community.
Nobody knows how long this current situation will continue. We do know that it is exceptionally hard for students without any financial or emotional support from their parents. Make sure you know what support is on offer at your institution. Do you know who in your university or college has the responsibility for estranged students in the first instance? Is there a designated contact for estranged students in your institution? It might be a colleague in your own team. How well is their role and referral pathways promoted across your institution?
If you wish to know more about how estrangement impacts students, there is lots of helpful information on the Stand Alone website. The Stand Alone Pledge encourages universities and colleges to develop a culture of estrangement awareness across all departments so maybe there are staff training opportunities at your institution on understanding estrangement and how to support estranged students.
You don’t need to be an expert on estrangement though. Everyone, whatever their role and responsibility within a higher education institution, can play a part in reaching out to estranged students during this pandemic, and when things are ‘sort of back to normal’. Kindness and compassion without judgement goes a long way. Though it is wise to be aware of your own boundaries – what support are you able to offer yourself and when it is better to refer to others.
About the Author
Susan Mueller joined Stand Alone in autumn 2015 to develop the higher education strand of the charity which includes the Stand Alone Pledge. In this role Susan draws on her experience of managing the Buttle UK Quality Mark for Care Leavers from 2011-2015 as well as her previous experience in widening participation with Aimhigher.