Estrangement, the hidden disadvantage

While most students look forward to holidays, Jessica dreads them. Most of her friends are going home for a bit of pampering from Mum and Dad, but she’s on her own and wondering where she’s going to go. Following years of emotional abuse, Jessica has cut ties with her parents. She now faces homelessness over the summer month and struggles to buy basics such as course books.

Jessica is just one of 9,338 students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who are estranged from their parents. A new report published today by Stand Alone and the Unite Foundation gives the first comprehensive overview of this under-recognised group of students.

Based on a large-scale survey, and an analysis of Student Loan Company data, the report reveals some surprising facts about students who have broken ties with their family network. For example, the majority of estranged students – around 60% – study in London. They are also likely to be slightly older than undergraduates on average, and only 53% are from White British backgrounds, in contrast with 73% of students overall. Estranged students are also much more likely to study at non-Russell Group universities.

Estrangement and disownment is not straightforward. Emotional abuse, divorce and mismatched expectations about family roles are the key causes of family alienation in young people. More specifically, issues connected to honour based violence, forced marriage and family rejection of LGBTQI+ students are common. Only around 40% of students have been in contact with social services, and 60% have removed themselves without any professional intervention.

It might reasonably be inferred that estranged students are at higher risk of multiple disadvantage, and this translates itself into measurable barriers to access and success. Estranged students are more likely than average to use credit cards, hardship funds and even payday loans to cover their living costs while at university. They are less likely to be offered a work placement opportunity, and even if one was offered they were more likely to turn it down on the basis that they couldn’t afford the associated accommodation costs.

Of course, behind these statistics lie human stories of struggle and marginalisation. Family estrangement and disownment still carries a stigma in our society, and many students in this situation find it difficult to speak to others about their circumstances. As one student said, “Estrangement can be a touchy issue and can often be the subject for scepticism. My student advisor made me feel comfortable in sharing my background and assured me that I could get the help that I needed.”

This kind of understanding and co-ordinated support from universities is crucial to estranged students and significantly affects their decisions about going to university. They are much more likely than average to select their institution on the basis of the level of student support they believe it will offer them, and overall place a higher importance on this support than students in general.

Over the last ten years, measurable strides have been made in the understanding and support of care leavers in higher education, catalysed by the work of Buttle UK and achieved by a fantastic response from the sector. The organisations publishing this report and its contributors hope that together we can achieve the same level of understanding and support and recognition for estranged students.

NEW STARTS: The challenges of Higher Education without the support of a family network can be downloaded here.

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