Universities retain an uneasy relationship with students’ families.
Although parents may be the focus of institutional outreach activities and encouraged to attend open days, once in higher education, largely for privacy or General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) reasons, families cease to exist in relation to institutional policymaking or practice.
Placing the responsibility for paying for tuition fees on to students has positioned them as independent adults, seemingly stripped of family context. Such perspectives ignore the fundamental role that family plays in supporting students at university.
Our research with over 1,700 students from Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield found that 34% of students had physical interactions with at least one family member every day and 51% contacted them daily, over the phone or through social media.
Although the practical support they received from their family was important, we found that it was emotional support which was of most significance. Family support was particularly drawn on at examination times, for encouragement; during the first months of term, for support with the change; and at moments when they considered dropping out, for perspective. Indeed the students we spoke to were clear that without the emotional support they received from their family many would have struggled, become highly stressed, or dropped out of their studies.
In contrast, 8% of those in our research only communicated with their family once per term or less; 4% felt the contact they had with family to be negative, and 1% considered that their friends were their only family.
Of course, some students chose to disengage from family as a rite of passage. This was particularly so for those who had elected to move away from home. Taking on new responsibilities and making independent choices, such as balancing budgets, forming new friendships, and dealing with the challenges of university life can be a positive experience.
For other students making a voluntary choice to create distance was seen to be beneficial to aid academic focus and maximise their chances of success. This was particularly the case for some of the international students in our study. For many students, however, these choices could be more readily made because they still had access to a family safety net which they could call on at times of stress.
However, there were also those, such as those with experience of care or estranged students, or others with distant relationships to family, who felt the full negative consequences of not having close family connections. A lack of access to financial or emotional support meant that many students lacked the ability to overcome emotional and financial challenges. This led to personal stress and triggered feelings of academic frustration when the support was needed to assist with course costs. Some students also mentioned that they lacked support with mental health crisis moments, and felt lonely.
At a time of ever-increasing concern over the mental health and wellbeing needs of students, it is imperative that universities recognise the emotional buffer that family provides and the implications of this for the academic success of those who do not share these same advantages. By creating stronger policies around family disadvantage, students who lack family support can be endowed with the greatest chance of student success. Families really do matter.