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Family matters for students

Research by Jacqueline Stevenson of Sheffield Hallam University and Becca Bland from the charity Stand Alone, shows the importance of family to students, the disadvantages of estranged or distant relationships, and the need for universities to do more.
This article is more than 3 years old

Professor Jacqueline Stevenson is Professor of Education Research and Head of Research in the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University.

Becca Bland is Chief Executive at Stand Alone Charity.

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.

The others

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.

4 responses to “Family matters for students

  1. It would be helpful to understand better what the authors of the report have in mind when they talk about a “stronger policy around family disadvantage”.

  2. I wonder whether the authors have segmented and looked at mature students who often have caring responsibilities and whether they have emotional buffers that help their resilience and feel supported or whether they feel that they lack support.

  3. From my experience as a personal tutor “family” is an often overlooked factor in student success. I wonder also whether the authors had collected data which would allow them to explore the extent to which the role of family changed if the student was the first in their family to go to university or not?

  4. Based on my child’s experience at University, and previous secondary schools, I have the impression that education is made unnecessarily stressful through how the courses are structured and delivered. And so they don’t design the experience to be socialable and easy, but follow the tradition of lectures, testing etc. which don’t bring the students to interact with each other. Four and a half months off in the summer with nothing to do and then just chucked straight back into full on lectures and expected to get up to speed in a highly technical subject And students are living away from the support mechanisms of friends, family and community. This is the toxic psychological environment that the university provides. A sort of sink or swim.
    My child at university is socially and educationally isolated. Lonely and bored and now disappointed with very poor marks (not picked up by tutor) but beginning not to care. This is a triple A student in their second year, mind..
    Perhaps 20% of students are in a similar position. And they are paying £9,250 for the privilage of being unsupported by their course, get unnecessarily bad results and to live a miserable existence for three years.

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