Family support kept disadvantaged students going during the pandemic

During the pandemic, many disadvantaged students relied on their families to keep going. Rille Raaper and Chris Brown want universities to pay more attention to these support networks

Rille Raaper is an Associate Professor in Sociology of Higher Education at Durham University’s School of Education


Chris Brown is Professor in Education at Durham University’s School of Education

Let’s be clear, the Covid-19 pandemic has unmistakably revealed and accelerated educational inequalities.

This reflects the rapidly increasing attainment gap at schools, pressing support needs for underrepresented communities at universities and even starker global issues around access to education. Interestingly, however, the pandemic has also been an opportunity to consider the role of the family in education, although the scope of this work does not include homeschooling.

While families of disadvantaged students are often portrayed as being ‘in deficit’: generally seen as lacking the quantity or quality (or often both) of the right type of economic and cultural capital, not much consideration has been given to their role in student wellbeing. As we know, the imposition of remote studies during the pandemic forced students to leave campuses.

As a result, this invariably meant that most continued their studies from family homes. It is likely that students from more privileged backgrounds returned to homes where resources (whether it is space, wifi or IT equipment) were less of an issue.

Obviously, we are generalising here, and students from all backgrounds may have struggled with online studies and the dissolution of the physical campus with its designated study and social spaces. No doubt about that.

It’s all about the family

But what our work has revealed, however, is that while disadvantaged students – as expected – struggled with study environments at home, they also gained enormous support from their parents and siblings.

It wasn’t easy, of course: many had new caring responsibilities for younger siblings when parents continued to work as keyworkers. It was then a kitchen table that had to be negotiated – although some even left home to study at their friends’ places or hid in a bathroom to find a quiet space to focus. But even within such crowded spaces, during Covid-19, the family became an enormous resource for the academic wellbeing of the disadvantaged.

In fact, most of the students we spoke to revealed that they would have not made it to the end of the academic year without the continuous care and support from their families. Parental support may have been little more than small gestures such as a cup of tea, or it may have been more significant, like enabling students to share the university pressures and worries they were experiencing. But in all cases it mattered.

So what about the universities then?

Sadly, however, the emphasis on family support in our project in one sense reflects the limited availability and awareness of formal university support. In our experience, disadvantaged students experienced the university being ‘closed’ where no services – academic or wellbeing, are available. This is clearly not acceptable.

While it is incredibly refreshing to be able to speak of the family as a resource for disadvantaged students rather than a problem, student support during crisis situations must not just rely on families.

First of all, not everyone has a family, nor do all families have access to suitable resources or space.

And we also need to remember that it is the role of universities to provide essential conditions for studies and wellbeing, no matter whether it is face to face or online. It is also the universities’ responsibility to make all students aware of the support available.

Thinking about the ways forward

Going forward, we believe it’s crucial to demystify the family environments of disadvantaged students as lacking qualities for successful study. Yes, there may not be as much financial or academic support, but there can be, and often is, enormous care and social support for student wellbeing. And as we know, wellbeing is vital to academic success.

Second – and to elevate the pressure from the family – it is essential that all universities think about how they coordinate and communicate their own available support. The view of ‘university being closed’ is unacceptable and can lead to damaging long-term effects, especially if it is to do with student mental health.

To learn from the pandemic, we are currently developing an interactive app that enables students to visualise their support networks (both informal and formal) and universities to communicate their formal support. It will also provide universities with a means of collecting further data to advance student support for different social groups.

At this stage, we will pilot the app within the Durham University setting, with an aim to customise it for use across UK higher education. If you are interested in us piloting it at your university, we’d love you to get in touch.

2 responses to “Family support kept disadvantaged students going during the pandemic

  1. It will be interesting to see how this works out as we move forward, prior to the pandemic students expected Universities to respect their personal autonomy and not involve their families in anyway without their, the students, express consent. I can foresee potential GDPR issues that will have to be carefully managed.

  2. Far from being closed, many of our student support services were busier than ever during the pandemic, creating additional study and support resources, as well as providing more 1:1 advice online. This enhanced offer means that we can deliver support in a more tailored and ‘personalised’ way to students to suit their specific needs, irrespective of their location of study.

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