This is the time of year you will see many students wandering around campus in cap and gown, with proud parents snapping photos to send to the rest of the family.
It is the archetypal image of student success, and images of this kind feature in almost every university prospectus, whereby an unequivocally bright future is implied for graduates. But not every student at UK universities can afford to receive their degree or to stand in cap and gown, and not all students have a family to proudly stand beside them in their graduation photographs.
There are around 11,000 undergraduate students studying at UK universities who don’t have “family capital” to rely on, a figure based on the numbers of estranged young people and care leavers that are studying in UK higher education today, and who rely on the support of the Student Loans Company (SLC) for their maintenance loan and fee payments. Estranged young people may have a similar background of familial dysfunction to those leaving the care system but have experienced no intervention from local authorities with their family struggles. Typically, such students have experienced undisclosed abuse and neglect, have escaped forced marriage, or have experienced LGBT+ family rejection.
To study in higher education without family support or approval is certainly a challenge, and the expectations of students’ to rely on family, financially or otherwise, are a nebulous force in UK higher education. Despite the majority of students being adults in the legal sense, those aged 18-24 are automatically viewed as dependent on family for the purposes of accessing statutory finance from SLC or the Student Awards Agency For Scotland (SAAS). Furthermore, there are lump sum deposits to pay for halls of residence, often paid pre-entry, and guarantors to find for university and private rented accommodation. Then, while at university, there is the unwritten expectation that students “go home” over the summer period, and access the material capital of a family home.
Students who do not have a family to rely on can struggle with these basic expectations, which can lead to an isolating experience of university. Evidence shows that students who are estranged from their family are much more likely to live apart from other students and their institutional community in their first year, simply as they cannot afford to access accommodation. Office for Fair Access (OFFA) topic briefings on estranged students and care leavers show that many will endure poverty, homelessness, and severe isolation whilst studying. On the positive side, there is a lot of good work being carried out in institutions across the UK to meet the needs of students who do not benefit from family support and to level the playing field when financial support is lacking. Around 50 vice chancellors have written to the charity I founded, Stand Alone, to pledge their institutional support for young people who are estranged from their family. And there are impressive private accommodation scholarships from the Unite Foundation, which grants 90 accommodation scholarships per year to estranged students and care leavers, in the form of a free place in their halls throughout their studies.
However, it is not only financial means to succeed that these students lack. Forthcoming research from Stand Alone and Sheffield Hallam University, to be released this autumn, finds that close family relationships act as an emotional buffer for students, reducing their stress at key moments, and act as a kind of guardian to their aspirations. When students consider dropping out of university, it is their family that they turn to for support with making the decision, and it is their family that serves as a motivational force to persist.
Over 80% of the 1,701 students surveyed as part of the research communicated with their family once per week or more, and just over half communicated with their family every day. We, therefore, must not underestimate how much of a collective familial achievement getting a student through university can be. And we must turn some attention to the experiences and aspirations of students who don’t have these strong family connections to pull them through. Students with distant relationships will experience just as many challenges, if not more, but without this key source of support. As one student respondent said: “I could do better, but I don’t know who I am doing better for.”
It is therefore imperative that institutions and their staff are able to help these students without family to celebrate their achievements when they have shown the tenacity and determination to continue their studies. Yet, through our recent work with estranged students as part of focus groups with OfS and meetings with students and their Vice-Chancellors, Stand Alone has come to understand that it is typical of estranged students to miss their own graduation ceremonies, as they struggle to meet the hidden costs that family typically cover.
It’s not uncommon to read that it is mandatory to hire “graduation dress” in order to attend graduation, which can cost a student between £40 and £80, depending on the university, adding official photographs can cost between £50 and £100. The majority of institutions don’t charge for the student to attend, but the dress hire costs are often far from explicit. These costs may spiral if graduation is in the autumn, when students may have to pay for travel and accommodation to return to their university. Although these sums may seem small to some, they will provide a significant barrier for those who are struggling to fund the costs of living post-graduation and can hardly be considered priority expenditure.
And it is immediately post-graduation where risks to these students may re-appear. The difficult reality is that students also need family support to capitalise on their degree in the job market. This is not only in the sense of accessing professional networks, which has been the focus of the debate to date, but in the material support needed to relocate and access private rented housing without a guarantor or deposit. For many estranged young people, formal or informal homelessness is the result. This is a significant risk to social mobility efforts, which have paid relatively little attention to the impact of family breakdown on bringing the most disadvantaged through university and into graduate employment. And the poorest young people in our nation are those without family capital, who have no corporate parent, such as a local authority, or carer.
Rethinking student success
Therefore, we must rethink the meaning of student success. Supportive efforts by universities shouldn’t stop after final exams finish. Marking the achievement of attaining a degree is an important aspect of retaining and consolidating aspirations for these vulnerable groups, and to give someone pride and dignity in their achievement may help them reach further in their next stage of employment or further study.
Thus, shouldn’t universities commit to meeting or waiving the costs of graduation, helping these vulnerable young people celebrate their success against the odds? And if institutions don’t reward these students for their efforts, and along with employers, help to propel students over the risky gap between education and employment, we must wonder who in society will? Furthermore, we must calculate what society will lose as a result.