We are making progress on estranged students getting in and getting on. But what about their exit from higher education?
For many years, government and university resources have been focussed on improving access to university for disadvantaged students.
Whole university departments and initiatives are dedicated to improving access and retention for students from non-traditional backgrounds, which has enabled increased numbers of disadvantaged students to walk through the doors of our universities, and measures to put in place to enable more students to overcome the structural barriers that may have once prevented them from succeeding in HE. Estranged students are one such disadvantaged group, who are studying without the support of their parents or a corporate parent, and progress
A specific group with specific challenges
If you have missed my previous explanations of this group, we commonly work with LGBT+ students who have been rejected by family, abuse survivors, students who have been rejected by new step-parents after re-marriage or those who have different morals, values and beliefs to their immigrant parents. All have no entitlement to corporate parenting of any kind from a local authority or other agency. They may have been missed by the care system, or the care system didn’t have a remit to intervene.
I too have focussed on access and retention and raising awareness at institutional and governmental level about the systemic deference to family capital in university policies. We have presented research on summertime homelessness, difficulties in proving estrangement to access statutory finance, the gnarly issue of finding a guarantor if you don’t have family members at hand, and students living in routine poverty, forced to make the choice between a shift at work and a lecture.
As a result of my organization’s campaign, the Stand Alone Pledge 84 senior leaders at UK universities have committed to developing supportive policies that enable estranged students to overcome the isolation and structural inequity that lacking a relationship with family can bring. This has involved investment from universities of millions of pounds in targeted bursaries for estranged students and more flexible policies around tenancies, deposits and guarantors. Broadly speaking, half of HE institutions have put in writing that they understand that students without family or a corporate parent behind them may face a challenging experience in their community.
Yet since this work started, we have been aware that transitioning out of university presented a challenge for estranged students. These concerns were not the old argument that they didn’t have the familial leg up in terms of connections and networks in the workplace (although this was mentioned). It was rather that they struggled with material barriers to accessing a graduate job, in the same way as they struggled with the material barriers to entry and progression in university.
We heard from students on our panels stuck in their student halls in final year, unable to leave without a deposit for their next house. We heard from those who had successfully found entry-level jobs in their field, but who didn’t have the means to move, find a house and wait two months for their first pay packet. For many, graduation spelled another period of homelessness, and they clung to sometimes numerous jobs that prevented them from rough sleeping.
If we’re to use higher education as a lever for social mobility, or as a tool to create higher earning graduates, it’s crucial that students aren’t left at a material cliff edge at the end of their degree, back to square one, unable to focus, and at risk. If we’re to invest heavily in disadvantaged groups at university level, and transition them into our institutions, on the premise that their prospects will be brighter on graduation, and our society will be enriched in the process, then we mustn’t overlook the complexities that they face when leaving.
Dr Ali Rounsfield-Swales and I have released a report on What Happens Next? for estranged students. It is humble in its methods, and it is the result of a simple survey of 84 estranged students who have recently graduated or who are about to graduate. However, it is powerful in its qualitative findings. The necessity to make life work, instantly, on graduation meant that students are leaving universities with huge pressure on their shoulders to not become just another statistic in the housing crisis that this country continues to face.
One student tells us:
A lot of my friends were able to move back home when they graduated and could save money/take their time finding a good job and preparing for it. I knew I needed a job within a week of graduation or I was screwed, and even then I bought a tent with the full intention of living in it for at least the first month of my employment because my housing situation was so dire.”
This had an obvious impact on employment choices and postgraduate study routes that these students made, who often could not afford to relocate to start work or could not afford to transition to another university for the right course. The poverty pay that postgraduate students faced was a theme that emerged and reminds us, again, that this is a pathway where parents and family are expected to contribute:
I was very lucky that my MA was fully funded, but it was fully funded at a sub-breadline level and I became homeless during the course as no landlord would rent to me on such a low bursary.“
It is our hope that this initial exploration may lead to further research in the areas of family support and social mobility for estranged students, and that more emphasis from the Office for Students can be placed on supporting students out of our university doors – because this is all a piece of the same jigsaw, which is moving up and beyond an unfortunate and traumatic start in life.
I am confident that if we focus on strong collaborations between employers, the government and universities, we can help these students to succeed, and not only in higher education but as thriving members of our communities.