Understanding the needs of students from military families

Lizzie Rodulson, a former SU president who comes from a military background, urges universities to recognise the challenges facing service students

Lizzie Rodulson was President at the University of Surrey Students'​ Union, is from a service background, and is a Paediatric Nurse

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Fewer children from armed forces families progress to higher education than their peers. The participation rate is estimated to be 24 per cent – compared to a national average of 43 per cent. What can we do about that in the context of both “getting in” and “getting on”?

The Service Children’s Progression Alliance defines a service child as “a person whose parent or carer serves in the Regular Armed Forces, or as a Reservist, or has done at any point during the first 25 years of that person’s life”.

According to the UK government, a conservative estimate of the number of service children of UK regular personnel alone in the UK is just under 180,000 – and access to HE is a challenge.

OfS highlights that the deployment and return of serving family members can disrupt study or lead to emotional and behavioural difficulties.

It also notes that students with serving parents often also take on caring responsibilities. The Children’s Society notes that young carers in military service families are less likely to be identified as young carers, and therefore less likely to receive support.

Hills to climb

The challenges faced by these young people are not just academic but are phenomena that their civilian-rooted peers will never experience. This includes but is not limited to extended periods of separation from at least one parent deployed to conflict zones, high levels of global mobility with the inevitability of rebuilding friendship structures every few years, experiencing changes in curriculum at different schools, and often living on isolated military bases “behind the wire”.

Universities need to offer support to service children to overcome the impact of these challenges. For example, by making clear they will accept confirmation of imminent parental or close family deployment as valid extenuating circumstances for exams or coursework if the date falls near the date of deployment, universities will allow students to focus on reaching their full potential at a time that is better for them whilst also ensuring they are able to spend the time with their family when it is needed.

A military presence at university careers fairs, giving students the opportunity to explore the armed forces as a possible vocation, has historically generated considerable debate. However, allowing this presence will give students on campus from a service background a feeling of acceptance knowing that their university supports their childhood experience as a positive career option for their fellow students.

The creation of an armed forces community on campus can provide a key centre of support for military-connected young people alongside any reservists or veterans within the institution.

Universities should offer support from admission through the introduction of a declaration on registration and connection of the new student with a point of contact within the widening participation team – ideally someone with an understanding of military life – who is there to support them throughout their time at the university.

Support to military children facilitated by HE institutions can extend beyond their post-18 student base. With many universities offering outreach programmes to primary and secondary schools, sixth forms and Further Education colleges, there are real opportunities to enhance a service child’s educational journey. Supporting pre-university students through the challenges of being a service child instills confidence in HE institutions and encourages continuation of education to university.

Commitment to support

The Armed Forces Covenant is a promise by the nation ensuring that those who serve or who have served in the armed forces, and their families, are treated fairly. By signing the covenant, HE institutions codify a pledge to acknowledge and understand the lives of those who serve, or have served, and their families, committing to ensuring they are treated with respect and fairness.

As signatories, HE institutions are well placed to offer meaningful support. It demonstrates to students from a military background that they are supported and accepted, and offers reassurance that their institution recognises the challenges of their way of life.

This should not be underestimated – HE institutions are not expected to know and understand everything that a military background involves but making the commitment to learn from those who have lived experiences is instrumental to such students’ inclusivity.

Universities educate the next generation of teachers, doctors, nurses, and professionals entering other community-focused roles. In these roles, interaction with service families – knowingly or not – is likely to occur, however in the training for such positions, there is little acknowledgement of the challenges that service children face.

Sessions on such a subject should be embedded within university-level vocational degrees for the healthcare, education, and social work sectors. These sessions should be run by the armed forces’ families federations and informed by service children on what it means to grow up in a military environment and what tangible support would mean to them.

This is just a start. So much more support can be implemented by the education sector to support young people from a military background. From specified training for academics and professional services staff and education of our health and social care students on the challenges that service children face, to becoming signatories to the Armed Forces Covenant, and collaboration with organisations such as the Service Children’s Progression Alliance, there are manifest opportunities for universities to move in a direction of meaningful change.

2 responses to “Understanding the needs of students from military families

  1. Thanks for highlighting this important subject on WonkHE. A number of universities participate in Military Education Committees, which are an important means of supporting students who are attached to service units alongside their academic studies (some of whom may ultimately go on to have a career in the military), as well as learning about the experiences of those in the armed forces more generally. Where universities are signatories of the Armed Forces Covenant, participation in a Military Education Committee and its associated activities helps to demonstrate that pledge in action. https://www.comec.org.uk/military-education-committees/

  2. Lizzie’s helpful article does not mention the tacit and overt hostility faced by students from a Service family or indeed, students who are Service leavers. The root of much of this is non-comprehension from both sides. Students from non-Service backgrounds might have been fed all sorts of misinformation about Defence and students from Service families may not have have been equipped to engage with those whose perspectives on the world differ so markedly from theirs.

    As a veteran myself, I’m very fortunate to work in a university where public service is promoted and there is a Veteran and Families Institute but I am acutely aware from my own earlier experiences of HE as a UG and PG student that the prevailing atmosphere for service leavers and families can be somewhat unpleasant at times.

    Our American friends set a much better example in this regard: https://www.ed.gov/veterans-and-military-families and
    https://ivmf.syracuse.edu/student-veterans-a-valuable-asset-to-higher-education/

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