We cannot afford to let estranged students Stand Alone once more

Alex Blower laments the closure of a charity dedicated to supporting and amplifying the voices of estranged students.

Alex Blower is Access and Participation Manager at Arts University Bournemouth

When I first started working in the higher education sector in 2010, many of the challenges faced by students who may have experienced estrangement from close family members were hidden.

Very little was known about how the intersection of familial estrangement and life as a student impacted upon their financial, social and psychological wellbeing.

We did not understand how a detachment from mechanisms of familial support played out in their experiences as learners on our campuses, or how an amalgamation of associated pressures presented nuanced and complex challenges which often remained unrecognised and hidden.

Perhaps most importantly, there was very little recognition of how incredibly resilient, resourceful, and motivated students who might navigate such terrain tended to be.

Their experiences were not widely understood or acknowledged; neither were the challenges they faced addressed within strategic activity linked to fair access and participation in universities.

Students who experienced estrangement were not a group who were particularly recognised, or proactively supported.

Step change

The establishment of the Stand Alone charity in 2013 instigated a significant shift toward meeting these challenges.

The organisation worked tirelessly to raise the profile of estranged students, calling for universities to make an immediate commitment to providing support. They prompted a wave of national recognition and action.

Through the introduction of the Stand Alone Pledge, estranged students features more prominently in the minds of senior university leaders. Support was offered in the form of grants and bursaries, year-round accommodation, and dedicated staff members providing support.

Meetings took place between groups of estranged students and university vice chancellors – instead of being abstract and oblique, their voices and experiences were real and sitting directly opposite them across the boardroom table.

In the intervening decade a host of universities across the UK signed up to the Stand Alone pledge, committing their institutions to sustained strategic action.

The work of the charity was instrumental in the inclusion of the estranged student characteristic on the UCAS application form for the first time in 2023, and its subsequent inclusion on the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register published by OfS.

In short, they have made a significant impact on the lives of thousands of university students who may experience estrangement from close family members across the UK.

Leaving a gap

As such, I was incredibly sad to hear that from the end of March, Stand Alone will be closing its doors. The charity leaves behind it an impressive legacy, but also a significant gap. In one foul swoop our mechanism to continue a cohesive national conversation about support for students who experience estrangement will disappear.

Speaking from my position as the manager of a team leading institutional access and participation activity, our strategic institutional commitment to supporting these students in such circumstances will remain unwavering – and I’m sure this sentiment will be shared by the numerous universities who are signatories of the pledge.

But what comes next nationally is very much up to us. Without timely, decisive action being taken we are currently on the precipice of losing the collective energy, commitment, and investment in the support of these students which Stand Alone worked so hard to build.

We simply cannot let that happen. On Thursday 21st March, the organisation will be holding a final online meeting called “Passing the Baton”, convening the sector for one last time.

Doubtless the event will be attended by numerous individuals from institutions from across the land who are passionate about this work and signatories of the pledge. Despite the closure of Stand Alone, they will want to continue supporting this group of students to the best of their ability.

However, I am acutely aware that they will not be able to do so by themselves. As much as we’d like to, no single HE practitioner can take up the mantle of advocating for estranged students at a national level.

Stepping up collaboration

Recently the OfS Director for Fair Access and Participation, John Blake, spoke about the potential of collaboration to transform the national landscape of fair access and participation.

He encouraged universities to strengthen partnerships with third sector organisations, adding depth and value to activity through collective approaches to learning. With regard to estranged students, now would be a fantastic time to see such organisations step up to the plate.

Whether a move into the territory is made by mission-focused national organisations such as The Unite Foundation or The Brilliant Club, or special interest groups are set up by membership organisations such as FACE, NEON or HELOA, it is imperative that they do so quickly and robustly.

Should they be interested in doing so, a logical first step would be to sign up to Stand Alone’s final event and make sure that on 21st March, they are active participants.

The higher education sector needs to think urgently about how, following the charity’s closure, the baton of national advocacy and support is passed into safe hands.

We cannot afford to let our estranged students Stand Alone once more.

One response to “We cannot afford to let estranged students Stand Alone once more

  1. The need to craft and co-construct spaced of psychological safety is so central in my aspirations as a researcher. It’s the central theme of the portfolio.

    So very vital for all those who wander, they might not be lost but they could be lonely.

    Beautiful and painful writing. Thank you

Leave a Reply