This article is more than 1 year old

What’s with the influx of estranged students?

New data from the Student Loans Company suggests the number of estranged applicants is growing. Sunday Blake asks if we really understand what is going on behind the numbers.
This article is more than 1 year old

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

The Student Loans Company (SLC) has released data showing changes back and forth in the number of estranged students studying at university to the last complete year.

So while we still await 2022 data, let’s look at what is going on.

My colleague, DK, has very helpfully put together some tableaus to help us make sense of this data. There is a drop in the number of estranged students for 2022-23, and while the year is yet to complete, this trend does look like a significant change is unlikely. The drop this year is likely to be similar to the trends we have seen in other data where 2021-22 was an exceptional year with more students overall – and so more students in all categories.

For me, this is the usual 2021-22 “exceptional year” effect we see in other data. More students overall, so more students in whatever category you care to name.

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But, if we ignore the two pandemic years – with their unusual increase in students – there is still a pattern of growth in the number of estranged students applying to university and for student finance.

Tick box exercise

While it may be the case that more students are no longer in contact with their parents or carers, the peak in numbers is more likely to be down to the fact that UCAS added a tickbox for estranged students to the application last year – meaning that the quality of data has improved as applicants are now directed to declare their status.

And it is pretty essential that they know to do this. Estranged students – unlike care leavers – do not have corporate parents or other support systems to help them transition to university, and they largely fall under the radar of any outreach. I don’t need to spell out their disadvantage against their non-estranged counterparts.

And if a student doesn’t realise any help or support is available to them (as long as they declare their status), then why would they disclose a condition which is often deeply personal, sometimes – unfortunately – still stigmatised, and often associated with trauma (estranged students are often LGBT+, in transition, surviving forced marriage or are escaping abuse in the family home)?

So, the rise in numbers of estranged students, while sad that many students find themselves in this situation, is more indicative of the success of UCAS and StandAlone raising awareness of the help and support available, and initiatives such as the StandAlone Pledge, which features in Estranged Student Solidarity Week on campuses around the nations, in getting the correct information to the right applicants.

Increased flexibility

It also seems that SLC has changed the processes slightly to be more flexible. In a previous incarnation, the burden of evidence on estranged students to prove their estrangement was very high – a year of evidenced no contact with parents or guardians (so much as one text – even in response to request no further contact – would reset this timeframe), which was counterproductive as it relied on students making that first initial break.

The harsh binary of ‘estranged’ or ‘in contact’ that SLC has previously engaged within their policy demonstrated a profound lack of understanding around the complexities of breaking from one’s family and the differing approaches – such as ‘grey rocking’ – that a victim must take to keep themself safe – which sometimes involve placating an abusive family member with contact. This insensitive approach led to vulnerable students being spied upon by SLC on social media. Which was pretty low.

We know that people in abusive situations struggle to go no contact without a backup support plan. Expecting students to dive into estrangement for a year before they can get support means that many students will remain in situations that are not good for them.

While the 12-month rule still stands in principle, applicants are encouraged to apply even if they do not meet the full criteria, as applications will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. It is also encouraging because it shows a move in understanding the complexity of estranged students’ situations, the diversity of issues they face, and the conditions they navigate. It will drive the number of declarations up.

Declare when you like

It is also important to note that SLC is now allowing estranged students to declare estrangement at any point in the academic year – although how many students are aware of this is unknown. But this policy speaks to the reality that many students, particularly school leavers, can only make that break in contact with an abusive household once they are safely away from said home or once they have other support mechanisms in place – like a supportive student society or access to student wellbeing support.

The release shows that SLC acknowledges that there may be cases of reconciliation but also re-estrangement – in that a student can withdraw and reapply for estranged status and the support offered multiple times throughout their time studying. This is informed practice – particularly as domestic violence charities state that it can take victims of abuse up to seven attempts to leave. Acknowledging that estranged students – or students in complex family situations – do not necessarily follow a linear path is a step in the right direction.

All of that said, we do still have a long way to go in supporting estranged students – for example, the need for guarantors in students’ accommodation. And I wonder whether the number of estranged students at a particular provider will impact any financial – or other – support the institution is given, say, for mental health provision. The data shows differences in how many estranged students are at different institutions. These institutions may need more in-depth support for these students, especially given the higher need for these services for students without family support or a traumatic background.

To end on a slightly depressing note – the figure is not necessarily a cause for celebration as those within the figures have not necessarily actually been awarded full means-tested funding on the basis that they are irreconcilably estranged from their parents. The figures are figures to show who has ticked the estranged box as a part of the application process to SLC.

It would be good to see data showing how many received full financial support because simply having more students at university isn’t really the aim here. It’s understanding their needs and ratifying the support they need, ensuring they fulfil their potential – that’s the aim.

Bonus data

We also get this data by provider – DK has done a chart for us:

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One response to “What’s with the influx of estranged students?

  1. Anecdotally I have seen a very significant shift from SFE on this and they are undoubtedly setting a very low bar of evidence at the moment for granting full funding for someone who is reporting estrangement.

    That does create some risk to the public purse for the very small number of people who would sadly try and exploit this, and some risk to the student that there will be cases where reconciliation takes place and then the student ends up with an overpayment down the line. But…faced with a binary choice where we have a world in which SFE insist on strong evidence of 12 months estrangement and incredibly sad personal statements about the lack of possibility of reconciliation, versus where we currently are, well I’d choose the current compassionate and generous position any day.

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